5 Tools to Support Nonverbal Learners
5 tools to support nonverbal learners

How Do You Communicate with Nonverbal Learners?

Nonverbal learners are students who have difficulty expressing themselves through traditional forms of communication such as spoken language or writing. These students may struggle to communicate their needs, thoughts, and feelings, which can lead to frustration and challenges in the classroom. As a special education teacher, it is important to have a variety of tools and strategies at your disposal to support nonverbal learners and ensure they have the opportunity to succeed academically and socially. Here are five tools that can be particularly helpful:

Remember that communication doesn't always refer to speaking. Being nonverbal or pre-verbal is not necessarily related to intelligence level. It is important for a student to be able to express their wants and needs in all settings of life, whether that is verbally or nonverbally. It is our job as the special educator and part of the student's IEP team along with others such as the SLP to support the nonverbal learner to effectively communicate with staff and peers. Functional communication is such an essential life skill for all learners! Let's look at 5 different tools that can help support nonverbal learners in the classroom.

how do you communicate with a nonverbal learner?

What is AAC?

If you don't already know what AAC means, it means Augmentative and Alternative Communication. Communication devices, systems, strategies and tools that replace or support natural speech are known as augmentative and alternative communication (AAC). These tools support a person who has difficulties communicating using speech. There are many different methods of Augmentative and Alternative Communication. You may decide to use a high-tech tool (e.g. a Speech Generating Device, or AAC app on an iPad), or a light-tech/paper-based tool (e.g. a communication book, or board).

According to ASHA, by recent estimates, well over 2 million persons who present with significant expressive language impairment use AAC. AAC users encounter difficulty communicating via speech due to congenital and/or acquired disabilities occurring across the lifespan. These conditions include but are not limited to autism, cerebral palsy, dual sensory impairments, genetic syndromes, intellectual disability, multiple disabilities, hearing impairment, disease, stroke, and head injury. Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) describes multiple ways to communicate that can supplement or compensate (either temporarily or permanently) for the impairment and disability patterns of individuals with severe expressive communication disorders.

What is AAC?

Unaided vs. Aided AAC

For individuals with severe disabilities, it can be helpful to encourage (and teach) both unaided and aided modes of communication. Unaided AAC would mean using things you have already to your advantage that doesn't require any type of physical aide or tool. These modes of communication often require adequate motor control and communication partners who can interpret the intended message. These would be things such as: gestures, facial expressions, ASL and body language.

Aided AAC refers to communication that is assisted by a device. This might be things such as communication books, visual aides, symbol boards, keyboards, switches or apps. Check out 5 different tools below that help with Aided AAC to see which one may work best for your nonverbal learners.

Unaided vs. Aided AAC

1. BIGmack Multi-Color Communicator

A BIGmack helps facilitate communication for children living with verbal challenges. This popular ACC device can record a single message that’s up to 2 minutes long. It is a button for any nonverbal learners to tap that have low physical control. The button gives plenty of tapping space for the student. The colored disc comes in multiple choices of colors such as blue, red, yellow, and green, making it easier to see for low vision users plus more fun to activate! BIGmack is also engineered to be strong and durable. Which allows it to withstand drops, harsh environmental conditions, and repetitive wear and tear. It can also connect to switch-adapted toys and appliances.

BIGmack color communicator for nonverbal learners

2. LAMP (Language Acquisition through Motor Planning)

One of the commonly used high-tech options is LAMP (Language Acquisition through Motor Planning) Words for Life. This is an app that can be used on various tablets. This option is becoming a pretty popular AAC option for students that have fine motor planning deficits. The buttons have pictures and the corresponding words on them. Buttons never change position in this program, making it based on motor planning like a real keyboard. Students can also practice LAMP through core boards first, before adding it to their high-tech devices.

LAMP app for nonverbal students

3. AAC Core Words

Core Words for AAC are words that are in your student’s daily vocabulary that make up most of our communication. When our school SLP and myself introduce core words to students, we like to find something they love to do. Then we pick a word that would be meaningful. If they love to swing, maybe the first word is “up” so they can ask to get up on their swing every day. If they like music, maybe they need to be able to ask to turn the music “on”. The words that you first begin working on should absolutely be meaningful to the student or they won't be engaged in learning. I found this FREE AAC Core Board to try in your classroom with nonverbal learners.

AAC Core Words

4. TouchChat

TouchChat is very similar to LAMP in a lot of ways. It is designed for individuals with Autism, Down Syndrome, or other conditions that affect a person’s ability to use natural speech. This app gives an individual the ability to navigate through page sets and speak messages. It can be used for individuals with a wide variety of access needs. Included in the app is Integrated head tracking (*with applicable iPad/ iPhone models), configurable switch scanning, and a range of touch access features.


5. Tobii Dynavox

An AAC option for students with limited mobility who need to use an eye gaze method of communication. The Tobii Dynavox brand has many eye gaze options, depending on the learner's needs. The devices are iPads with eye gaze tracking software that comes pre-loaded with AAC software. These programs project your voice with powerful speakers. It can be controlled via eye tracking in all kinds of lighting conditions, whether the nonverbal student is indoors or outdoors.

Tobii Dynavox eye gaze system for nonverbal communication

It is important to have tools and strategies to support and help students succeed academically and socially. You can help nonverbal learners succeed by using these tools and being patient and understanding

Ultimately, the key to supporting nonverbal learners is to be patient, understanding, and open to trying new approaches. You can help nonverbal learners succeed with the right tools and strategies

I am a High School, self-contained Autism teacher from Central New York, who is passionate about individualizing student learning. I am a mommy of three, lover of all things Disney, married to my best friend and addicted to chocolate!! I hope that you find great ideas and inspiration here, so welcome!!

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