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Literacy Intervention Strategies for Individuals Who Use AAC

Updated: Jun 6, 2023

Literacy, the ability to read and write, is an essential skill for academic success. For AAC users, literacy skills significantly expand their communication options as they can transition from a symbol-based system to a text-based system with developed literacy abilities. This allows for quicker communication, the use of pre-saved messages, and word/phrase prediction features.

According to Beukelman and Light (2020), factors that impact an AAC user's literacy learning include intrinsic factors (e.g., visual, hearing, motor, cognitive, and/or speech/language impairments) and extrinsic factors (e.g., physical contexts such as home and school environment, social contexts, and language contexts).

Literacy skills are not innate and require specific instruction for an individual to learn to read and write. There are several literacy intervention strategies that can benefit individuals who use AAC.

Strategy: Ensure individuals with complex communication needs have access to AAC that is effective and appropriate for their specific communication needs (Beukelman & Light, 2020)

  • Individuals who use AAC must have access to appropriate and effective AAC supports. According to Beukelman and Light (2020), this is the most important step in facilitating early literacy skills in AAC users!

  • How can we do this? Create light-tech systems (e.g., communication boards, picture cards) with targeted vocabulary for different stories and books. Create or utilized pre-made pages within a high-tech AAC that has vocabulary and phrases specific to a particular story or book.

  • Stories that have phrases that are repeated over and over (e.g., "No more monkeys jumping on the bed!") can be programmed on a voice output switch or on a button on a speech-generating device allowing the AAC user to participate in communication exchange during a story reading.

Strategy: Teach communication partners to use interaction strategies that promote effective communication by AAC users (Beukelman & Light, 2020)

  • Communication partners such as parents, caregivers, siblings, teachers, or paraprofessionals are great members of the AAC users team. Teach them how to use strategies during story reading.

  • Strategies such as modeling, or aided language stimulation, is a great strategy to use for introducing new vocabulary during a reading activity. This is how we use AAC to teach AAC!

  • During story time, for the targeted vocabulary word or phrase (e.g., Brown Bear Brown Bear), you can say it as you show it on the AAC user's AAC system. Use natural, slow rate of speech and model without expectations!

  • And remember, teach these communication partners to ALWAYS respond to an AAC user's communicative attempts. You can respond to their communication by expanding on their comment or answering/asking a question.

Strategy: Give sufficient time for literacy instruction (Light & McNaughton, 2009)

  • Because AAC user's have a slower rate of communication than their peers who use spoken language, they will require more time for literacy instruction.

  • Light and McNaughton (2009) recommend that the AAC user's family and education team are aware the time being spent on reading activities and recommend they aim to maximize the time dedicated to literacy instruction.

Strategy: Provide adaptations unique to each AAC user's needs to be sure they are able to actively participate in literacy activities (Light & McNaughton, 2009)

  • Consider an AAC user's speech, motor, and/or speech abilities and provide adaptation to accommodate their specific needs.

  • Literacy curriculum commonly requires students to utilize spoken responses to participate in literacy instruction (Beukelman & Light, 2020). For patients with speech impairments, it's important to allow these students to use alternative response modes, such as verbal approximations, gestures, or forms of aided AAC (Johnston et al., 2018).

  • AAC users with motor impairments may require alternate access methods to fully participate in literacy instruction. A multidisciplinary team including speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists, and physical therapists work together to assess an individual's motor abilities to determine their best access method(s).

There is a growing body of research that has shown that individuals with complex communication needs are able to develop literacy skills, however it requires explicit literacy instruction. These strategies are a good place to start when providing literacy intervention.


  • American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (n.d.). Augmentative and Alternative Communication (Practice Portal).

  • Beukelman, D. R., & Light, J. C. (2020). Augmentative & alternative communication: Supporting children and adults with complex communication needs (5th ed.). Brookes.

  • Johnston S. S., O’Keeffe B. V., Stokes K. (2018). Early literacy support for students with physical disabilities and complex communication needs. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 51(2), 91–99.

  • Light, J., & McNaughton, D. (2009). Addressing the literacy demands of the curriculum for conventional and more advanced readers and writers who require AAC. In C. Zangari & G. Soto (Eds.), Practically speaking: Language, literacy, and academic development for students with AAC needs (pp. 217–246). Baltimore, MD: Brookes.

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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