A sprinkle of ‘Pepper’- How to be an effective communication partner

We’ve all been there- that moment when a friend or colleague introduces you to someone new at a party or a work function.

You greet each other and then your friend gradually steps away…

And that’s when you realise that this conversation is not going to ‘flow’.

You struggle to find common ground. That horrible, awkward feeling starts to infiltrate the atmosphere. Speaking is so effortful that you frantically concoct a reason to excuse yourself…


I think of this feeling when I consider how some of the children who I work with must feel, especially when they are learning to use a communication aid.

They know that some people ‘get it’ and will help them to feel relaxed, making it easier for them to communicate. But others? Well, it’s like the party analogy; communication breaks down and everything just feels uncomfortable.

We want to strike the right balance-  supporting our children in learning to use their new communication system but also ensuring that they feel motivated to communicate. And that can be tricky…!

I came up with an acronym to remind myself of some tips on being a better communication partner…It just so happens to spell the word ‘Pepper’ (SaLT and Pepper, anyone…?!)

So here’s how we can sprinkle some pepper on our conversations:

Presume Competence-

This little phrase comes up again and again in AAC literature. It goes without saying- just because someone is non-verbal it doesn’t mean that they don’t have anything to say! Our children using communication aids can become very competent communicators with the right support.

We need to set achievable targets and when they meet those, then challenge them a little bit more! Presume that our children can always initiate more, tell us more, begin to use more vocabulary, etc…Let’s give them the opportunity to show us their full potential in a supportive, communication-rich environment!

Eye Contact-

People who use communication aids often take a bit more time to formulate their message. The temptation is to look away during an uncomfortable silence.

But we need to demonstrate to our children that we are interested in what they are saying; that we are listening.

In any interaction, we do this by making appropriate eye-contact.

This shouldn’t obviously be an intense ‘under-pressure’ stare (!)- the goal is to let the speaker know that we value what they are saying and that we respect them as a communication partner.


Sometimes It can be tricky for someone using a communication aid to ‘enter’ a conversation; to find a way in.

How do we support them?

By pausing frequently!

Pausing invites our children to make a comment on what has been said, to ask a question, to share their own stories… Don’t forget to make your pauses long enough to give the child time to process what you’ve said and to come up with their response.


So you’ve paused to invite your child using AAC into the conversation and they don’t respond. Maybe they don’t have anything to add. Or maybe they’re unsure of what to say/how to say it- after all, learning to use a new communication system is tough!

We can gently prompt our children by guiding them in how to continue a conversation.

Let’s say, for example, their friend is talking about their weekend… and then there is that pause, signalling it’s someone else’s turn to talk.

I tend to use a bit of a hierarchy of prompts:

I like to start with an indirect prompt e.g “I wonder if Ben did anything interesting at the weekend…?”

If this doesn’t spark a response, I might move on to a direct prompt e.g “In your activities page there are some things you might have done at the weekend”.

For children struggling to navigate through their new device, I might need to provide a manual prompt, taking them to the correct page while talking them through each step.

Don’t rush each prompt; your child might just require a little extra time!


Going back to the ‘awkward party conversation’ analogy- if we are not engaged in a conversation, we lose interest. We try to step away; to find a way of escaping.

It’s exactly the same for our children! We need to engage with them in conversations that interest them. To do that, we need to follow their lead; pay attention to the things that they are interested in and then create opportunities to talk about those things!


A child learning to use a communication aid will sometimes make mistakes. They might say the wrong word, leave words out, jumble up their ideas…

And that’s ok- we all frequently make mistakes in our speech or struggle to find the right words. Count how many times you say ‘umm’, ‘erm’, ‘like’, etc in a conversation and you’ll see what I mean! Our speech isn’t always fluent.

When a child forms an incomplete phrase or says something that others may not fully understand, we can model the sentence back to them or summarise what they have said (restating).

For example, a child might join 2 or 3 words together to make a short phrase e.g. “Mr Tumble favourite”- we know what they mean and to demonstrate that we can say, “Oh Mr Tumble is your favourite?!” To support them in developing their use of phrases, we might even point to the symbols as we say the words, demonstrating how they can expand on their message.

So just to re-cap:

P-presume competence, E- eye-contact, P-pause, P- prompt, E- engage, R- restate

Maybe a little pinch of pepper might enhance our children’s conversations?! Let’s try not to be like that awkward party guest that our children using communication aids want to avoid…!! After all, a good communication partner = good communication!



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A Speech and Language Therapist in education settings for almost 10 years with a passion for writing.

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