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Setting AAC Goals: Strategies for Emergent AAC Users

Setting AAC goals are an important part achieving the goal of autonomous communication. What do effective goals look like? What are the things we need to keep in mind while creating goals? These are some of the questions that this blog will attempt to answer. The strategies, techniques and tips peppered throughout the article are sure to be of great help in your learner’s communication journey – be it at home or at the clinic.

Importance of Setting AAC Goals

The ultimate aim of Augmentative Communication is Communicative Autonomy. This means that we are working towards enabling an individual to say what they want to say when they want to say it. 

The journey to achieve this goal is often long, especially for an Emergent Communicator. They may need years of input before developing expressive language, especially if they are not processing spoken language.

At the start of the communication journey, one of the first things we need to ensure is the communicator’s engagement with the process. Engagement emerges when we follow the child’s intent or agenda. This is particularly important for Beginning Communicators as they tend to talk on topics of their interest first.

As communication partners, we should consider these early attempts as meaningful and respond proactively. Over time, we should contextualize these and systematically firm up their learning. This may require consistent and strategic input from the intervention team. And this is where setting AAC goals for the learner becomes very important.

Features of Effective AAC Goals

AAC goals should provide the roadmap to enable the child to use multimodal communication. This allows them to convey a broad range of communicative functions and to express ideas in real-life situations.

Narrowing a goal that states what a child must say and how frequently, can actually lead to inappropriate instruction. We need to ensure that AAC goals and objectives should incorporate flexibility for the child to say what they want to say, when they want to say it. They should not require the child to communicate what someone else wants them to “say”. Our focus should lie on increasing the appropriateness of language use, not just quantity. Only then can we say that progress in communication has happened.

Appropriateness is dependent on the interaction with communication partners in specific contexts. With emergent communicators, requiring too much ‘correctness’ early in the language learning journey can derail the developmental process. It undermines the child’s confidence as a learner.

SMART Goals and Team Collaboration

AAC Goals need to be SMART (Specific, Measurable, use Action words, Realistic and Time Limited). Such an understanding will serve as a guide in setting better goals.

  • Specific: The goals should be specific to the needs of the child. It should also not be so broad that it hinders everyday practice and progress.
  • Measurable: Only when progress is measurable, can a goal be said to be achieved. Hence goals should be such that progress can be measured. Keep reading for more on this.
  • Use Action Words: While setting goals, use Action words like “will” to show what the user will do (the communicative function targeted / the pragmatic skill of initiating) or how they will respond using their AAC.
  • Realistic: The goals should be realistic and should take into account each learner’s unique learning trajectory and speed.
  • Time Limited: The goals should be set in a manner that there is a start and end time for achieving them. Time limits will ensure that there is a hard stop on what we are doing; and that we keep reviewing the process. This will help to weed out any approach that is not working out and change it at the earliest.

For all of this to be successful it is imperative that the entire team working with the learner is on the same page. The team would include the parent or primary caregiver, special educator or teacher as well as the speech therapist. All the goals will need to be written down and agreed upon by the team.

Factors To Consider While Setting AAC Goals

Leaders in the field say that AAC therapy is language therapy only. The main barrier to successful goal writing is that teachers and therapists don’t know much about AAC – they might have received minimal instruction on AAC and educating children with complex communication needs.

Let’s look at essential considerations in the AAC goals writing process:

1. Choosing Vocabulary and Language Skills 

The vocabulary chosen should help the individual with meaningful communicative interactions and should include:

  • Core words.
  • Personal core words.
  • Prestored Phrases that can be conveyed quickly.
  • Any relevant fringe vocabulary.
2. Communicative Functions for the Goal:

Write goals that will show an increase in the number of communicative functions expressed and used appropriately by the child in natural contexts:

  • Request object
  • Request / direct actions
  • Request assistance
  • Request recurrence
  • Protest
  • Complain

As the child’s ability to express ideas increases, we can begin writing goals to focus on more specific operational, pragmatic, semantic, syntactic, or strategic skills.

A word of caution. We frequently come across goals that involve requesting – why, we may have set goals like this ourselves. This urge or tendency is something we should approach critically. We need to be mindful if the individuals in question are capable of obtaining these items themselves or if they genuinely desire what we are encouraging them to request. Hence, it is crucial that goals enable children to have more control over their surroundings and interactions through language. This can be a powerful motivator for kids, particularly those with limited control over various aspects of their lives.

Similarly, learning instructions such as Go, Come, and Stop are very powerful. With these, the child is able to realize their communicative power when you do as he or she says!

Intensive modeling and opportunities to use them in varied contexts are often the steps to success.

3. Level of Prompting

This is an essential aspect of the goal writing process and should be defined in the goal. For many users, this provides a good indicator of progress in terms of independence in using the AAC. 

Measuring Progress in Communication Development

Progress for communication development is more appropriately observed in natural contexts as testing situations present an artificial context. Goals must of course be measurable, but do not have to be measured in a testing format. Always bear in mind that we may need to sample for a long period of time for an emergent user.

Progress can be evaluated in many different ways:

1. Level of Initiation vs. Responding

There is progress when the user

  • Initiates the use of their communication system and attempts to communicate something. 
  • Initiates communication with a wider range of partners.
2. Variety and Type of Communicative Functions 
  • Requesting objects / actions.
  • Rejecting
  • Commenting
3. Length and Complexity of Utterance
  • Increase in linguistic ability.
  • Increase the variety of vocabulary used.
  • Increase Length of Utterance.
4. Conversational Turn-taking and Pragmatic Skills 
  • Getting comfortable with the AAC in their personal space.
  • Realizes their conversational turn with appropriate wait time and / or looking out for their device in a communication opportunity.

In addition to the above, the following are also good indicators to measure progress in an emergent communicator:

  • Showing increasing interest and attention to someone using a comprehensive aided communication system.
  • Increased attention to the interaction.
  • Increased attention to the modeling of the communication system for a variety of communicative functions.
  • Increased attention based on the number of symbols modeled in sequence.
  • Decrease in level or number of cues needed to facilitate attention within natural contexts throughout the day.

Meaningful AAC Goals Make All the Difference

Goals are an essential part of any rehabilitation process that structures therapy. They convey the intervention plan of action to not just the family but also to the rest of the team. We should make sure that they are meaningful to the user and enriches their quality of life.


Niveditha Ryali

Speech – Language – Swallowing Therapist

I have years of experience that comes from working in NHS(UK), special schools, hospitals and private practice. My passions are working on improving Speech, Language and Swallowing skills in children and adults. I also strive to facilitate early communication in children with complex communication needs, thereby improving parent-child bonding.

Niveditha Ryali, SLP, Avaz Inc

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