Expect literacy; presuming competence.  This mantra is ‘trendy’ in the AAC world but it is important to understand the rationale behind it. A recent post from SpeakforYourself AAC  addressed this topic.


However, the post emphasized that presuming competence is not idealism. Idealism ignores that there are challenges or barriers to overcome.


The notion of expecting literacy when using AAC  really hit home for me when I was working with grade one child who is a beginning reader.  In the class, the children were practicing reading the sight word “I”.   Whilst this child has difficulties, everyone presumes and expects that he will learn to read!

So, with his reading sheet next to him, which we had practiced,  I opened Touch Chat (60 Basic) and asked him to locate “I smile”



I read


Have a look at the video clip below

A number of things jumped out at me:

  • Despite being taught the word “I”,  and practicing several times in different contexts, this little boy had significant difficulty locating the word “I”.
  •  I navigated to all the /s/ words so that he could locate the word smile. But, he did not pay attention to the symbol together with the text on the button to locate the word.
  • Despite being exposed to the black and white paper-based line drawing of ‘smile’, he did not pay attention to the features of the icon. In fact, it took him 4 attempts to locate the word smile.


I scratchI spellI speakI smile



This highlights a number of things:

  • Firstly, we cannot directly compare a dynamic display to a paper-based reading task.
  • Secondly, we need to be aware of the level of abstraction of the symbol. Whilst the symbol  🙂 may be very clear, to you and me, all the symbols that he selected contained a smiling face. It was only when he received the audio feedback from the app, that he was able to self-correct.
  • Thirdly, the importance of motor planning and consistent practice was highlighted. I initially showed him where to locate the word ‘I’, but on his second attempt, he still required prompting in order to locate the word. This was despite the fact he was exposed to it numerous times in the classroom environment.
  • The research on using icons to teach literacy skills suggests that icons/different symbol sets do not facilitate early literacy. Jane Farrall, pointed this out so clearly in a post which you can access here

She demonstrates how difficult it is to use symbols to support text in the examples below.


symbol supported text


symbol supported text


Clearly, it is very difficult to make sense of the symbols without the text. Therefore, it is imperative that to facilitate literacy, we expose early readers to the symbols (i.e. text) that are universally understood. Pairing the word with a symbol does not assist with the development of literacy. In fact,  it may interfere with literacy.

  • Lastly, without a model to guide him, even a verbal, typically developing child, cannot navigate an AAC device. Yet we still presume competence and expect literacy.


I am not being idealistic when I expect the ultimate goal of AAC to be functional literacy.

Children who are exposed to AAC early on, and are provided with consistent models, can also learn the abstract symbols that are the basis for literacy.

Get in early, provide the model and expect literacy!




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