"Much of the magic of AAC lies in the vast array of symbols and signals, other than those used in speech, that people can employ to send messages. Especially for individuals who cannot read or write, the ability to represent messages and concepts in alternative ways is central to communication."
(Beukelman & Mirenda, 1998, p. 40)
A variety of symbols can be used to represent the messages a student needs to communicate. "Symbols" refer to something that "stands for something else". The actual "symbol" used can be anything from real objects to photos to line drawings to other forms of picture symbols.
Considerations when selecting a symbol system include:
- Iconicity. This refers to how closely the symbol represents the item/message it depicts. For example, using a potato chip bag to represent "potato chips" is a much closer association than the written word "potato chip".
In general, symbols with a more concrete representation will be easier for students to learn.
For students who are not yet reading - look closely at the picture without the text. Many of us make the mistake of thinking that "pictures are easy" because we can read the associated word and neglect to really look at the picture.
- Ability to replicate the symbol. Can the symbol be easily reproduced if the original is lost or the communication board needs to be rearranged or expanded? This factor needs to be taken into account in particular when using photographs. What happens if the negative is lost once the student is trained to the picture meaning? This is also a consideration if pictures are to be hand-drawn.
- Is the symbol set available commercially? Many professionals use the Boardmaker software program from Mayer-Johnson company. One of the advantages of this program is that communication boards can be created relatively quickly and easily. In addition, replication of boards and symbols is not a significant concern.
- Commercially available symbol sets can be adopted district-wide as the standard. Thus, students transitioning within a district will continue to have exposure to the same communication symbols.
- Changing symbol sets is like changing languages. How would you feel if suddenly someone told you you could no longer speak English, you must now learn Spanish?
Many of us are faced with selecting vocabulary for use during a student's book reading time. If the goal for a student is to read a book out loud using his/her communication system, the following strategies can be used to ensure that all vocabulary from the book are represented.
- Post-It Note Approach
- Using Database Software
- Web based Approach
- Prioritizing Vocabulary
Post-It Note Approach
1. Identify vocabulary in the story.
a. Write each unique word from the book on a post-it note.
b. Make a hash mark or other notation on the post-it for each additional occurrence of the word.
When done, you should have the following word frequency information:
1) Total number of words in the book
2) Total number of unique words
3) Number of times each word appears in the book
c. Use this information to prioritize which vocabulary should be placed on the student's communication board. Also plan to include some messages which allow the student to interact and control the activity. For example: Turn the page, Act it out, Read that again, All done, Let's do something else.
2. Arrange vocabulary
Arrange the post-it notes to match the display format your student will be using (e.g. communication board, IntelliKeys overlay, ChatBox, Macaw). It is much easier to move them around and change their arrangement when they are in this format before you begin creating boards and overlays on the computer.
3. Create communication boards &/or IntelliKeys overlays
Planning vocabulary arrangements out on paper prior to beginning the creation of boards and overlays on the computer can be a significant time saver.
4. Print duplicate board.
5. Place one board in sheet protector.
6. Laminate symbols.
7. Add velcro
Using Database Software
Another way to gather word frequency information is to use a computer database program.
- Set up one field for "Word" and another for "Frequency".
- Type in each word from the book as a unique "word" entry. When done, sort alphabetically in descending order.
- Count the number of times each word appears and enter that number in the "Frequency" column. Specific instructions for doing this using ClarisWorks are included here. These can be adapted for use with other database programs.
Web based Approach
- Highlight and copy the text you wish to analyze.
- Go to the following website:
Web Frequency Indexer (Georgetown Linguistics)
- Paste your text in the box in the box that says "Enter your text here".
- Click on "Do It!" for a word frequency list which includes the total number of words in the book as well as the total number of unique words.
Note: This is especially handy for doing word frequency counts on e-text.
If the number of words in the book exceeds the number of spaces available on the communication system, you will need to do some prioritizing.
- Does the story contain a repeated line? If so, you could put that all on one space.
- Give greater weight to the words which occur most frequently.
- Compare your word frequency count to published vocabulary lists. These lists show the frequency of word use by individual of different age ranges. An excellent resource for this on the web can be found at: AAC Messaging and Vocabulary. Give greater weight to words used most frequently by the same age peers.
At the Barkley Communication site of the University of Nebraska you will find numerous vocabulary lists including words most frequently used by preschoolers who are non-disabled, school aged children, and children who use AAC systems. There are also lists of conversational phrases, vocabulary for school settings, vocabulary for classroom activities and initial vocabulary recommendations.
Include Interactive Vocabulary
Interactive vocabulary includes words and phrases which encourage interaction between the augmentative system user and their communication partners and peers. Examples include:
Act it out!
Turn the page
Read it again
When making pages for this BookTalker, the interactive vocabulary listed above was included in the bottom row of each page. Thus the students had a consistent array of comments and questions available on every overlay. This consistency allows the students to learn the vocabulary more quickly and the teachers to have a realistic expectation of what the students can say for every story. For example after reading a page, the teacher would know they could call on this student and ask "What should I do next?" and expect the student could say "Turn the page".
Literature Based Communication Boards
What are some ways that you can represent the vocabulary of a book for a child. How about using repetitive phrase storybooks or sequencing the story on a simple voice output system or even creating your own story. See our handout on Creating Literature Based Communication Boards.
Overlays and/or communication systems developed for an activity often represent novel practice for students. In other words, if the second grade classroom is doing a unit on bats and you create activity-based overlays to support student learning and expression in the classroom, chances are many of the vocabulary on the system will be new (novel) to the child. Structuring activity and/or literacy based overlays in a consistent manner will provide a system of support for your AAC users. To create consistency always set up the vocabulary on your system in the same way. If you carryover key vocabulary from the child's core communication overlay, make sure that the vocabulary is placed in the same place on their system.
Using Aided Language Stimulation
Carol Goossens, Sharon Sapp Crain and Pamela Elder introduced the idea of aided language stimulation in their monumental books on "Engineering the Environment". This approach utilizes multiple activity-based communication overlays. To achieve this, the team:
- Develops a list of all the activities a student engages in.
- Prioritizes the list based on factors such as student motivation and how often the activity occurs.
- Lists all the possible vocabulary associated with a specific activity.
- Prioritizes the vocabulary list.
- Creates the communication overlays following a set of guidelines such as:
- Use a variety of parts of speech (e.g. verbs, nouns, descriptors)
- Place frequently used vocabulary in the same location on every overlay whenever possible
- "Engineer the environment" so communication overlays are prominently placed in locations where they will be used
- During the teaching and implementation phase, use a variety of sound teaching practices such as:
- Modeling use of the overlay when talking with the student
- Systematically cue correct responses
- Teach overlay use in the context of real and functional activities
For additional information on the implementation of this approach see: Aided Language Stimulation
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Pre-made activity-based boards from Goossens, Crain, and Elder
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Use velcro strips to easily create custom activity-based boards for students and/or activities. This board is for a painting activity
Symbols storage on side of cabinet in Early Childhood room for easy access.
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Activity-Based Vocabulary used in a cutting and pasting activity.
Dynamic display devices such as the Vanguard or the Dynamyte offer students a way to use core overlays and activity-based overlays together.
Digital pictures of students can be used to create activity-based boards to allows students to communicate about peers. For example, these can be used to:
Choose who will be a particular helper
Take attendance - Who is here/not here
Tell a story about who did what on a field trip
This approach has a more narrow in focus than aided language stimulation as it involves selecting and representing vocabulary pertaining to a particular classroom theme. One way to do this is to create AAC Theme Kits with ready-made activity and communication resources based upon typical themes used across schools.
The following is an example of a bear kit developed for use by the Eau Claire Area School District in Eau Claire, WI.
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The kit contains activities and props commonly used by elementary educators teaching a unit on bears. It also includes a notebook of suggestions and symbols for use with students who have AAC needs.
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Bear Activities from various Internet sites.
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Communication boards made for various AAC systems commonly used by students in the district.
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Reproducible books and pictures.
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Symbols for the repeated lines in books pertaining to the theme.
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Symbols to go with theme activities.
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Internet Sites appropriate to the theme.
In addition to communication symbols and overlays, we use picture symbols to create schedules and task organizers to aid in communication about the events and activities in which the student will participate.
We create schedules to help students understand what will happen next. We can use schedules to indicate:
Classroom Daily Schedules
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A classroom schedule using real photos
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A classroom schedule using Boardmaker symbols
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Single Picture Location cards worn by staff members. Staff hold card next to their face as they say the location to pair verbal and visual prompts.
Student's Personal Schedule
Student Specific Schedule binder with Part day or All day picture symbols from Boardmaker arranged on the first page of the binder.
Student specific all day wall schedule located on the wall within the classroom.
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Student specific schedule board mounted on a file folder.
Left column - Locations the student is going to that day.
Middle (green) Column - Where the student is currently.
Right Column - When the student moves to a different location in the school, they move the symbol to the done column.
The yellow velcro strip in the middle is a place for staff to place symbols relating activities in that location.
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Inside the folder are additional symbols, a school lunch menu and a daily check sheet so staff can chart daily progress, document behavior and communicate with the family about food eaten at lunch.
Student specific schedule board using words to help the student construct sentences.
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Schedule cards are located inside the folder along with the student's communication diet.
(Highlighting the events in a group lesson.)
Use picture symbols to visually represent the schedule of activities within a small group lesson. This system of visual organization has the activities to complete in a column on the left. As an activity starts the corresponding symbol is moved to the center of the board. When the activity is finished it is moved to the column on the right.
Work Session Schedule
(How much work is expected)
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Use number symbols to visually represent the schedule of activities within a work session.
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Use work baskets, so the student can visually see how much work remains.
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Use picture symbols to visually represent the schedule of activities within a work session. In this schedule the student moves the symbol up next to work when they start an activity. They move the symbol into the all done baggie when finished.
Other Schedule Ideas
Visual schedule symbol organization. Boardmaker from Mayer-Johnson can be used to easily create visual representation of activities and vocabulary. Organize symbols in a binder for easy access.
Use a timer to show the student how long they need to remain at an activity. http://www.timetimer.com in conjunction with their work session schedule
Task Organizers/ Reminder Strips
Task Organizers and Reminder Strips visually represent the steps involved in completing a task. A child can use these visual reminders to gain independence in completing tasks on their own.
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Step by Step
Visual Directions for steps involved in getting ready to go home.
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Visual directions to prompt steps for getting dressed.
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You can make an activity visual by creating a storybook format to highlight the sequence of a lesson and and use a visual chart to document the results.
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I Spy Activity
Visual Directions to prompt students when playing "I Spy".
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Visual Directions to prompt students when playing musical chairs.
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Bathroom Task Strip
Visual Directions posted in the bathroom.
Picture Library Software
Boardmaker is a commonly used computer program which includes an extensive picture library for making communication boards. Additional picture libraries such as those containing sign language are also available. Digital images can be imported and saved within Boardmaker cells. This resource is available through mayer-johnson.com
The Internet contains a number of sites with tutorials for using Boardmaker at beginning through advanced levels. In addition, there are web resources with downloadable Boardmaker communication boards, picture schedules and activities. For an extensive list of links to these sites, visit the Boardmaker resources section of aacintervention.com.
Picture This is a software program that contains photos organized into categories. Picture This Standard Edition contains 2,700 photos from 30 different categories. Picture This Pro comes with over 5,000 photos and contains a formatting program which allows you to print any size card. These resources are available through silverliningmm.com.
A variety of pictures can be found at web sites designed for students with special learning needs.
A web site that provides picture cards, schedules and ideas to promote independence in children and adults with special learning needs.
This web site contains a large number of pre-made PECS resources with real photos. There are links to a wide range of other picture resource sites.
This web site offers a variety of special education resources for teachers of individuals with autistic spectrum disorders, related developmental disabilities, and children with special needs. You will find a variety of themed activities and visual communication ideas/resources.
Using Google Search Engine
- Go to Google on the web at http://www.google.com/
- Click on the Images tab on the opening screen.
- Type in the keyword corresponding to the image you need.
You will be able to choose from literally hundreds of images.
When using these or any other pictures, be sure to check copyright use policies.
Using Textures as Symbols
Questions to consider:
- Is there a texture naturally associated with the message?
For example, at a conference years ago a speech/language pathologist told of using a piece of screen to represent the message "Let's go outside" as a screen door was the last thing the child touched before going outdoors.
- Is the selected texture available in ample quantity that it can be replaced/replicated?
The food choices can be spray laminated and placed permanently on the choice board so the student can not mouth them. To present choices in a different array, the board could be presented upside down and/or replicated with the objects in different locations. Changing the locations helps to keep the student focused on the symbol choices as opposed to learning a positional response (e.g. left side means Fruit Loops as opposed to circular texture).
Velcro the symbols onto the board; a yellow rope can represent a swing that is suspended by a similar feeling rope.
For additional information and references:
YAACK: Teaching AAC-Related Skills
Beukelman, D.R., & Mirenda, P. (1998). 2nd Ed. Augmentative and alternative communication management of severe communication disorders in children and adults. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.
Social Stories include:
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- Opening Statement
WAITING MY TURN
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- Bullet points
I LOVE doing great work in school.
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- Confidence statement
I CAN wait for my turn.
Visual Support Systems
The Technology Integration Questionnaire
Where is your team on the continuum of AAC integration? Perceptions of the success and use of AAC strategies often vary among staff members. To evaluate the strengths and needs of your team, it is suggested that your team complete the following questionnaire. The purpose of this tool is to gather information, not to judge staff performance; therefore questionnaire respondents do not need to identify themselves on the form.
Staff Integration of AAC Rubric
This rubric was designed to provide speech/language pathologists and educational staff with the opportunity to identify their skill level in the area of augmentative communication. It can also be used to identify the current level of integration of AAC by the school team. This handout also has a section that teams can use to quickly identify personal training needs.
Minspeak Meets Aided Language Stimulation
Lesson Planning Example
Story Title and Description: Froggy Gets Dressed
- The theme for the week: Frogs
- Concepts to reinforce all week: on/off, grow, change
- Targeted standards (Wisconsin): Oral Lang. C.4.2 Listen to and Comprehend Oral Communications, Science F.4.3 Illustrate ways organisms grow through life stages
- The week before (Things to do/Materials to gather): 5 Frogs Hop IntelliPics, Froggy Gets Dressed boards, Tadpoles
AAC Theme Kits
- 1 Month Check Out
- Some assembly required :)
- 2 experienced people 1 week in addition to their caseload
Binder: Theme Activity Ideas
Activity Ideas for Kit Materials
Clipart & Other Pictures
There are numerous commercially available augmentative/alternative communication devices. These range from single message systems to complex computer-based devices capable of generating an almost infinite amount of messages.
While these devices can be very powerful tools, they should never be viewed as the end goal or sole solution to communication challenges. Rather, they must be viewed as one part of the communication continuum which ranges from partner assisted to independent.
Any piece of equipment is subject to breaking down, running out of battery power or otherwise malfunctioning. Ideally, a plan should be in place for how the student will communicate while their AAC system is being recharged and/or repaired.
The process of choosing an appropriate device ideally involves a team approach including:
- A team assessment which includes the individual who will be using the device, their family and/or support staff as well as professionals who are familiar with the student and those experienced in the selection and implementation of AAC devices.
- A trial period in which a recommended system(s) is used and efficacy data are collected and analyzed
Feature Match: No Tech to High Tech
There are differing opinions and definitions as to what constitutes a no tech, low tech, mid tech or high tech communication system. For the purposes of this resource, AAC devices will be defined as:
- No tech systems: Any communication system that does not require a power source.
- Low tech systems: Any communication system that requires a source of power and is very easy to program.
- Mid tech systems: Any communication system that requires a power source and requires some level of training to adequately program and maintain the device.
- High tech systems: Any communication system that requires a power source and extensive training to competently program and maintain the device.
A sampling of systems contained in each category include:
No Tech communication systems
Choice boards: Objects, pictures, and/or symbols can be used on a choice board to offer students opportunities to communicate the language of snack/leisure activities, learning activities, transitioning, literacy activities, daily living activities, and more.
Choice boards can be used alone or in combination. In this example, the student can select an answer from one choice board to complete a sentence started on another choice board.
Boards can be cut to various sizes from foam core board. This material is commonly used to mat pictures or make posters. It can be found in the school supply section of discount stores, at craft stores or at framing places.
Communication boards: These can be computer generated and/or hand-made. They can range from a single symbol to a single page to multiple pages either stored together or in the actual environments where they will be used.
- Picture or symbol overlays that provide opportunities for students to communicate about specific activities in which they are engaged,
- A general or core overlay to communicate general language across activities and environments,
- A communication overlay to communicate about literacy activity, and more
- Picture exchange systems provide students opportunities to physically give communication picture or symbol during activity or through self-initiation.
- Communication books, wallets
Low Tech systems
Mid Tech systems
High Tech systems
Companies Offering Augmentative/Alternative Communication and/or Assistive Technology Products:
Assistive Technology, Inc.
Attainment Company, Inc.
DDA Home Page, home of Feature Match, Assessm...
Don Johnston Incorporated
The Great Talking Box Company, Inc.
Prentke Romich Company Home Page
Semantic Compaction Systems
Sentient Systems Technology, Inc.
TASH International INC., Ontario Canada
Other Vendor Resources