Tele-Collaboration in Speech and Hearing Sciences: Augmentative and Alternative Communication

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Selecting Symbols

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Selecting Symbols

Introduction to Symbol Selection

Sometimes it seems in AAC that there are very few types of symbols from which to choose. This is because there are certain sets of symbols that are used more frequently, for example line drawings and photographs. But actually there is a vast array of symbols that are possible and you should learn about all of them. We have outlined them for you here, and pointed you to different examples of each type.

We will begin with a look at "Aided" symbols, those that require something external to the body to represent meaning, for example a book, board, or device. Then we will discuss "unaided" symbols, those that use only movements or sounds from the human body to represent meaning (e.g. signing, speech, etc.)

"Aided" Symbols:
( "Aided" means there is a book, board, device)

1. Flat Symbols (2-dimensional):

a) Photographs: You can take your own or buy some. Imaginart sells some sets of photographs, some of which you can view at their web-site: Imaginart Symbols:

b) Simple line-drawings:

1) Picture Communication Symbols (PCS) and Boardmaker Software from Mayer-Johnson, Inc. These may be the best known symbols but as you will see later, you have to use the symbols selectively as with any set.

2) Picsyms & DynaSyms from DynaVox Systems, Inc. These symbols are very similar to PCS symbols in many ways. Some concepts are clearer, some less clear. Note that these are now available for Boardmaker Software.

3) Imaginart Symbols: Check out these bright and colorful symbols. As with all sets, some symbols are clear and some are not. To view some Imaginart symbols, go to the Imaginart website and browse the AAC materials in their catalog.

4) Makaton Vocabulary: some of these are based on line-drawings of manual (British Sign Language) signs, which are difficult to depict. Check out these Sample Makaton Symbols on the Makaton website.

5) Rebus: Some examples of Rebus symbols are just below. You will see that some of them are easy to recognize ("transparent") and others are more abstract and must be learned.

a column of black & white symbols for mealtime, t.v. no, etc.

6) Pictograms: These are white symbols on a black background, useful for some individuals with visual impairments.

small white on black symbols  of face, wagon, arrow.

Note: PECS (or Picture Exchange Communication System) is not a set of specific symbols, though some people talk about them that way. PECS is instead a strategy of communication that involves picking up a symbol and handing to the partner, instead of pointing to a symbol or pressing a symbol on a device for voice output. Any of the aided symbols discussed above can be used with this strategy.

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c) Complex line-drawings:
The symbol systems shown here are much more complex than the ones discussed above, but NOT because the symbols themselves are complex. The SYSTEM of symbols is complex because the symbols can be combined according to particular rules to create novel utterances. We discuss these systems in greater depth in the section on vocabulary selection for "Context-Dependent Communicators". Here is a brief overview.

1) Blissymbolics: This is a very large symbol set that is generative in that it permits individuals to create novel utterances. Visit Blissymbolics Communication International and scroll down on that first page in order to view some examples of this interesting system.

2) Unity Vocabulary with Minspeak symbols: This generative vocabulary is available for some devices from Prentke-Romich, Inc. Visit this site on the web: for some excellent explanations of the symbols and their use. Check out this Sample Minspeak Symbol. The image is unfortunately somewhat dark, but you can see some of the symbols. Note that they are intentionally abstract symbols so that they can be used with to represent a wide-variety of concepts.

Minspeak overlay with 128 tiny, complex symbols

Learn more about the theory behind Minspeak through Minspeak University, an online training center.

3) Gateway with DynaSyms symbols: Joan Bruno has developed this vocabulary set for DynaVox Systems.

4) Orthographic symbols: These are spelling boards or word boards, for example:

Photo of a communication book .................Photo of one page of a communication book showing printed words that are unclear


2. Tangible (3-Dimensional) symbols:

These are symbols that use objects or textures that you can hold in your hand and/or feel.

a) Tangible symbols with the simplest representations:

1) Real objects: For example, using a cup for "drink" 

Small, red tea cup

2) Miniature objects: For example, using a doll's bottle to represent "bottle"

Doll's bottle

3) Partial objects: For example, using the wrapper of a candy bar to represent "candy"

Wrapper from candy bar

b) Tangible symbols with abstract representations:

1) Braille: Of course the best known tactual symbols system is Braille, a system of touch reading using raised dots. The user has to have sufficient fine motor control at the fingers to discriminate both the number and arrangements of dots.

2) Tactual Blissymbols: The Blissymbols that you saw earlier can also be represented in tactual or "raised" format, so that an individual with visual impairments could feel them on a communication board. Imagine running your fingers across these symbols: Sample Bliss Symbols. As for Braille, this requires excellent fine motor control and sensory discrimination at the fingers.
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Unaided Symbols

"Unaided" means the communication system does not require a book, board or device

a) Unaided systems with the simplest representations:

1) Gestural Codes: These are formalized gestural codes as distinct from non-symbolic gestures. They are different from sign languages as they are not a true language, e.g. Amer-Ind, which is based on the limited sign language used between North American Indian Tribes in the 1800's.

2) Vocalizations (e.g. rising intonation for questions, etc.).

b) Unaided systems with abstract representations:

1) American Sign Language/ASL (true language): ASL is a true language because it is used by native "speakers" from birth and has all the complexity of any spoken language (e.g. vocabulary, grammar, etc.) ASL is also used by Deaf-Blind individuals who position their hand to obtain tactile feedback when the partner is signing.

Check out the ASL dictionary at Sign Language Dictionary Online. This web-site is a great way to find a particular sign and see it produced through quick time movies.

2) Fingerspelling: Check out this Online Fingerspelling Dictionary that has a quiz to help you learn it! Just as for ASL above, Deaf-Blind individuals use the same system, positioning their hands in a similar manner.

3) Sign Systems (not true languages): These are not true languages but are visual representations of spoken languages. e.g. Sign English, Signed English, Signed Exact English I and II, Key-Word Signing. See further information at the SEE Center.

This is an overview of many (though not all) symbol types. Of course, not all these symbol types are appropriate for all potential AAC users and, even more significantly, the symbols in each set are not uniform in complexity or clarity. Be sure you evaluate EACH and EVERY symbol for appropriateness and clarity for the particular individual you have in mind..


Blackstone, S. "Vocabulary Selection: Current Practices and a Glimpse at the Future" Augmentative Communication News, Vol 1, No. 5 (1988)

Rowland, C., & Schweigert, P. (1996)."Tangible Symbol Systems" San Antonio TX: The Psychological Corporation

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University of Washington, Dept. of Speech & Hearing Sciences, Tele-Collaboration Project. 1999-2002, UW-SPHSC, including all photographs and images unless otherwise noted. Comments: URL: