2001 Conference Proceedings

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Using COMMUNICATION Symbols to Encourage Language Learning FOR Augmented Communicators

Stephanie Williams, MS CCC-SLP
DynaVox Systems Inc.
Education and Product Application Department


This session will highlight practical tips using visual-graphic communication symbols to encourage language learning for augmented communicators. Techniques to promote functional symbol use, grammatical structure of language, and vocabulary organization will be the focus.


The use of pictoral symbols for expressive and receptive communication is a valuable skill for individuals with severe cognitive and speech disabilities (Stephenson and Linfoot 1996). Symbols are often used on communication displays to promote language learning and functional communication for AAC users. Simply providing an individual with a communication display does not guarantee successful communication in social, educational, and vocational environments. Direct instruction and opportunities to practice communication skills are necessary to build communicative competence in individuals with severe speech and language disabilities (Cottier, Doyle, and Gilworth, 1997).

The techniques used to introduce communication symbols may be a key factor in identifying why some augmented communicators become very successful symbolic communicators while others are very poor symbolic communicators. The actual process of introducing symbols becomes more important when working with individuals who have language disorders in addition to the inability to speak (Carlson, 1997).

In a study conducted by Franklin, Mirenda, and Phillips (1996), five symbol assessment protocols were used with nondisabled preschoolers and learners with severe intellectual disabilities. The study presented a fascinating issue related to AAC intervention. It was stated that many AAC systems incorporate the use of higher order symbol arrays (ex. line drawings), which is one of the most difficult types of symbol arrangements for individuals with intellectual disabilities. Therefore, individuals who are unable to match lower order symbols (ex. objects) to higher order symbols may need additional instructional support during the initial stages of AAC intervention. In addition, picture recognition seems to precede picture use in normal development and there is evidence that, like picture recognition, picture use is a learned skill (Stephenson and Linfoot, 1996).

When introducing symbols to represent words, ideas, grammatical structure, etc. it is necessary to recognize that picture recognition and the use of pictures as symbols are two different, but related, skills. Picture recognition can be demonstrated by the verbal naming of both pictures and objects, selecting a picture and/or object upon hearing the spoken name, or by matching objects and pictures. The use of pictures as symbols is a much more complex skill and requires the individual to use the picture as a referent in various contexts (Stephenson and Linfoot, 1996). The use of pictures as symbols can be demonstrated by activities such as sorting the referent by category, using pictures to share information, or as a guide to performing tasks in everyday environments. These skills are required for efficient use of many AAC systems. Many individuals with severe cognitive and language disabilities who demonstrate the ability to identify and match pictures may have difficulty when required to use the pictures to functionally communicate within everyday environments. This session will demonstrate and discuss practical tips and strategies for introducing symbols for communication and how to use symbols to enhance language skills.

The following tips will be highlighted in this session:

Tip 1: Provide consistency within symbol categories or groups.

When we think of consistency, we often think of providing the same symbol to represent the same item consistently. Consistency may also have an impact on how symbols are organized. When there is consistency within a group or category of symbols, it becomes easier for the augmented communicator to understand newly introduced symbols (Carlson, 1997). For example, if all verbs or action symbols share visual characteristics, then it may be easier for the AAC user to generalize meaning and use. Techniques for promoting consistency within symbol groups will be demonstrated and discussed.

Tip 2: Challenge "developing" language skills.

Choose organizational strategies that are likely to encourage development of expressive and receptive language skills. General display design strategies to consider include environmental or activity based, grammatical category based, and semantic category based. Three organizational strategies commonly used to organize symbol sets and promote language learning will be demonstrated and discussed.

Tip 3: Provide access to a large vocabulary set.

Semantics refers to the meaning or content of words and word combinations. When looking at access to words and symbols, augmented communicators often have little or no say as to which words and symbols are placed on their system. This may severely limit their access to new words. In addition, the AAC user's external vocabulary (i.e., the words on the communication display) may not reflect their internal vocabulary (i.e., the words in their head) (Smith, 1996). The goal of the intervention team is to provide the augmented communicator with new words and the encouragement to explore and use these words. As the individual is exploring new words, it is essential that symbol feedback be provided. For example, when an individual generalizes a word (i.e. calling a cow a dog), correct them verbally, as well as show them the correct word/symbol on the communication display.

Access to words and symbols can be provided through the use of "dictionary pages". Dictionary pages can be arranged categorically and alphabetically. The dictionary pages should be used as a reference set for accessing more vocabulary. For example, to find more "clothing" words, an individual can go to their dictionary page, touch the symbol on their page that represents clothing, and access more words related to that topic. It is important to provide symbols that represent words other than nouns. Provide verbs (ex. wear, buy), adjectives (ex. pretty, dirty) that are related to the topic as well. These symbols will often be abstract in nature and may require teaching in functional settings.

Many professionals may find that dictionary pages are a good place for young children to explore new vocabulary. For more experienced AAC users, words that may not be on their immediate communication pages can be accessed through the dictionary pages. Many of the user environments (ex. Child, Teen, Sample) in DynaVox System Software supply dictionary pages that are already programmed and ready for immediate use.

Involving the AAC user to the fullest extent possible when completing a vocabulary gathering task for page creation is another powerful way to introduce new words. This can be integrated into everyday educational and therapy activities. When looking for words and messages to include on a communication page, allow the AAC user to choose words or symbols that will be placed on their page. For example, if making a page for "places to go" present all options (ex. symbol finder on device, books, magazines, picture cards, etc.) and allow the individual to choose the symbols that are most relevant to them. This provides an excellent opportunity to teach new words and symbols.

Tip 4: Provide access to symbols representing grammatical components

In order to achieve "complete symbolic language" symbols must be modified to create plurals, different tenses, and other grammatical components (Carlson, 1997). Morphology refers to the rules for building and modifying the meaning of words. In normal language development, morphemes begin to be used by young children around age 2 (Brown, 1972). Research shows that AAC users often do not have the symbols necessary to indicate morphological changes or have not learned the rules of morphology with adequate opportunities to practice. In addition, augmented communicators may not use proper word forms because they choose efficiency over accuracy (Beukelman and Mirenda, 1998).

There are several low and high tech methods for providing access to different grammatical word forms. For example, many high-end voice output AAC devices allow individuals to have access to grammatical morphemes and the ability to change word forms. By providing these tools and providing functional instruction, augmented communicators can be well on their way to expanding their language. By approaching morphemes as "word changers," young children can begin to explore how words can change meaning and form. It is necessary to provide modeling in functional situations. For example, give a child access to the morphological command button Plural Noun during snacktime to request more than one (ex. change "cookie" to "cookies").

Tip 5: Promote sentence building using single word vocabularies.

A critical consideration in choosing how to display symbols on an AAC display is the potential of the design to promote language learning. The flexibility by which single words and symbols can be combined encourages the AAC user to generate novel language. All AAC users, regardless of chronological or developmental age characteristics, will benefit from a communication system or display that allows for novel language generation. For individuals just beginning to develop some literacy skills, it may be beneficial to have the symbol and text presented, while a literate AAC user may choose to only have the text label presented. Single word vocabulary should be organized on an AAC system so that he/she can easily find and combine items to communicate effectively. Page sets with single word vocabularies will be demonstrated.

* Although DynaVox System Software will be used for demonstration purposes, many of the ideas and techniques will be applicable to many AAC devices and software.


Beukelman, K. & Mirenda P. (1998). Augmentative and Alternative Communication: Management of Severe Communication Disorders in Children and Adults. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Brown, R. & Hanlon, C. (1970). Derivational complexity and order of acquisition. In Owens, R. Language Development: An Introduction (1992). Macmillan Publishing Company.

Carlson, F. (1997). Creating Communication Displays. Poppin and Company.

Franklin, K. Mirenda, P. and Phillips, G. (1996) Comparisons of Five Symbol Assessment Protocols with Nondisabled Preschoolers and Learners with Severe Intellectual Disabilities. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 2, 63-77.

Light, J. (1989). Encoding techniques for augmentative communication systems: An investigation of the recall performance of nonspeaking physically disabled adults. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. in Beukelman, K. & Mirenda P. (1998). Augmentative and Alternative Communication: Management of Severe Communication Disorders in Children and Adults. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Stephenson, J. and Linfoot, K. (1996). Pictures as Communication Symbols for Students with Severe Intellectual Disability. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 4, 244-255

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