Colorful Language

Screen Shot 2016-02-27 at 7.06.05 AMAAC users need to use more colorful language!  No, I’m not talking about words a sailor might use (although age-appropriate interjections and outbursts should always be available to AAC users).  I’m talking about the ability to use multiple parts of speech and multiple functions of language via their AAC systems, and that means getting beyond requesting.

It never fails that the first messages a student is taught are”I want” requests.  “I want cookie.” “I want juice.” “I want crayon.”  That makes sense because the student is immediately rewarded with a tangible item of his/her choosing, which reinforces the communicative attempt.  All too often, though, AAC users get stuck there.  They can request all day long, but communicate little else.  Does this prepare them for the real world?  No!  Just out of curiosity, I spent an entire day counting how many times I made a request — at home, at school, at the grocery store, in a restaurant, and on the phone.  The total — two!  In the morning, I asked my husband to take a package to the post office.  My request wasn’t “I want you to mail this package.” My request was phrased “Would you please mail this package?”  I didn’t have to make a single choice or request all day, until we went out to dinner that night. When I ordered my meal, I didn’t say “I want —.”  Instead, my request was phrased “I would like —.”  Do this experiment yourself.  First, count how many times in a day you utter “I want —.”  Then, count how many times in a day you wouldn’t be able to communicate if “I want —” was nearly all you could say. Limited, isolated, frustrated….that’s how I would feel if making requests was the major focus of my communication system.  My communication board may have a spot of yellow (“I”), a spot of green (“want”) and the rest would be orange (nouns).  Not too colorful.’s post by Carole Zangari provides a color-coding guide based on the Fitzgerald Key, and a great explanation of how and why to color-code AAC vocabulary.  A robust AAC system will be very colorful indeed, as it will be rich with nouns (orange),  people and pronouns (yellow), verbs (green), adjectives (blue), questions (purple), conjunctions (white), prepositions and social words (pink), adverbs (brown), emergency/important/negative words (red), and determiners (grey).  With words from all of those parts of speech, all functions of communication are possible, taking the AAC user far beyond “I want” and opening up a world of communication opportunities and partners.  A handy chart for color-coding is posted on the new CORE WORDS section of the Materials Exchange of Speaking of  Click on AAC to find it.

How do we do this?  We again turn to for a guest post by Marlene Cummings that cites the work of Janice Light and Linda Burkhart, among others, about the range of communicative purposes, and provides ideas on how to get beyond “I want” – definitely worth reading.

As a reminder to give our AAC users access to the full range of communicative functions, I created a colorful poster that asks, “Sure, I can make requests, but can I….ask/answer questions, make comments, initiate/maintain a conversation, share feeling/opinions, complain, expand on an idea?,” etc. It is posted on the Materials Exchange of Speaking of, under AAC.   Please feel free to print and share with anyone who works with and programs for AAC users.

With a full palate of words and messages, your AAC user will have much more “colorful” language, and the full range of communicative functions will be open to them.  After all, isn’t that what you’d need to get through your day?


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