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Navigating the Complexities of AAC Use: The Role of Homophones in Communication Competence

Using AAC involves more than what people see when they initially look at someone who has complex communication needs. AAC use is not simply pressing buttons on a speech-generating device. Using AAC is a complex process that requires unique skills.

Communicative competence is a construct which is dynamic and relative based on communication adequacy, communication functionality, and sufficiency of judgment, knowledge, and skill in four interrelated areas which include linguistic competence, social competence, operational competence, and strategic competence (Light, 1989).

  • Operational and linguistic competencies refer to the hard skills, also known as technical skills, necessary to use an AAC tool effectively and efficiently to communicate. This includes things such as using appropriate syntax and grammar, phonemic awareness, expressive and receptive language skills, navigating through vocabulary pages in the AAC system, controlling the volume of the device, and turning the device on and off.

  • Strategic and social competencies refer to the soft skills, also known as interpersonal skills, necessary to establish and maintain appropriate interactions. This includes things such as identifying and repairing communication breakdowns, using the AAC device in social interactions, communicative intent, and knowledge of what AAC tool and/or strategy to use when.

Using AAC to communicate is a complex process as the individual must juggle the operational, linguistic, strategic, and social aspects simultaneously.

Core vocabulary compromises approximately 78% of the words that people use every day and include vocabulary from all word groups, such as verbs, adverbs, nouns, question words, interjections, pronouns, helping verbs, prepositions, determiners, and conjunctions (Soto & Zangari, 2009).

  • Core words are dynamic and robust as they are functional and applicable for all activities, places, topics, populations, and demographics (Soto & Zangari, 2009).

Core vocabulary holds the key to unveiling the skills necessary for communicators to communicate and actively participate in all activities and areas of life due to its robust and dynamic nature. Thus, why there is a great amount of emphasis on core vocabulary in the AAC field.

  • It can fulfill all four of the communication functions, which include expressing wants and needs, transferring information, establishing and maintaining social closeness, and displaying appropriate social etiquette (Beukelman & Light, 2020).

Once core words are initially introduced to communicators and they have been exposed to them through consistent modeling in familiar contexts and routines, generalization of their functional use by the communicator in additional activities contexts should be the subsequent goal.

  • Therefore, homophones have a critical role in the use of AAC.

Homophones are words that sound the same but have different meanings and often different spellings (Merriam-Webster, n.d.).

Phonemic awareness (linguistic competency) and basic working knowledge about the motor planning principles built into robust vocabulary files in AAC systems (operational competency) are critical to harnessing the power of homophones in the use of AAC.

The individual must know that two words that are spelled differently and look different sound the same and therefore are interchangeable in AAC use as communication partners rely on the auditory decoding of language (i.e., how the word sounds) and not visual decoding of language i.e., the spelling of the word) (Clarke, 2023).

  • For example, the words “see,” and “sea” have the same pronunciation, but they mean different things.

The individual must also be able to identify and follow the most direct route to compose messages efficiently on the AAC system (Clarke, 2023).

  • For example, “see” is a core word while “sea” is a fringe word which means that “see” is likely located on the first two vocabulary pages of the individual’s AAC system and “sea” is located on the deeper vocabulary pages. Thus, requiring more button hits, energy, and time to get to the word “sea” than to the word “see.”

Homophones enhance effectiveness and efficiency when communicating via AAC.

There are a few additional benefits of incorporating homophones into the use of AAC which include:

Increased Vocabulary:

  • By introducing homophones, individuals who use AAC can expand their vocabulary while efficiently utilizing the limited amount of vocabulary real estate in the AAC system (strategic competency).

Natural Language Expression:

  • Incorporating homophones makes communication via AAC feel more natural and closer to spoken language. This helps those who use AAC, and communication partners feel more comfortable and integrated into social settings.

Facilitation of Wordplay and Humor:

  • Homophones open the door to wordplay and humor, allowing those who use AAC and communication partners to engage in enjoyable and rewarding social interactions and experiences (social competency).

Homophones play a crucial role in the intricate dynamics of using AAC. These words, sharing similar sounds but carrying distinct meanings, possess the capability to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of achieving communicative competence. Strategically using homophones not only broadens functional vocabulary but also cultivates a communication experience that feels more authentic and pleasurable, contributing to a heightened sense of comfort and integration within social environments.


  • Beukelman, D. R., & Light, J. C. (2020). Augmentative & Alternative Communication: Supporting Children and Adults with Complex Communication Needs. Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., Inc.

  • Clarke, V. (2023). Dynamic AAC Goals Grid-3 (DAGG-3) for Tobii Dynavox. Pittsburgh, PA; Tobii Dynavox.

  • Light, J. (1989). Toward a Definition of Communicative Competence for Individuals Using Augmentative and Alternative Communication Systems. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 5(2), 137–144.

  • Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Homophone. In dictionary. Retrieved January 17, 2024, from

  • Soto, G., & Zangari, C. (2009). Practically Speaking: Language, Literacy, and Academic Development for Students with AAC Needs (1st ed.). Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., Inc.

Hannah Foley, B.A. serves as the Support and Implementation Specialist at Forbes AAC, leveraging more than five years of experience in AAC support and implementation. Committed to delivering quality implementation resources and support, Hannah focuses on empowering AAC teams who are implementing CoughDrop. She is dedicated to ensuring successful integration of AAC into various life activities, maximizing communicative skill development, and fostering meaningful engagement for individuals utilizing AAC.

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