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Communicative Competence and AAC

Updated: Jun 6, 2023

AAC is not magic or a quick-fix. By just presenting an AAC system to an individual does not ensure their ability to be effective in communicating using that system. According to Light (1989), communicative competence requires integration of knowledge, strategies, and skills across four interrelated domains: linguistic, operational, social, and strategic. The linguistic and operational domains provide the tools for communication while the social and strategic domains are related to the actual use of these tools in communicative interactions.

Linguistic Domain:

  • This domain is related to an individual's efficiency as both a listener and a communicator. AAC users must develop skills in the language code of the AAC system they are using including skills in the content, form, and use of AAC symbols (Beukelman & Light, 2020).

  • This can include the use of symbol-based communication systems as well as the use of text-based communication systems.

  • Goal example for intervention targeting this domain: "Patient will demonstrate use of AAC system to answer simple where questions on 7/10 attempts"

Operational Domain:

  • This domain is related to the strategies and skills in the operation and/or production of AAC. This includes skills to produce hand/body positions/movements for gestures, signs, or other forms of unaided communication, skills for access to an aided AAC system (e.g., direct selection with a finger, eye gaze, scanning), and skills to navigate and operate aided AAC systems effectively and efficiently (Light & McNaughton, 2014).

  • Goal example for intervention targeting this domain: "Patient will use switch to initiate scanning on their AAC system on 7/10 attempts"

Social Domain:

  • The social domain relates to an AAC user's ability to effectively communicate with others. Competence in this domain requires both sociolinguistic skills and sociorelational skills (Light & McNaughton, 2014). Sociolinguistic skills refer to skills such as communicative turn-taking, topic maintenance, and initiating conversation while sociorelational skills refer to interpersonal aspects of communication such as active participation in conversation (Light & McNaughton, 2014).

  • Goal example for intervention targeting this domain: "Patient will use AAC system to greet peers by name during morning classroom routine on 7/10 attempts"

Strategic Domain:

  • The strategic domain relates to an individual's ability to overcome the different limitations of AAC. This may include environmental barriers or restrictions of AAC systems (Light & McNaughton, 2014).

  • It's important for AAC users to develop strategies to use in these situations for them to overcome these limitations.

  • Goal example for intervention targeting this domain: "Patient will ask communication partner to predict words as he/she spells using alphabet supplementation board to accelerate his/her rate of communication"

Light (2003) expanded the definition of communicative competence suggesting that a variety of psychosocial factors impact the attainment of communicative competence.

Psychosocial Domain:

  • According to Light (2003), this domain has many different factors including motivation, attitude, confidence, and resilience as well as barriers and supports in the AAC user's environment.

  • It's important that AAC users have the opportunity to have many different positive and successful communication encounters to build their motivation for obtaining communicative competence (Light & McNaughton, 2014). We as clinicians must set-up scenarios where AAC users can have the opportunity to engage in these positive experiences!

For an individual to obtain communicative competence, they must learn to integrate skills across all of these domains with various communication partners and across environments (Beukelman & Light, 2020).


  • Beukelman, D. R., & Light, J. C. (2020). Augmentative & alternative communication: Supporting children and adults with complex communication needs. Brookes.

  • Light, J. (1989). Toward a definition of communicative competence for individuals using augmentative and alternative communication systems. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 5, 137-144.

  • Light, J. (2003). Shattering the silence: Development of communicative competence by individuals who use AAC. In J.C. Light, D.R. Beukelman, & J. Reichle (Eds.), Communicative competence for individuals who use AAC: From research to effective practice (pp. 3-38). Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

  • Light, J., & McNaughton, D. (2014). Communicative competence for individuals who require augmentative and alternative communication: A new definition for a new era of communication? Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 30(1), 118.

Katie Threlkeld, M.S., CCC-SLP is a licensed, ASHA-certified speech-language pathologist and the Educational Program Developer at Forbes AAC. She has over eight years of experience in AT and AAC assessment and treatment with both the pediatric and adult populations. Katie has presented at the state and national level on AAC topics and she has University teaching experience at the undergraduate and graduate level.

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