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Using NON-CUSTOMIZED Vocabulary
for Context-Dependent Communication
Many teams rely primarily on vocabulary that they obtain from other resources,
which we will call NON-CUSTOMIZED vocabulary. Ideally, these words and
phrases would be enhanced with custom vocabulary to make it powerful and
personal to the user. The 14 techniques for identifying custom vocabulary
were just described in Strategies for
CUSTOMIZING Vocabulary. In this section, we will cover 7 additional
methods, all of which use vocabulary from other sources.
Strategy #15: Large Commercial Vocabularies:
There are several commercial vocabularies that can provide a large set
of single words and small phrases, allowing users to combine words into
sentences. In this section, we will describe 3 representative systems:
1) Blissymbolics, 2) Minspeak/Unity and 3) Gateway Language and Learning.
There are a number of other vocabulary sets that come as symbol sets or
as pre-programmed vocabulary for devices. After you read through these
descriptions, you should be able to evaluate these other systems, at least
According to proponents, this system is based on 120 key symbols
that can be combined in a variety of ways to produce nearly any message.
The standard vocabulary of composite symbols is approximately 2400
symbols or symbol combinations. Here is an example of Blissymbols:
Symbols can have a single meaning:
"animal" = or "feeling"
Or symbols can be combined to form a new meaning:
"pet" = "animal
Considerations with Blissymbolics:
a) Acquisition of Bliss takes considerable time and training, as
with every other complex system
b) It is difficult to represent "fringe" vocabulary for
an individual that is consistent with the Bliss system. For example,
how would you choose to represent the expression "password"
using Bliss? If caregivers and teachers become highly versed in Bliss,
they can design consistent symbols but this takes considerable time
c) The way in which Bliss symbols can be combined allows it to represent
a very wide range of concepts and it is consistent with the processes
for reading and writing.
The Unity 32 system is based on Minspeak symbols and available only
on Prentke Romich devices. This very sophisticated vocabulary system
has approximately 2100 words and phrases (and word endings, too) that
can be retrieved by 2- or 3-symbol codes. Minspeak is discussed here
only in relation to context-dependent communicators, individuals who
depend upon us for vocabulary. (It has many additional advantages
for independent communicators that will be discussed in Selection
Strategies for Independent Communicators.)
Here is a photo of a Pathfinder voice output device showing the relatively
abstract Minspeak symbols. They were selected carefully to relate
to multiple concepts simultaneously, such as the sign for medicine/health/doctors/hospital,
and the "sun" for yellow/warm/dry/happy etc.
(click image to enlarge)
Prentke Romich, Inc.
Considerations with Minspeak:
a) PRC acknowledges that many symbols are not transparent and must
be taught to the individual.
b) There is some evidence that a static (or unchanging) selection
set speeds up communication.
c) It is still necessary to customize the vocabulary to make it powerful
to the individual. This is often neglected in the push to teach the
Minspeak system. But everyone needs to have access to the names of
people, places and things that are particularly important to them.
d) Initial training with Unity may still seem daunting to some teams,
but Prentke Romich has addressed this with the BUILLD training series,
including online courses via the PRC
3) Gateway Language & Learning (DynaVox
This vocabulary is available only on devices from DynaVox Systems.
This summary will be for the Gateway54 system only and will not include
features available for speed enhancement (as will be discussed in
Selection Strategies for Independent
Gateway 54 provides a core vocabulary appropriate for an individual
who understands language at about the 4-year level. Approximately
30% of the vocabulary is single words (e.g. "swim, drink, house).
The user can take these 750 "root" words and add word endings
and tense markers (e.g. -ing, -ed) to produce more than 250 additional
words (e.g. "swimming", "drank", "houses").
The vocabulary includes words for academic activities (e.g. math,
literacy, etc.) as well as social and recreational vocabulary. According
to the manufacturer, most words can be selected with one- to two-key
Considerations about Gateway:
a) Not all DynaSyms symbols are transparent, particularly functor words
(e.g. the, and, a...).
b) Sentence construction with dynamic displays can be very slow when
the vocabulary is large because the user has to change screens many
times to locate words. Gateway is organized to try to reduce that problem,
but the impact on the individual user remains to be seen.
c) Regular, intensive training is still essential for the individual
to be successful with this system. It is erroneous to believe that this
vocabulary makes success quick and easy.
d) It is still necessary to customize vocabulary for the individual's
personal needs (e.g. friends names, activities, places of interest etc.)
Gateway makes it easy to customize vocabulary for the individual, to
make the device powerful and relevant to the particular AAC user.
Strategy #16: Small Commercial Vocabularies
Many manufacturers provide some task-specific sets of vocabulary. These
are limited to one or two topics and they prove useful for an AAC user
only if they supplement other vocabulary. A few examples include:
Playing Dynamically by Mayer-Johnson,
Laminated Communication Displays from Beyond
Nursery rhyme displays by AAC
Overlays for Intellikeys by Linda
Strategy #17: Public Domain Vocabulary
(from the Internet)
There are a growing number of websites devoted to sharing vocabulary
sets for particular devices or computer software. Typically, these sets
are customized for the individual, so your team would have to edit the
vocabulary carefully for the AAC user you serve. Here are just a few
examples of sites that permit this sharing via the WWW:
Page Sharing Center at DynaVox
Intellitools Activity Exchange at Intellitools
The Barkley Augmentative
and Alternative Communication Center website has vocabulary for
different activity centers for pre-school children and different topics
for older youths and adults. You can take these ideas and apply them
to any system you use.
Strategy #18: Words and Phrases from
other AAC Users
There are many resources with lists of words and phrases that other
AAC users have elected to have on their systems. When you locate a list
that is relevant to a given AAC user, you should show it to the user
or family/caregivers and have them select high priority items to add
to the current vocabulary.
The Barkley Augmentative
and Alternative Communication Center website is the very best resource
for this information. Select "Vocabulary" from the left menu
bar. Scroll down until you get to "AAC user" where you can
select the age group that interests you.
You might also consider these excellent resources:
* For pre-schoolers: Fried-Oken
& More (1992); Fristoe & Lloyd (1997); Lahey
& Bloom (1977)
* For school-age children: Marvin,
Beukelman & Bilyeu (1994)
* For academically mainstreamed students for writing: McGinnis
& Beukelman (1989)
* For AAC users in general: Yorkston,
Smith & Beukelman (1990); Yorkston,
Dowden, Honsinger, Marriner, Smith (1988); Yorkston,
Fried-Oken & Beukelman (1988)
* For adults: King, Spoeneman,
Stuart & Beukelman, (1995); Beukelman,
Yorkston, Poblete & Naranjo (1984); Beukelman
& Mirenda (1998, p. 34); Collier
Strategy #19: Words and Phrases
The very best resource for vocabulary used by speakers of English is,
again, the website for the Barkley
Augmentative and Alternative Communication Center. Click on this
link and then select "Vocabulary" from the left menu bar (it
may require scrolling down). You should be able to find the following
- 20-30 Year-Old Adult Vocabulary
- Core Vocabulary-Older Adults
- Preschool Non-Disabled Children Vocabulary
When you find a relevant list, you can show it to the AAC user and/or
family and caregivers and have them select high priority vocabulary
for inclusion in a the AAC system.
Also check out the following excellent resources through the reference
* For toddlers: Fenson et al
* For preschoolers: Beukelman,
Jones and Rowan (1989); Goossens',
Crain & Elder (1991;1992).
Strategy #20: Control Phrases from other
Control phrases are phrases or full utterances that help the AAC user
control some aspect of the interaction with communication partners.
Typically, these phrases have to be said quickly and completely to be
Phrases may be used to:
* Initiate conversation: "Wait up. Can you
talk a second?"
* Control the communication partner: "Please
don't interrupt me."
* Control the partner's use of the communication system:
"Please guess words to speed up our conversation."
* Repair breakdowns: "This is very important.
Please be patient."
* Ask for assistance: "Please put my brakes
* Expand his vocabulary: "I need a new word
on my board. It sounds like ___"
* Control interactions with peers: "Yo. What's
There is a great list of these control phrases at the website for the
the Barkley Augmentative
and Alternative Communication Center. After you select "Vocabulary"
from the left menu bar, scroll down until you get to "Context Specific
Strategy #21: Small Talk Phrases from
other AAC Users
Small Talk is the type of conversation that we engage in at cocktail
parties or in elevators, vocabulary for initiating and maintaining social
interactions. This type of communication may seem trivial, but according
to Beukelman & Mirenda (1998) small talk is actually an essential
bridge between greetings and information-sharing, particularly when
the partners are somewhat unfamiliar.
The Barkley Augmentative
and Alternative Communication Center has the only lists of small
talk vocabulary that we have seen. Use these lists as you would any
other vocabulary list; find the most relevant list and ask the AAC user
or the partners to select the highest priority phrases.
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