“Communication is when one person shares something the other person did not know they were thinking.”
​-Erin Sheldon


What is symbol-based communication? ​

Symbol based communication is the “alternative” in augmentative and alternative communication (AAC). Taking a closer look at the elements of ACC allows us to see where symbol-based communication fits within this context:

  • Augment means to add to or to enhance. Almost all speakers and non-speakers alike augment speech by using eye pointing, vocalizations, gestures and body language.
  • Alternative means replacement or substitute. An alternative to speech includes pointing or gazing to symbols, signing or spelling.
  • Communication means to send and receive messages with at least one other person.

Symbol-based communication is often used by persons who are unable to communicate using speech alone and who have not yet developed, or have difficulty developing literacy skills. Symbols offer a visual representation of a word or idea.

“The immediate goal is NOT for students to use all of the symbols we’ve introduced functionally in their own communication but for them to interact with others who are modelling symbol-based approaches to communication.” – Karen Erickson

Which students would benefit from symbol-based communication?

Students whose speech is:
  • slow to develop
  • difficult to understand (as a back up)
  • very limited or non-existent

How can students benefit from symbol-based communication? ​

Students who are provided genuine and meaningful opportunities to communicate using a symbol-based system across learning and living environments benefit in a multitude of ways including:
  • develop language skills
  • develop literacy skills
  • have more to say to more people
  • build relationships and connectedness and belonging
  • decrease frustration/behaviours
  • develop a better understanding of the world around them
  • make personally meaningful requests, choices and decisions
  • increase participation across environments
  • build creativity and self-expression

Examples of symbol-based communication:

core-fringeCommunication boards make language visible and accessible. Core vocabulary is intended to be used across all environments and levels of language competence.

low tech flip bookA flip book is a communication book with tabs for easy navigation. Vocabulary is arranged by categories, which are indicated on the tabs.

How to make a low-tech basic flip book:

open-door-clipart-7112showingEye-gaze (also known as eye-pointing) is the act of using one’s eyes to direct or redirect the attention of another person. Effective eye-gaze requires participation of both the student and the communication partner. The student fixes their gaze in the direction of the intended message. For example, if a student wants to go outside, they may set their gaze on the door.


An e-tran, or an eye gaze communication board, is a vertically held/mounted board, made of plexiglass or sturdy paper with a window cut in the middle, that enables students to communicate by focusing their gaze on selected items displayed on the board. Items can be displayed in any configuration and can be encoded to provide more choices on each board.

Pragmatic_Eye_Gaze_BookA pragmatic eye gaze book…

ipadipad direct select user

How can we teach symbol-based communication? ​

If we expect learners to speak using symbols, we must speak using symbols. Aided Language Stimulation or Aided Language Input is a research-based strategy for teaching symbol based communication. Essentially, communication partners model or demonstrate symbol-based communication when talking with students who are learning to use symbol-based communication.

We need to provide a well-organized set of symbols in order to demonstrate how they are used to comment, ask questions, make requests, joke, greet, protest and so on at home, school and in the community.  Using the same well-organized set of symbols flexibly in all environments supports communication development and language learning over time. 

Following are a few points to keep in mind when modeling symbol-based communication:

  • As communication partners we model, we don’t prompt the students to point or touch the picture symbols to communicate. It is about what WE do, not about what the student does.
  • Use the student’s own AAC system to model.
  • Provide models of multiple communicative functions(not just directives) and purposes such as:
    • Sharing information: “I heard you went to see Spider Man on the weekend”
    • Making comments: “That’s awesome!”
    • Asking questions: “What is your favourite colour?”
    • Greeting: “Hi! I’m happy to see you today!”
    • Requesting: “I want the red ball.” “I need help.”
    • Protesting/Refusing: “I don’t like that.” “All done.” “Stop!”

  • When a student communicates something, by looking at an object or making a noise, show them how they could “say it‟ on their AAC system.
  • Read and match the student’s non-verbal signals with pictures. Look for what the student communicates with body language and gestures and match those with symbols. For example, student puts head down on the table. Adult points at tired symbol and says, “You look tired.”
  • Point out the main words that you say on the AAC system.
  • Whenever the student uses their AAC system, model their message back in a slightly longer form. For example, when the student points to book on their AAC system, point out want book as you say, “You want a book‟. Then you point out get book as you say, “OK. I’ll get you a book‟.
  • Model only a few more words per utterance than the student is using – this way the model is not too hard for the student to copy.

What is core vocabulary?

85% of our English spoken language is comprised of 250-350 words.  Core vocabulary is a relatively small set of words that have been determined to be highly useful for communicating in both social and academic contexts. It is primarily composed of pronouns, verbs, descriptors, and prepositions. There are very few nouns.

The DLM Core Vocabulary Project was initiated to determine the vocabulary that is necessary for students with significant cognitive disabilities to engage, learn, and demonstrate knowledge in an academic environment. Instead of identifying every possible word, the goal was to identify and prioritize the smallest set of required words.



Where can I learn more? ​

Aided Language Videos 

Dynamic Learning Maps (DLM) – Beginning Communicators
This module describes symbolic and non-symbolic forms of communication, the distinction between pre-intentional and pre-symbolic communicators, and identifies additional sources of support for building communication skills.
Online Self-directed Module
Facilitated Module Materials for Groups

Dynamic Learning Maps (DLM) – Core Vocabulary
Core Vocabulary is a list of words that have been determined to be highly useful for communicating in both social and academic contexts. https://www.med.unc.edu/ahs/clds/resources/core-vocabulary

Dynamic Learning Maps (DLM) – Core Vocabulary and Communication
This module focuses on the use of core vocabulary as a support for communication for students who cannot use speech to meet their face-to-face communication needs and require augmentative and alternative communication.
Online Self-directed Module
Facilitated Module Materials for Groups

Dynamic Learning Maps (DLM) – Speaking and Listening
This module addresses speaking and listening in the broader context of expressive and receptive communication for students with significant cognitive disabilities. The content in this module is important to understand the DLM Essential Elements in Speaking and Listening and across all of the strands of Essential Elements in English language arts.
Online Self-directed Module
Facilitated Module Materials for Groups

Dynamic Learning Maps (DLM) – Supporting Participating in Discussion
Participants will review the goals of supporting participation in discussion and the need of an expressive means of communication for all students. Participants will also be given 5 strategies to use in supporting students during discussions with teachers and peers.
Online Self-directed Module
Facilitated Module Materials for Groups

Dynamic Learning Maps (DLM) – Symbols
This self-directed module provides an overview of symbols to support communication and interaction. It also describes the use of symbols and photographs in text.
Online Self-directed Module
Facilitated Module Materials for Groups

Language_Stealers_1The Language Stealers (video 2:52 min)
Language Stealers reveals the real barriers to communication for learners with speech and motor impairments as being no access to language and literacy.


noun townNoun Town
This short presentation shares the importance of using high frequency words, instead of living in ‘Noun Town.’



Pragmatic Organization Dynamic Display communication books were developed in Australia by Gayle Porter, originally for children with cerebral palsy. Their structured organization and emphasis on visual communication means that they are also a valuable tool for developing the communication of those with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) (Porter & Cafiero, 2009).