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Developing Beginning Sentence-Building Skills

Jana Birch, M.A.
Computerade Products
2346 Wales Drive
Cardiff, CA 92007

Picture Sentence Key for Windows lets students create sentences and see them animated. Uses mouse, touch display, IntelliKeys or switch. Great for persons with severe language disorders such as autism and beginning augmentative communication users.

Picture Sentence Key can help students to take the first steps towards combining words into sentences. This totally success-oriented program motivates users by rewarding completion of a sentence with an animated picture that illustrates and repeats the sentence just formed.

Words can be selected using any mouse-type interface, touch display, single switch or Intellikeys. The program will only allow selection of a word that makes sense in the sequence of the sentence, thus only reinforcing successful responses.

The original version of Picture Sentence Key was developed in 1991 by Ann K.Morgan, M.S. It is illustrated with black and white pictures and runs on the Macintosh computer. The new Windows version retains the same methodology and original vocabulary while adding several new features, making it easy and flexible to use.

New Features

The new version of Picture Sentence Key for Windows has been enhanced to full color animation, provides ongoing record keeping and evaluation as well as exploratory mode, and allows the number of symbols displayed at any one time to be reduced as needed or expanded up to 18. Picture Sentence Key will now highlight each word as it is spoken during animation, allowing an opportunity for developing word recognition. Custom display screens can be designed and saved for any number of student names. A record of performance accuracy and sentences created is maintained for the last 25 trials of each student. This allows easy accountability and tracking of student performance and progress.

Evaluation mode allows the teacher to select the sentences to be presented to the student. In this mode, only an accurate repetition of the sentence spoken and illustrated is allowed.

A wide sequence of sample boards and displays is provided in the IntelliKeys mode, based on IntelliTools keyguards of 12, 15, and 20 holes which allow for use of the four columns necessary. Boards for the IntelliKeys can be printed by anyone using Overlay Maker from IntelliTools. It is also possible to modify or create custom boards for the IntelliKeys using Overlay Maker.

The sequence of displays corresponding to the IntelliKeys overlays can be used in any of the access modes. They provide a ready-made guide for a gradual introduction of verbs. Within this sequence many other variations can be made to focus on different areas of need. Subjects can easily be modified to present "girl/boy" or "he/she/they" as the student becomes ready to work with pronouns. Position of symbols within a group can easily be altered so that responses do not become location specific. Corresponding objects can be varied and can be selected to offer a high opportunity for agreement of multiple objects with the verb (such as "eat" with different food items) or a need to select a specific object to go along with a verb (such as "read" and "book").

Pictures and symbols can also be printed easily using the Print Screen feature available in Windows. It is recommended to use either the Print Screen feature, Overlay Maker, Boardmaker or Board Builder to print and make Picture Communication Symbol cards to support the vocabulary learned in Picture Sentence Key.

Using Picture Sentence Key

The vocabulary in Picture Sentence Key is designed around everyday items that easily lend themselves to role playing. It is recommended to complement use of Picture Sentence Key by both role playing and using picture cards which can be laid out in a similar manner as to how they are presented on the screen. There is greater opportunity for generalization when the student has three opportunities to practice using the sentences:

1) Working on the computer with Picture Sentence Key.

2) Describing a picture with the aid of Picture Communication Symbol cards on a velcroed board.

3) Describing a role-played or live situation with Picture Communication Symbols and/or speech.

Picture Sentence Key teaches the student to form sentences by making four selections based on the structure, "WHO IS DOING WHAT." Five choices are available for WHO: the boy, the girl, he, she and they. The student must select between "is" or "are." Six DOING verbs are available: eat, drink, pour, wash, pet and read. Then nineteen object words are available in the WHAT category: hot dog, milk, ice cream, pizza, pretzel, apple, hamburger, french fries, juice, book, dishes, dog, face, hand. (You could use a toy dog for role-playing.)

Picture Sentence Key has been designed so that the task of selecting symbols can be simplified to the level of a student who is just beginning to learn sentence structure. The root word is displayed with a Mayer-Johnson Picture Communication Symbol. As the words are selected, they are pronounced and expanded into the appropriate form to make a syntactically correct sentence. (i.e., "boy is eat cracker" becomes "The boy is eating a cracker.") The student then hears and sees the syntactically correct form of the sentence repeated, with each word highlighted as it is spoken. This provides an accurate model for some of the earliest grammatical morphemes that occur in language development: the present progressive [-ing] and the noun plural [-s]. The animated feedback provides great motivation and support for the visual learner.

Working on the computer lends itself to several variations in presentation. Students who prefer working with free range to explore can create any sentence possible using the given symbols while in exploratory mode. Students who work better with greater direction can be given a sentence to repeat using evaluation mode. This mode can also be used to evaluate students on their ability to create specific sentences after they have had the opportunity to work in explore mode.

The "Animate" button is provided to allow students to see the animation again with or without the spoken sentence. In order to give students with speech an opportunity to practice saying the sentence, the speech feedback can be turned off for re-animation. Then after a sentence has been created, the student can be prompted to select the "Animate" button to see the action again and be asked to tell what is happening.

The display can also be modified to hide selection symbols on re-animation in order to create a better focus for students who are easily distracted. Using the "Erase" button will display the selection symbols once again. Other options can allow only words to be displayed either with the selection symbols or with the sentence as it appears below the animation.

Single Switch Mode

Picture Sentence Key offers an excellent opportunity for beginning switch users to experience creating sentences. Students who may only be able to choose between two to four choices are enabled to build whole sentences because single switch mode scans only the column necessary for each choice and automatically advances to the next column. Inappropriate responses are ignored, allowing an immediate opportunity to make another selection. The high opportunity for success can be increased even more by selection of a symbol display with multiple objects that correspond to a given verb or verbs. This is an excellent program to present to students who are ready to move beyond cause and effect but don’t yet have the control or skill to use a row-column scan or to make multiple, sequenced selections. This can help to prepare students for later use of an augmentative communication device.

Future Development

Picture Sentence Key for Windows was created using the same vocabulary as the original Macintosh version. Development is underway for new versions with different vocabulary sets and the ability to incorporate digitized pictures. Feedback is welcome as to what users would like to see in future products.


Picture Sentence Key for Windows is a highly structured program designed to guide students in putting words together to form sentences. It is not an open-ended communication system, but within the structure and vocabulary given the student can choose what words will go together to make a sentence. The meaning in each completed sentence is clearly illustrated by an animated, full-color picture. There are 72 possible animations.

Picture Sentence Key is designed to be easy and friendly to use with excellent record-keeping and customization features. It is appropriate for students with emerging sentence building skills, whether they be verbal or non-verbal. It supports the use of Mayer-Johnson Picture Communication Symbols and offers easy access to students using touch display, mouse, IntelliKeys or single switch.


Picture Sentence Key for Windows was developed by Computerade Products. It is available from:

Mayer-Johnson Co.
P. O. Box 1579
Solana Beach, CA 92075
Phone: 1-800-588-4548
Website: www.mayer-johnson.com

Picture Communication Symbols, Boardmaker, Board-Builder, and Picture Sentence Key for Macintosh are also products of the Mayer-Johnson Co.

IntelliKeys and Overlay Maker are products of:

Intellitools, Inc.
55 Leveroni Court, Suite 9
Novato, CA 94949
Phone: 1-800-899-6687
Website: www.intellitools.com

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