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" means there is a book, board, device)
1. Flat Symbols (2-dimensional):
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
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.
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.
These are white symbols on a black background, useful for some individuals
with visual impairments.
(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.
c) Complex line-drawings:
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.
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
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
Learn more about the theory behind Minspeak
University, an online training center.
3) Gateway with DynaSyms symbols:
Joan Bruno has developed this vocabulary set for DynaVox
4) Orthographic symbols:
These are spelling boards or word boards,
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"
2) Miniature objects:
For example, using a doll's bottle to represent "bottle"
3) Partial objects:
For example, using the wrapper of a candy bar to represent "candy"
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
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.
means the communication system does not require a book, board or device
a) Unaided systems with the simplest representations:
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.
rising intonation for questions, etc.).
b) Unaided systems with abstract representations:
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.
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
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
University of Washington,
Dept. of Speech & Hearing Sciences, Tele-Collaboration Project. ©
1999-2002, UW-SPHSC, including all photographs and images unless otherwise
noted. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org. URL: http://depts.washington.edu/augcomm