Early communication – with and without words

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Recently, I created this table as part of our AAC for Speechies course at Two Way Street.
Some may find it helpful to think about expressive communication at the earlier levels by providing some parallels with the Hanen Four Stages of Early Communication.
The Hanen stages have simple names and helpful descriptions. They help to show that before words, signs or symbols, there are is still a lot of communication going on.
This parallels our ROCC Emergent Communicators, and it’s important we notice and encourage all of their interactions until the autonomous words, signs and/or symbols come.


Hanen Stage

ROCC Assessment –  Level of Communicative Competence. 


React to how they feel and to what is happening around them, but have not yet developed the ability to communicate with a specific purpose in mind.


  • Typically use behaviours, gestures, facial expression or body language to interact with others or to get their needs met. 
  • May have awareness of language but have not yet made the connection that these symbols, signs or words can convey consistent meaning. 
  • Mostly require a familiar person to interpret their communication. 
  • Messages may be guessed e.g. pushing something away or taking someone to an item, but they’re not yet using a language mode (i.e. sign, symbol or verbal word).
  • In order to move to become a transitional communicator, the individual must learn that signs, symbols or words convey specific meaning, and learn to use them expressively to interact with others for that purpose
  • Hanen Discoverers are usually levels 0 and 1 for most domains on ROCC while Hanen Communicators are usually levels 1-2 for most domains. 


Send specific messages directly to a person, without using words.

First Words Users 

Use single words (or signs or pictures).


  • Beginning to take ownership of their message and using language (i.e. words, symbols or signs) to express their message.
  • May use their body and facial expression at times if most efficient but are learning that symbolic communication is needed to be autonomous.
  • If not successful with speech or sigh, they should have their own aided system (or at least one on trial), and use it for autonomous messages
  • May range from using single words up to phrases and sentences.
  • Messages should be autonomous (may be a response to modelling)  
  • May seem competent in a familiar environment, but still needs to develop skills for success with unfamiliar people and environments.
  • When moving closer to becoming competent, they will need to develop strategies that engage others and allow them to communicate with partners who may not have seen their system before or know them or the context they are talking about. 
  • Hanen First Word Users would be at a single word level on Domain 6 (level 1-2) and using early developing pragmatic functions. 
  • Hanen Combiners score at level 3 or above on Domain 6 where they are likely to be combining words and communicating autonomously at least in familiar settings. They use a wider range of pragmatic functions emerging due to increased language skills. 


Combine words into sentences of two or three words.

Though communication continues to develop, these Hanen Four Stages  describe early communication and do not extend beyond Combiners. 


  • Can be understood by familiar and unfamiliar communication partners.
  • Do not rely on others to interpret their message and can clarify message if asked.
  • They can say whatever they want to say, whenever they want to say it and however they want to say it (Gayle Porter)
  • Fully autonomous communicator.
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