2001 Conference Proceedings

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Designing Dynamic Displays for the Beginning Communicator

Linda J. Burkhart, Special Educator
Technology Integration Specialist
6201 Candle Ct.
Eldersburg, MD 21784

Children at the beginning stages of communication need access to large amounts of vocabulary. However, visual, attentional, cognitive, and physical challenges often prevent the child form being able to utilize a communication board or overlay that provides a large, rich set of vocabulary or to independently switch between smaller sets of vocabulary. Dynamic display augmentative communication devices present options for arranging vocabulary in a series of simpler displays. This is especially important for beginning communicators who face severe and multiple challenges. Years of experience have taught us that these children do well with activity based displays that are organized consistently from one page to the next. Adding the component of active control that the dynamic display provides, children can be more successful in communicating. This increased vocabulary set needs to be carefully organized to make this possible for the child and not be overwhelming


Dynamic display augmentative communication devices are now widely available. While price, durability and portability are still major issues, progress in these areas has been made. Organizing vocabulary on dynamic display devices continues to present a challenge. Some pre-programmed vocabulary sets are becoming available to guide us, but it is still crucial to customize for an individual needs of the beginning communicator.

For the purpose of this paper, beginning communicators will be defined as young children, and children functioning at young levels. who do not have strong receptive language skills, and are not yet effective at using speech to communicate expressively. Many of these children will also have multiple challenges that affect their ability to easily access voice-output devices.

Clinically, beginning communicators have learned to use augmentative communication most effectively in an "immersion" environment where the use of the devices and picture symbols are modeled through an Aided Language Stimulation approach. (Goossens', Crain, and Elder. 1992) Building receptive language before expecting expressive language in natural play experiences builds a rich foundation for language development. For this type of approach to work, large numbers of activity-specific vocabulary sets are presented one at a time. The child has access to a wide variety of communicative functions and the ability to build phrases with a single overlay or language board.

Many of the static display devices that have been available to the beginning communicator over the years have had major limitations. Typically, the beginning communicator has been provided with a beginning voice-output device. This appears to be a logical practice and it is assumed that as the child shows more communicative competence, he will be able to handle a more sophisticated device. The problem with this approach is that these devices are often very limited in the amount of vocabulary that may be stored in the device at one time. Re-recording new sets of vocabulary throughout the day, has not been practical in most cases. Backing up vocabulary and reloading it with a computer or disk drive has also proved to be cumbersome in daily practice.

Early voice-output devices such as the Wolf, provided a large memory for synthesized speech that allowed for numerous overlays, that once programmed, could easily be changed for a student. Of course, there were disadvantages to this device, for example, initial programing of overlays was difficult and unfamiliar listeners found the voice hard to understand. None the less, the capability for numerous activity-based overlays, was a powerful tool for the beginning communicator. With the next generation of devices, the voice was greatly improved by using digitized speech and programming was made easier by allowing a simple recording function. The limitations of these devices inadvertently created situations where students were provided much smaller, diluted vocabulary sets, than was provided with the Wolf. Memory was limited to only a small number of overlays before the device had to be re-recorded, or loaded with another set of vocabulary. As mentioned above, this extra step was often not practical in day to day use. Providing the child with activity-based overlays that changed with each activity became impractical. Nonetheless, these moderately priced devices were often prescribed for the beginning communicator. More expensive devices with larger memories were becoming available, but not as frequently used for the beginning communicator. The need to change overlays on these static display devices has always been a barrier to ease of use. Devices that utilized codes on a single overlay to access a larger set of vocabulary, were often difficult to use for the beginning communicator.

Dynamic display devices offer the beginning communicator an opportunity to access a much larger set of vocabulary, while keeping any given page simple and easy for the student to access. By providing a means for students to change pages themselves, active participation is increased and success is possible in much larger number of activities throughout the day.

Principles for Designing Displays

The following are some guiding principals that will help to make the organization of vocabulary on dynamic display devices simple and effective for the beginning communicator.

1. Customization for individual needs is crucial, especially when access is difficult. Access will be a major factor in deciding number of vocabulary items and placement of these items. Designing of the page as well as selecting of vocabulary should be a team process with the family being a critical part of the team.

2. Once an arrangement is agreed upon, program numerous pages with activity-specific vocabulary based on typical activities in the child's day. These activity-specific pages should include a wide variety of communicative functions that enable the child for example to request, comment, reject, protest, question, tease, direct action, express opinions, feelings, humor etc. If additional vocabulary is needed for a specific activity, provide it as a "next page" set up with the same design. Provide a master page with sub-category pages to organize these pages, but start the child on the activity page until the use of the master page and sub-category pages have been modeled many times for the child.

3. Provide quick access from every page with a set of navigation buttons that will allow the child to quickly branch to a "chat" page for general social interaction, the master page and other pages of user-specific, urgent messages. Leave space on each page for a set of these buttons, even if the child is not ready at first to make use of them.

4. Chat pages, or sections of chat pages, should have generic locations for recent, current, and up-coming news that can easily be re-recorded without having to find new pictures each time. Branches from the chat pages can lead to "story" pages of significant events as well as a variety of greetings, partings, conversational vocabulary, context setting phrases, and repair strategies.

5. On all pages, select vocabulary that easily lends itself to the use of Aided Language Stimulation. By including vocabulary from both sides of a conversation, the teacher, therapist, parent or other child will find that modeling the use of the system is much easier. Understand that the success of the system for the beginning communicator is often contingent on how well it is modeled to the child within various functional situations and used as a receptive language learning device as well as an expressive device.

6. Make use of simple branching (go to next page or go back) to allow the child to turn pages as one might in a book between related pages of vocabulary.

7. For sequential vocabulary, make use of natural branching that presents the next logical vocabulary to the child without having to select a button to go to that page. For example, the next part of a song or simple play script. This strategy is especially important for the child who uses scanning to access the device and who is only able to handle a limited number of vocabulary items at one time. One item on the page should allow the child to break out of the sequence if desired, such as "all done."

8. Use principals of "Natural Mapping" to locate vocabulary and buttons. For example, go to next page could be on the right to simulate the conventions of turning pages in a book and go back would be more naturally positioned on the left. Navigation buttons should be set apart and look different from vocabulary buttons. Individual vocabulary should be positioned in a manner where left to right phrase and sentence building is facilitated. Items that appear on more than one page should be located in the same location on each page or at least as close as possible to the same location. A useful strategy is to create a template with the common elements and use it when creating each new page. Consider utilizing background coloring with black and white pictures as described in Goossens', Crain, and Elder (1992) to provide visual organization to the page and facilitate its use for aided language stimulation.

9. Program for growth, by initially placing less on a page for immediate success, but leaving spaces to add vocabulary without having to change the page layout. This may be done by planning for the larger amount of vocabulary, and then selecting the most powerful items with which to begin. In this way, placement and size of individual items will not change as the additional vocabulary is added. Adding vocabulary should be on-going and follow a previously agreed upon plan. Keep a notebook or extra page in the device to jot down additional vocabulary items as needs are discovered in various situations. This additional vocabulary may be then incorporated into the existing structure of pages at a more convenient time.

10. Provide the child with access to the alphabet with a message display for speaking spelled words. This will allow the child to play with sounds and sound combinations that may facilitate emergent literacy skills and generate novel ideas. Don't assume the child is too low to benefit from this type of page. Use this page to model words that are not programmed into the device and allow the child to play with this page along with all the other pages in the device.

11. Consider providing the child with "clue" pages branched from the chat page or master page to help set the context and/or pragmatic intent of a communication. These pages may be linked to sets of vocabulary that go beyond what might be on individual activity pages. For example, "I will tell you who" that branches to a people page, or "something is wrong" that branches to problems page, etc. Make sure that these pages also include vocabulary items that allow the child to talk about category items such as on the people page: where is?, made me mad, got in trouble, is going, is proud of me today, etc.

12. Include pages that allow a child to talk about the daily schedule. These pages may be branched from the master pages or the chat pages and possibly from a button on every page - depending on how important this is to the child. In addition to listing the schedule items, include vocabulary such as before, after, when, not today, this is great, I don't want to, etc. on the same page.

13. Include easily accessible pages that allow a child who demonstrates frequent behavior problems to easily request attention, escape, request for tangibles and sensory needs. Durand (1990). Offer these functions within activity specific pages when possible, for example in math class, "I don't understand, can you please help me with this" - to request attention or "May I get a drink?" to express need for a break.

14. Pages should be printed out and used in a book form with tabs to provide a light-tech system, when the device is not available or when positioning in a specific situation limits the child's independent access. The light-tech boards may be used with partner assistance if access is an issue. The dynamic display device should always be considered to be one aspect of the child's communication system, not the only means by which the child communicates.

15. For the beginning scanner, consider the use of two switch step scanning before teaching automatic scanning. With this method, the device only advances to the next item when the child activates and releases a switch. Once the desired item is highlighted, the child activates a second switch to select it. Even though this strategy requires the use of two switches instead of a single switch it often eliminates the timing factor and allows the child to take active control. Another advantage is that the device waits for the child's attention instead of demanding on-going concentrated attention. This allows for the child to utilize other non-verbal strategies and maintain frequent eye contact with the communication partner.

16. Keep in mind that motivation for use of any of these devices will be increased if the vocabulary lends itself to shared enjoyment with other individuals.


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