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Tools of the Trade for AAC Systems

Thoughts for Educators on Augmentative Alternate Communication (AAC) Systems

By Ethel Kozlik, NAPSA Past President

Whenever I think about the work that has been done in the field of assistive technology for students with disabilities, I remember the words of an esteemed colleague and leader in this field for over twenty years. She said, ” My father was a master carpenter. When he died, he left me a garage full of very expensive tools. I would watch him often, as a little girl, fascinated at what he could create with his tools. I have his tools now, but I cannot do what he did with them.”

Assistive Technology is a tool we place in the hands of many students. These devices and systems can only be as good as the person operating them and that success depends largely on three things: (I like to call it ATM, my personal acronym for a valued commodity).

    1. Assessment
    2. Teaching
    3. Motivation

There are many success stories for students using assistive technology. The stories range from preschool children with cerebral palsy who can now participate in classroom activities, to high school students who comprehend material at or above grade level but can only read at a third grade level. These high school students gain access to textbooks with the assistance of a computer that scans and reads the text out loud, to keyboards at the workplace designed for one handed typists. These stories and others as well as related materials can be found at http://www.ataccess.org/resources/atk12.

For every success story, however, there is a corresponding story not quite so successful. I believe that the breakdown usually occurs when we don’t remember our ATM – Assessment -Reaching – Motivation – theory.


To better ensure a match between user ability, skill and situation a through assessment is critical. The assessment should optimally include a TEAM of professionals, with an expert in the area of assistive technology and the teacher being critical member of the assessment team. Parents, family members and friends who are actively involved in the students’ life are also extremely important. Development of effective AAC systems for students requires dynamic assessment in all areas of the students’ lives.


Any new skill requires some degree of instruction until it is mastered. A communication device or system is no different. That means, of course, that the teacher/ therapist needs to master the basics skills needed for understanding and operating the system or device chosen for specific students. Therefore, staff development, that focuses on TEAM training and implementation of knowledge and skill, is key to success.


Good teachers know that motivation is key to successful learning. Nothing breeds success like success! As leaders in the field of education, we know how important it is to embrace teachers that are committed lifelong learners, willing to go the distance to teach all of their students, regardless of the challenge. Our charge is to provide the encouragement and information they need to ensure that all students not only can but also do learn. Providing meaningful staff development that focuses on current trends and key issues like multiple intelligences, behavior management, instructional control, differentiated instruction, meaningful data collection, dynamic assessment, and how it all relates to present day technology is our charge. If we provide the information and training and teachers are motivated to learn what is necessary to master specific skills, the recipe for student success is in the bowl. The teacher is then the impetus for creating, satisfying, and sustaining a hunger for continuous improvement in students. Whether the learning is about nuclear technology or modified signs is really unimportant.

When students are not motivated to communicate, as we find in specific disabilities such as autism, a higher degree of instructional skill and knowledge in the area of motivating students as well as coordinating learning between home and school is required by teachers to ensure student success. Behaviors must be systemically shaped, and tasks must be carefully analyzed and sequenced. The ability to make informed and knowledgeable choices concerning levels of instruction and use of scaffolding skills are necessary tools in the hands of those professionals who educate students who are not intrinsically motivated to communicate. Intensive TEAM teaching paired with positive reinforcement as well as knowledge of specific methods or technology and instructional goals are crucial ingredients necessary to motivate students to become competent communicators using AAC. School-home partnerships are extremely important so that essential skills become generalized. Whenever possible, it is beneficial to include all significant people in the student’s life as part of the instructional TEAM. This means opening our classrooms and staff development to all those involved in teaching our “apprentices to be master carpenters”.