Augmented Input and Meaning-making

Recently during a professional development session in the schools, we were observing a video of a teaching aide using augmented input by pointing on a student’s device. As we engaged in discussion, participants expressed some confusion about the assumptions underlying augmented input as seen in the video and questioned its role in promoting the student’s expressive ability using the device.

The video showed a group of children listening to a teacher telling a story. The teaching aide was pointing to some core vocabulary on the student’s device (reinforcing core concepts used by the teacher) while the teacher was narrating a story. The purpose of the augmented input by the teaching aide was presumably to enhance the student’s understanding of the narrative.

Participants’ confusion in observing this video related to the different ways in which the device was used: How is the teaching aide using augmented input on the child’s device assisting the student in understanding his role in expressing him/herself? Providing input on the child’s device by repeating concepts used by the teacher can be confusing if the child needs to learn to use his/her device for self-expression. This dilemma is not new to AAC intervention, and different solutions have been proposed over the years. Two of these solutions are discussed below.

Some Solutions?

One way to deal with this dilemma would be for the teacher to use a classroom-size core vocabulary board as part of her instructional strategies. She can then provide the augmented input on the core vocabulary board. The use of augmented input as a means to enhance comprehension and the use of the individual communication device as a means for personal expression will therefore be more clearly separated. However, one can also argue that using the student’s device for augmented input could assist the student in gaining access to different concepts on his device and hence facilitate operational competence.

Another way this dilemma has been addressed is for the communication partner and student each to use their own device for communication. Although this an appealing solution, the financial viability of this option can be challenging, as school districts generally do not provide devices for communication partners to use. Teachers and aides, therefore, often do not have access to devices similar to those used by the student. In this context, staff can find it difficult to promote the use of the student’s device for communication in a consistent manner.

Instruction or Communication?

However, perhaps even more fundamental is understanding the difference between using a device for instruction or learning purposes and encouraging the use of a device for communication purposes. Using a device during instructional sessions is not the same as using it for communication. The real dilemma here does not lie in whether we use one or two devices or use a classroom size communication board, but in how we think about communication as a two-way process.

Instruction is an interactive, asymmetrical process in which one interactive partner is the teacher and another the pupil. Interaction is therefore more controlled and responses relatively predictable. Augmented input provided in this context is aimed at facilitating understanding of specific content and/or supporting the student in improving operational competence in using the device. Communication, on the other hand, is in its essence more symmetrical in nature and focuses on the development of meaning between communication partners. The video below—excerpted from Communication Is More Than Exchanging Messages: Social Closeness in AAC Intervention, an October 2019 online presentation I delivered for the Alberta Regional Professional Development Consortia (ARPDC)—provides more information on what meaning-making is.

We need to be involved in both instruction and communication. The challenge, however, is to focus awareness on what we are doing to ensure we do not neglect the student’s experience of authentic communication and meaning-making with another.

Getting a student to participate is not the same as being involved in meaning-making. As the video excerpt below illustrates, the central concepts of meaning-making are:

  • participation,
  • engagement, and
  • the creative synthesis between the two.

Meaning-making and Social Closeness

Although the level of the meaning developed between communication partners can vary, the purpose of communication is to share ideas and enhance mutual understanding. At its core, therefore, this process is not predictable and requires that both partners engage in a creative process of interpreting and using symbols as part of meaning-making.

Communication partners, therefore, engage in a process that enhances social closeness and affirmation, creating what I would call “new nuanced meaning.”

Often times, it is these unique associations (new nuanced meaning) or connection between partners that provides the impetus for further interactions; whereas the absence of meaning-making in interactions between communication partners can increase the isolation of students who use AAC.

The bottom-line? Providing students with access to messages is important, but not sufficient in allowing them to experience the power of self-expression in interaction with others.


Alant, E., 2017.  Augmentative and Alternative Communication: Engagement and Participation. Plural Publishers: San Diego.

You can view all five video excerpts from the above-referenced webinar presentation on my YouTube channel here:

The complete 1-hour presentation on meaning-making is available at the ARPDC Professional Development Resources website here:

Powerpoint presentation slides (in PDF format) for the ARPDC webinar:
Communication Is More Than Exchanging Messages: Social Closeness in AAC Intervention

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