Can you teach all AAC systems through motor planning?

Can you teach all AAC systems through motor planning?

Explore with us the idea of teaching different communication systems through motor planning. 

Can you teach all AAC systems through motor planning?

The concept of motor planning should be ringing some bells. Motor planning has become such an integrated concept within the field of AAC that it feels like everyone is talking about it.

With all the talk about motor planning it is important to consider if all systems can be taught through motor planning and if so, how effective it is. This post explores that idea by firstly discussing some of the challenges page based/ category based systems face.

Benficial Skills

Many AAC systems are organised in a way where the user requires some underlying skills to truly use the system to its fullest potential.

For example, a typical page or category-based system requires some rudimentary understanding of categories such as “foods” or “vehicles” and to a more challenging extent “doing words” or “describing words”. If a user does not have knowledge of these organisational structures then it can be challenging to locate words.

Another skill that is beneficial for users to have is at least a basic level of literacy skills. This is because words which aren’t nouns are not what we call “picture produces”. That is, if 10 people all got told to draw a “that”, each picture would look different and not accurately represent that word. As such, literacy skills are needed for identifying the meaning of many of our most commonly used words.

The final skill which can be crucial for using many page based/ category systems is that of navigation. Or in simple terms, how many “hits” does it take me to say each word. It could range from one hit all the way up to six hits. Individuals with poor executive functions or working memory may find a system with larger sequences more challenging to use.

Motor Planning

These three skills pose a challenge to many AAC users. What do we do for our clients who don’t have these skill sets? Or for those that are still developing them?

Well an obvious answer is to teach them how to use the communication system through motor planning because the other skills needed are not there! Learning through motor planning eliminates the need to have good categorisation, navigation and literacy skills. It opens up a world of language rich possibilities to those in greatest need of communication support.

The question is, can you teach all AAC systems through motor planning?

To explore this question let’s look at three components that can influence whether a system is set up for motor planning or not.

  1. Having the same starting point for every word
  2. Having a unique motor movement for each word
  3. Having short navigational sequences for each word

A system that has these three components is set up for motor planning success. A system that does not have these is creating unnecessary barriers to someone developing motor plans.

Let’s see some examples:

  1. Having the same starting point for every word

This is important as it provides a reference point for starting any new word sequence. It also reduces the amount of navigation needed to find a word because they don’t need to hit the “home” button first.

Another benefit from starting at the home page is that this home page is generally full of core words. As these words account for the majority of what we say, after saying any word we are likely to say one of these next, reducing navigation.

Have a look at the below example of a system that doesn’t have the same starting point for each word.

In the below example we are saying the word “teacher”. You will notice that when I get to the end location and press the word, it keeps me on that page instead of taking me back to the home page.

Many people think this is beneficial but in reality, it is rare for a person communicating to say another related noun straight after.



As you can see in this WordPower file that after the word “teacher” is selected, the next hit to say the next word is actually the Home button. This means that if a user wanted to say “Teacher please”. They would be required to start the sequence of “please” with the Home button, adding an extra navigational hit and changing the motor plan for that word.

This example can be continued when considering our next point that words require a unique pathway per word. The Word “Teacher” has multiple locations in the vocabulary.


  1. Having a unique motor movement for each word

We will continue our investigation into whether page based/ category systems are set up for teaching through motor planning by considering the importance of having unique motor plans.

When we practice the exact same pattern over and over again, this pattern turns into what we call an automatic motor plan. That is, our brains no longer have to think about what it is doing to produce that word!

This is an amazing skill we develop because it allows us to then consider different things when communicating such as what our communication partner may be saying or thinking, what’s happening in the environment around us and what we may want to say next.

Without automaticity this process becomes near impossible because we are having to continually scan for words which is slow, and takes up that cognitive space.

Below is a category/ page based system and we can see how words do not have unique motor movements when we do a word search for common words. Below you can see how many different sequences there is to say the words “more”, “want”, “stop” and “water”.

91 different sequences


12 different sequences


12 different sequences


3 different sequences

When we see that the word “more” has over 90 different sequences of how we can say it we quickly begin to see the some of the challenges our users have when trying to develop motor automaticity.


  1. Having short navigational sequences for each word

Category/ page-based systems inherently have lengthy navigational sequences simply due to the way in which words are grouped together. These systems have one picture for one word. We have thousands of words in our vocabulary so these all need to be grouped somehow.

Systems such as WordPower and Proloquo2Go group words largely by their parts of speech. This means they group verbs, nouns and adjectives in distinct folders.

As a result, it generates a folder that is chockers with words needing many pages or folders to search through. You can imagine how many verbs or nouns we have in our vocabulary!

When we couple this structural challenge with the need to have one picture for one word, we end up with long sequences for words which is contrary to what is best for motor automaticity.



To answer the question, “can you teach all AAC systems through motor planning?”. Well I hope you start to see that the answer is not straight forward.

What we do know is that our AAC users have been facing numerous barriers to their communication their whole lives. AAC is a light that can give real hope. We should be ensuring that we are reducing the barriers our AAC clients are facing when it comes to communication.

It is therefore logical that if a user does not have many of the skills mentioned in this post and is going to be learning mainly through motor planning, it is wise to consider giving them a system that makes learning through motor planning as easy as possible!

LAMP Words for Life and the Unity vocabularies are such systems. They have very short sequences, consistent motor plans and words aren’t repeated. Let’s give our kids the best chance of success and consider a system specifically built for motor planning.






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