Tangible Symbol Systems: Making the Right to Communicate a Reality for Individuals with Severe Disabilities

About the Authors

Photo of Charity Rowland and Philip SchweigertCharity Rowland and Philip Schweigert are associated with Design to Learn Projects of the Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, Oregon. They have conducted extensive research and demonstration projects on the development of communication and cognitive skills in individuals with severe disabilities. Widely published, they have developed, researched and applied pre-symbolic communication strategies and Tangible Symbol Systems™ with many children and adults who have severe communication disorders.

Reproducing pages from this book
Many of the pages in this book may be reproduced for instructional or administrative use (not for resale). Look for the permission statement at the bottom of these pages.

© 2000 by Charity Rowland and Philip Schweigert
All rights reserved. Permission is granted for the user to photocopy and to make duplicating masters of those pages so indicated in limited form for instructional or administrative use only. No other parts of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photography and recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the copyright holders.

This work is dedicated to the memory of Betty Brummett.

Thanks to the educational staff, students and families who participated in the research that formed the basis for this book.

Preparation of this book was supported in part by U.S. Department of Education grant #GOO8530113 to the Teaching Research Division of the Oregon Department of Higher Education and by U.S. Department of Education grant #H180E30056 to Washington State University.

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"After seeing how he does use the symbols, and understands them, it's really made me think of him in a different light, you know like, wow! " (Mom) " We won't sell him short any more!" (Dad) – Parents of Lewis

Image of the Tangible Symbol Systems ManualTangible Symbol Systems™ is available for purchase in coil-bound hard copy through our web site: www.designtolearn.com

A 75-minute videotape/DVD on Tangible Symbol Systems™ is also available. It illustrates the instructional process and presents detailed case studies of five children, showing how they learned to use tangible symbols.

These products are part of a larger package of assessment and instructional materials. You'll find the Learning to Learn Package on our web site by clicking on "Our Products".

Training opportunities related to Tangible Symbol Systems™ are available through our projects. Go to the "Training" section of our web site.


Our Purpose

Tangible Symbol Systems ™ is not just a mode of communication, but a systematic instructional sequence. In this book, we discuss the use of tangible symbols for communication throughout the day. This book was designed to accompany a 75-minute videotape entitled Tangible Symbol Systems™ (Rowland & Schweigert, 1996). We strongly encourage you to view the videotape before reading the book. The videotape provides many illustrations of individuals using tangible symbols and also provides case studies showing how five children learned to use tangible symbols. The book summarizes the techniques illustrated in the videotape and provides additional background and technical information as well as data forms to assist in the implementation of these techniques. Occasionally the book refers the reader to specific scenes from the videotape. Videotape reference icon: This is a black and white picture of a video tape containing the words, 'Tangible Symbol Systems.'These references will be flagged by this symbol. The Appendix includes a table of contents for the videotape to help you find the sections that are referenced.

Target audience

These products are designed for teachers, speech-language pathologists, other clinicians, and family members who are working to encourage communication skills in nonspeaking individuals with severe or multiple disabilities.

Target population

The techniques described in this book may be appropriate for nonspeaking individuals of all ages — including youngsters at home, children and youth at school and adults at work and home. People who might benefit from using tangible symbols are individuals who lack the skills to communicate clearly using speech or other abstract symbol systems such as sign language. Potential candidates would include individuals with severe mental retardation, autism spectrum disorders, severe sensory impairments (including deafblindness), severe developmental disabilities, orthopedic impairments, or a combination of these disabilities.

By Way of Introduction

Research on the development of communication in infants without disabilities has shown that parents and infants communicate with each other soon after the infant is born. This knowledge has helped us to understand that speech is not the only way to communicate and that we can teach individuals with severe communication disorders to communicate using a variety of other means.

Development of presymbolic and symbolic communication

It is now widely assumed that a generic ability to communicate, realized initially through presymbolic communication, is the basis for later language acquisition. Children without disabilities go through a period of communicating using gestures and vocalizations before they learn to use spoken words. Gestures may be used to make reference to physically and temporally present topics— referents that may be pointed to, looked at, or touched. For instance, we may point to or touch the food that we want to eat if it is physically present. Although this presymbolic communication can be extremely effective, it limits the communicator to the "here and now". How do we communicate that we want a drink if there is no cup or drinking fountain close by that we can point to or touch? How do we talk about what happened yesterday? Symbolic communication allows us to refer to physically and temporally distant entities. Symbols, in other words, can be used to refer to objects and events outside the bounds of the immediate context. Typically, children begin using abstract symbols in the form of spoken words in their first year.

The ability to use presymbolic communica;tion is not necessarily a sufficient basis for the acquisition of abstract symbolic communication for some individuals who have severe disabilities (Rowland & Schweigert, 1989, 1998, 2000; Wilcox & Shannon, 1998). Many individuals with severe disabilities who learn to communicate through gestures are not able to make the leap to communication using abstract symbols such as spoken words or manual signs (McLean, Brady & McLean, 1996; Rowland & Stremel-Campbell, 1987). These individuals seem to stumble over the concept of a one-to-one correspondence between an arbitrary sound (a spoken word) or motion (a manual sign), and its referent. The problem that many individuals have in bridging the gap between gestures and abstract symbols may be affected by cognitive impairments involving memory capacity and representational ability. Other factors that may impair the use of speech or sign language for expressive communication include motor limitations and sensory impairments.

Research on tangible symbols

A number of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) systems have been developed for use with nonspeaking individuals. These are thoroughly reviewed by Beukelman and Mirenda (1998). Increasingly, non-speech symbol systems have been used to enable communication by nonspeaking persons with severe disabilities. However, many of these symbol systems require rather high cognitive skills as well as good visual acuity.

Some years ago we conducted studies on the use of a conceptually concrete symbol system that we called "tangible symbols" (Rowland & Schweigert, 1989, 1990, 1996). Tangible symbols are objects or pictures that bear a concrete relationship to the visual or tactile properties of the entities that they represent—that is, they look like or feel like those entities. They are three-dimensional symbols (objects) and two-dimensional symbols (photographs and line drawings). The use of objects as symbols was not an entirely new idea when we began this research: it seems to have been an outgrowth of Van Dijk's work with individuals who are deafblind (1966, 1967), which in turn was based on the theories of Werner & Kaplan (1963). More recently, a number of authors have addressed the use of "objects of reference" (Bloom, 1990; Ockelford, 1992; Park, 1995 & 1997), most frequently within the context of "activity boxes", "anticipation shelves" or "calendar systems" (Joffee & Rikhye, 1991; Stillman & Battle, 1984; Ulmholtz & Rudin, 1981), and often targeting individuals who are deafblind (Engleman, Griffin & Wheeler, 1998). Picture symbols (line drawings and photographs) are more commonly used for both expressive and receptive communication (Bondy & Frost, 1994; Heller, Allgood, Ware & Castelle, 1996; Johnson, 1994; Schwartz, Garfinkle & Bauer, 1998), often in conjunction with voice-output devices (Heller, Alberto & Bowdin, 1995; Stephenson & Linfoot, 1996a and b).

Our initial research (Rowland & Schweigert, 1989) showed that tangible symbols were extremely useful for nonspeaking individuals who are deafblind. Our most recent research (Rowland & Schweigert, 2000) has shown that they are also useful for individuals with a broader range of disabilities. People who have benefitted from using tangible symbols include individuals of all ages who have the following disabilities: severe mental retardation; developmental disabilities; autism or pervasive developmental disorders; severe vision impairment; severe orthopedic impairment; multiple disabilities; and deafblindness. We have also demonstrated that tangible symbols may serve as a bridge to other symbol systems, including abstract symbol systems (such as speech or manual sign language) and that learning to use tangible symbols does not interfere with the acquisition of speech (Rowland & Schweigert, 2000).

This graphic contains the faces of five people.  The first person, a man, says 'We'll be happy.'  The second person, a woman, says 'to share with you.'  The third person, a boy, says 'some helpful hints.'  The fourth person, a girl, says 'and information.'  The fifth person, a woman, says 'Look for us!'

What Are Tangible Symbols?

Terminology That We Use

SYMBOLS represent, or stand for, people, objects, places, activities or concepts. Unlike gestures, symbols allow a person to refer to entities that are spatially distant (e.g. in another room) or temporally distant (e.g. occurring in the past or future).

REFERENTS are what the symbols stand for or represent.

ABSTRACT SYMBOLS are the symbols that make up languages, such as speech, manual sign language and printed language. Abstract symbols have an arbitrary relationship to referents. That is, there is no obvious relationship between the symbol and the physical properties (auditory, visual, tactile) of the referent. They generally do not look like, sound like or feel like the referent for which they stand. Other types of abstract symbols include printed words, braille and Blissymbols (McNaughton & Kates, 1980).

CONCRETE SYMBOLS are symbols that have an obvious physical relationship to their referents. The symbolic gestures that young children sometimes use, or that adults use when playing charades, may be considered concrete symbols. These gestures are iconic; that is they mimic the shape, movement or sound of the referent. For instance, a child might pat the seat of a chair to tell Mom to sit down (mimicking the desired action), or he might make a kissing sound to ask for a kiss, (mimicking the sound of the referent). Sometimes auditory and gestural symbols are combined; for instance, one child we know would indicate the smoke rising from her father's pipe by making an upward spiraling motion with her hand and accompanying this symbolic gesture with a "whooshing" sound.

Photograph of a boy sitting at a table.  There is an empty glass to his left and he is pushing away a container of liquid.
Gestures limit us to the "here and now."
Photograph of a woman and young boy sitting at a table.  Only the back of the woman's head is visible.  The boy has his arms crossed in front of his chest and is looking down and to his right.
Abstract symbols (such as manual signs) require good representational ability and motor skills.

TANGIBLE SYMBOLS are a subset of Concrete Symbols. They may be either three-dimensional (objects) or two-dimensional (pictures) and they have the following properties:

  • They bear a clear perceptual relationship to a referent (that is, they are iconic), making lower demands on cognitive abilities than do abstract symbols. The relationship between the symbol and the referent is obvious to the individual user, since it is based on the user's own experience.
  • They are permanent, making lower demands on the user's memory than do speech and signs, which must be pulled out of "thin air," utilizing recall memory. Tangible symbols need only be recognized out of a permanent display of symbols, thus utilizing recognition memory, a more basic cognitive skill.
  • They are manipulable. They may be picked up and handed to someone or placed next to a referent. Thus, a literal exchange of information is possible through the communication act.
  • They may be indicated through a simple motor response such as eye pointing, touching or pointing, placing low demands on the user's fine motor abilities.
  • Finally, three-dimensional symbols may be useful for people without sight, since they are tactually discriminable.

Photograph of a woman and boy sitting at a table.  The woman sits on the side to the boy's left.  On the table in front of the boy is a board with Velcro and three objects.  The boy is manipulating the objects with his left hand and has his right hand near his face.  The woman is using her left hand to hold the board to the table and has her right hand, palm up, gesturing.   Photograph of a boy sitting at a table alone with two women and another child in the background.  The boy is manipulating objects on a board that is place on the table.  He is using his right hand and there is also a half-filled glass next to this hand.  His left hand rests on the edge of the table.

In summary, as we use the word "tangible", it embraces two major characteristics. First, the symbols are tangible because there is a history of correspondence between the symbol and its referent that has a perceptual basis for the individual user. Second, the symbols are tangible because they are permanent and can be touched or manipulated. All of the properties listed above make tangible symbols seem an alternative to consider for many individuals who do not appear able or ready to acquire abstract symbols at their current stage of development.

The following table shows where tangible symbols fit into a progression of communication from presymbolic or gestural communication to the use of abstract symbols or language. For some individuals, the use of tangible symbols may help to bridge the gap between gestural communication and the use of formal language systems. For others, tangible symbols may represent an ultimate level of communicative competence.

Picture of a three dimensional object in the shape of a star.   Picture of two adult hands and one hand belonging to a child.  The adult's hands are placing a card containing a picture into the hands of the child.  On the table, underneath the hands, is another card, which contains a picture of a pretzel.



  • Body and limb movements
  • Gestures
  • Vocalizations
Concrete Symbolic
  • Symbolic gestures and vocalizations
  • Tangible symbols:
    • Objects (three-dimensional)
    • Pictures (two-dimensional)
Abstract Symbolic (Language)
  • Speech
  • Sign language
  • Printed language
  • Braille
  • Abstract shapes
  • Abstract graphics

This is a picture of a woman holding a girl in her lap.  The girl and woman are looking at each other and the woman appears to be speaking to the girl.  The girl's hands are forming fists.

Who Needs Tangible Symbols?


This is a picture of a boy sitting in a chair at a table.  His body is turned to the left in the chair.  His head is turned so that he is looking behind the chair.  His right hand is on the table and his left arm is leaning on the back of the chair.  His left hand is up as though he is raising his hand to answer a question, and his mouth is open as though he is speaking.Although we don't believe that there are any prerequisites for communication intervention, we do believe that there is a logical sequence of intervention that builds steadily on current levels of communication. Building on current abilities with clear intervention targets and objectives will bring success more rapidly.

Expressive communication

There are three major indicators that would suggest that a learner might be ready to learn to use tangible symbols for expressive communication:

  1. The individual has intentional fine or gross motor behavior that may be used to indicate a symbol. Examples include picking up a symbol and giving it, pointing, hand guiding, eye pointing, and touching.
  2. The individual understands that he can control the behavior of another person through some presymbolic means, such as pointing, extending objects, tugging, hand guiding, facial expressions or vocalizing. Our research (Rowland & Schweigert, 2000) has shown that individuals who already know how to communicate pre-symbolically will more readily learn how to use tangible symbols. An individual who lacks this understanding is not ready for symbolic communication. For instance, if an individual will not extend an actual cup to you to request more to drink, you would not expect him to extend a symbol for a cup to make the request. If an individual does not use pre-symbolic behaviors intentionally and reliably to convey basic needs and preferences, then you should begin by teaching him to do so.
  3. The individual does not already use abstract symbols to communicate. An individual who can use a higher level of communication with reasonable efficiency should not be asked to use a lower level of communication. The exception to this rule is the case where the environment does not support the individual's use of a higher level of communication. For instance, an individual may be able to use sign language, but other individuals in the community may not understand it. In this case it might be beneficial to teach the individual to use picture symbols, for instance, if you thought that others in the community would respond more readily to pictures. The use of the picture symbols would not replace the individual's use of sign language, but would enable her to communicate with a wider audience.

Photo of a woman and a boy  sitting across from each other at a table.  Neither person's face is fully visible.  There is a milk carton on the table in front of the woman and the boy is holding a mug in his hands, lifting the mug off the table and towards the woman.   Photo of a woman and child sitting across from each other at a rounded table.  The child appears to be in a wheelchair or supportive sitting device.  The teacher is holding two objects, one with each hand.  The child has both hands on the object in the teacher's right hand.

Receptive communication

For receptive communication purposes (as a means to provide information to an individual), you may start using tangible symbols prior to the emergence of intentional pre-symbolic communication skills. Using these symbols receptively increases the likelihood that your communication to the individual will be understood. It also helps to reinforce the association between symbols and referents so that when the individual is ready to use them expressively, the correspondence has already been established.

This is a photograph of a woman and a child.  The child is in an assistive sitting device and has straps that hold is feet and chest to the device.  There is a tray in front of him.  The woman is sitting across from the boy and is holding his left hand in both of her hands.
The teacher announces that it's time to go outside while showing
the student the symbol for that activity.

Woman helpful hints iconAssessing Communication Skills
A useful instrument for assessingthe current communication skillsof potential tangible symbolsusers is the CommunicationMatrix(Rowland,1990,1996).This instrument is structuredaround seven levels of commu-nicative competence coveringpre-intentional behavior throughthe development of language.Itaccommodates all forms of com-munication including gestures,augmentative and alternativecommunication systems and speech.

What's In It For Me


Once you have determined that an individual is ready to learn to use tangible symbols, the next step is to find a highly motivating context in which the learner will want to communicate. If a person has nothing positive to say about an activity and the materials associated with it, it's unlikely that she will want to communicate about it. Since the number of opportunities for use is also of paramount importance when we first introduce symbols, we should look for highly motivating activities that occur frequently and regularly. Such contexts will provide adequate practice in using new symbols. It is unlikely that an individual at this stage will learn to use a symbol for an activity that only occurs once a week. Motivation is also influenced by the communication partner: are you worth talking - to? As we get to know an individual we need to present ourselves as valuable communication partners. Our value is in our ability to read signals and to respond to signals and in our willingness to serve as an agent to accomplish something the individual desires.

Girl helpful hints iconThe Medium of Enjoyment
During a parent workshop we showed many videotaped scenes of children using tangible symbols in the midst of various highly engaging activities. One parent used the phrase “the medium of enjoyment” to describe the use of intrinsically motivating contexts for teaching communication skills.

This is a picture of a woman holding a boy on her lap.  The boy has his eyes closed.  The woman is holding a bubble wand with her right hand and a container of bubbles with her left hand.  She is blowing bubbles through the wand and two bubbles float in front of her left hand.  The boy has his left hand on the bubble wand above the woman's right hand.  His right hand is in his lap.

Conducting preference probes

This is a picture of a boy who has just thrown an object that looks like a stick with a loop on one end towards another object, which is a post coming up from the floor.Unless the learner's preferences are obvious, it is advisable to put a great deal of effort into conducting a preference probe to determine the most motivating activities and materials to use. Present many different choices of materials and activities and gather objective data on the learner's responses to determine which are the favorites. What items does she choose most often? What items does she interact with for the longest periods? If an individual cares more about people than things, introduce different objects with the various interactions she enjoys. The focus continues to be the social interaction, but the object mediates the game and can come to be associated with it. For instance, you could use a hand puppet in a tickling game or a blanket in a game of peek-a-boo. These items may then become symbols for the different social interactions.

Woman helpful hint iconKeeping Things Interesting
Remember that even the most motivating activities or materials may lose appeal after repeated exposure. Be pre-pared for this. Continue to probe for preferences throughout instruction. Then, as enthusiasm for the current materials wanes,you will be prepared to reignite the interaction with newmaterials.

Photo of two girls playing a game.  They are standing across from each other at a table.  On the table between them is the game apparatus.  Behind the game are three large pictures of animals.  The girl on the right has her left hand on the game and her right hand over her eyes while the other girl watches.   Photo of two girls playing a game.  They are standing across from each other at a table.  On the table between them is the game apparatus.  Behind the game are three large pictures of animals. The girl on the right continues to have her right hand on the game, but has uncovered her eyes.  The girl across the table still watches.
Photo of two girls playing a game.  They are standing across from each other at a table.  On the table between them is the game apparatus.  Behind the game are three large pictures of animals. The girl on the left has her right hand on the game and her left hand over her eyes while the other girl watches.    This is a picture of three children and a large container filled with small balls.  One boy sits in the balls with his back to the camera.  A girl is standing in the balls, and another boy is outside of the container of balls, about to come in.

Getting Your Point Across

Indicating Response

The indicating response is the behavior that the learner uses to select a symbol. The indicating response used by an individual depends on the learner's fine motor skills, tactual and visual abilities as well as on the ability to elicit another's attention (if an individual merely selects a symbol without first evoking attention, then the attempt to communicate might be unsuccessful). The most common indicating responses are:

Pointing This is a photograph of a boy sitting at a table.  In front of him is a board that contains two objects.  He is pointing to one object on the board.
Eye Pointing This is a photograph of a boy in a wheelchair and a woman standing in front of him, with one hand on the tray in front of the chair and one hand near the boy's right hand.
Touching This is a photograph of a boy sitting at a desk and a man kneeling, to the boy's left, beside the desk.  The boy is looking down and both of his hands are on a paper on the desk.  The man has his left hand near the paper.
Picking up and giving This is a photograph of a man kneeling behind a desk with a boy standing beside him.  The man is resting his right arm on the desk, and with his left hand he is receiving an object that the boy is placing into it using his right hand.  There is a board on the table with three stripes.
Hand guiding This is a photograph of two people sitting across from each other at a table.  On the table are two cards containing pictures.  The person on the left is placing a third card into the hand of the person on the right.

video reference iconThe indicating response should be one that the learner can make easily and that is clear to communication partners. Responses that are more subtle, like eye pointing, may require that you assess the accuracy and reliability of the behavior. Having defined the behavior precisely (e.g., gazes at symbol for desired item for two seconds, after scanning all symbols in array), you are able to tell other potential communication partners what to look for and what to accept as an indicating response from this communicator. The more people who can "read" the indicating response, the larger the individual's potential audience (see Katie's case study).

Gaining attention

This is a photograph of a boy in a wheelchair and a woman kneeling across from him.  The woman is on the left of the photo and is holding the boy's right hand in her left hand.Communicating effectively requires not only indicating a symbol but also gaining the attention of another person. If you can't gain someone's attention, then you can't initiate a communicative exchange. Our own experience has shown that individuals with AAC systems can be easily overlooked or ignored in certain environments. It is critical that we encourage them to learn a variety of appropriate strategies for gaining attention. Without persistance and a repertoire of acceptable strategies, we might reasonably expect a communicator who is being ignored to resort to less appropriate (perhaps self-injurious) behavior. For those who lack appropriate strategies for gaining attention, or who need some tangible means for any of the symbols or objects that doing so, picking up and giving the symbol to the communication partner is worth considering. This behavior combines symbol indicating with attention gaining. Such a strategy would dictate that the symbols be different choice, one that has more removable from the array. If this is the targeted response, we will often require that the student learn to use tapping, vocalizing or hand guiding to gain attention as well.

Boy helpful hints icon”No Thanks, Try Again”
Sometimes individuals who have previously demonstrated their ability to make choices will not choose any of the symbols or objects that you present to them. You may wonder whether the learner has suddenly forgotten what to do. At this point, consider the possibility that the learner is trying to communicate that he would like to make a different choice, one that has more appeal to him. In other words, this lack of a response may be his way of communicating “No thanks, tryagain”. When you think this may be the case, offer other choices if they are available.

Lots to Talk About


A referent is what a symbol stands for or represents. When we determine the vocabulary that we will teach a learner to use, we are determining the referents for which we will create tangible symbols. In the initial stages of symbol use, the major consideration is to teach symbols for referents that are highly motivating. Many individuals show slower acquisition of symbols for less preferred items or activities as compared to symbols for more highly preferred items. The more reinforcing the referent, the greater is the likelihood that the learner will initiate using the symbol, which is the ultimate goal of communication instruction.

Materials used in activities

This is a picture of two girls who are sitting on the floor, building a box out of large plastic puzzle-like pieces.  The girls each have two hands on the box they are building.  The girl on the left appears to hold the box steady, while the girl on the right puts pieces into place.Any activity, regardless of how boring or mandatory, is likely to contain some materials that the individual can communicate about. Initial instruction is most effective when it revolves around vocabulary for highly preferred materials that are used repeatedly so that sufficient practice is possible. For instance, in snack or meal contexts, potential referents are preferred foods that may be offered in small portions so that the learner has numerous opportunities to request them. Similarly, in a vocational context, logical referents would be the materials that are used repeatedly and that may be presented one at a time or in small quantities. You will find that certain materials or equipment inherently foster communicative exchanges, since they are associated with more social rather than solitary actions: these materials make especially good vocabulary. For object-mediated activities that require the help of another person, the learner may use a symbol to request the specific object,and then use a gesture to ask for "help" or"more"ofthe object. For instance,the individual may use a "swing" symbol to request to use the swing, and then use a gesture to request more pushing when necessary.

Who's In Charge?
Offering someone a choice does not mean that you are relinquishing control to that person. You are teaching interdependence. For example, while grooming is a necessary activity, there's no need to brush your teeth before you wash your face. Even within this obligatory routine one could choose the order of the components. In the end the teeth get brushed, the hair combed and the face washed, but the individual is allowed to practice communication by requesting the items needed to accomplish each task in the order he desires.

This is a photograph of a seated man.  He has his eyes closed and is holding hands with another person.    This is a picture of a man and woman seated across from each other.  They are looking at each other.  The woman is sitting on the right and her left hand is lightly touching the bottom of his right hand.  The man is seated on the left and he appears to be handing something from his left hand to the woman's right hand.


This is a photograph of two girls who are standing at a box filled with sand.  The girl on the right is holding a container and scooping sand into it.  The girl on the left is watching her and laughing.  To the left of the girls another set of hands is also scooping dirt into a cup and a boy's head is leaning over the box.Tangible symbols may also be used to represent the activities that make up the learner's daily schedule. Such symbols are often used receptively (to tell someone what the upcoming activity is), but they may also be used expressively. The user may request the next activity, or may at least use activity symbols to respond to questions about what activity comes next. It is helpful if activities are conducted in separate areas so that the physical location of each activity may serve as an additional cue to aid in the distinction between activities.


It's useful for an individual to be able to indicate that she is finished with an activity or with certain materials used within the activity. A natural opportunity for using a "finished" symbol is when the learner pushes the materials away or tries to stand up to leave the area during the course of an interaction. If departure is permissible at that moment, a symbole for "finished" (a rather abstract concept) may be made available. Eventually a "finished" symbol should be a part of every symbold display. As with any symbol, its use doesn't always require that the request be granted, but it should at least be acknowledged. Similarly, the teacher may use the "finished" symbol to indicate receptively that the activity is over or that it is time to move on to new materials.

This is a photograph of an adolescent boy standing behind a counter in a cafeteria.  He is wearing a white apron and a hat and is placing a plate of food on the counter beside a carton of milk.  On a lower counter beside him are napkins and food.  He is smiling at the camera.   This is a photograph of a boy touching a pad with objects on it.  The pad is in front of the boy and he is touching it with one finger on his left hand.  His eyes are closed and he is squinting with his mouth open.  An adult male sits beside him with his hands clasped, smiling and looking at the boy.  To the right of the adult is a small child sitting at the same table.  Also at the table are two women, one with her back to the camera and the other on the side so that only part of her face can be seen.

Boy helpful hints iconThe “Wild Card”
With some individuals who use calendar systems for time management purposes and who are disturbed by changes in the regular schedule, we have used a “wild card” to stand for something new for which there is no symbol. For instance, if school pictures are to be taken today, we would insert the “wildcard” into the calendar system. Though it doesn't specify exactly what is about to occur, at least the learner knows that something unusual is about to happen.


It's useful for individuals to be able to refer to the important people in their environment. We often use items of personal identification such as jewelry or a watch band to identify a particular person. One learner used a tube of distinctively scented lip balm as a symbol for a teacher who wore it regularly.

Putting It Another Way

Levels of Representation

This is a photograph of a mug surrounded by four cards.  The first card contains a raised letter 'C.'  The other three cards contain pictures of mugs that look similar to the actual mug.  Inside the mug is a straw and another card with a straw taped to it.There are many options in terms of the type of tangible symbol we decide to use. Different types of symbols reflect different relationships between symbol and referent or "levels of representation." Tangible symbols should be constructed for each user, capitalizing on the features of the referents that are most meaningful to that individual. If the symbol does not have a connection to the referent that is clear to the user, then it is not tangible to him. Below, we describe the major types of tangible symbols.

Three-dimensional symbols

Three-dimensional symbols may be identical objects, parts of objects or associated objects. Suppose you're deciding how to make a three-dimensional symbol for a particular toy that a child really likes. Pay attention to how the child plays with it. What does he focus on? Does he hold the toy by the handle? Does he pull the string or push down on the lever to activate it? Or is he focused on the red arrow that spins? By making a symbol that is similar to the features of the toy that the child focuses on, you create a symbol that is immediately meaningful to him. For instance, a piece of a pull string with a plastic ring on the end might be a good symbol for that toy if that's the part the child acts on. David, who was deafblind, loved to take walks, but didn't have a symbol for "walk." His walking partner first used a cane tip for a "walk"symbol,but it didn't register with David because he never touched that part of the cane. A cane handle, however, made a good symbol, since it was a familiar part of the cane for David.

This is a photograph of two people walking out of a door.  They both have their backs to the camera.  The person in the front is opening the door.  The person behind is following the first person and is holding a cane.

Girl helpful hints iconCustom Made
Tangible symbols are generally not pre-made and marketed, but are custom-made. If you used ready-made symbols, you'd have to assume that the symbols represented something motivating to any user, and also that the relationship between symbol and referent was obvious to any user. Both of these conditions are unlikely.

Photograph of a square piece of cardboard with raisins glued to it.Identical objects. Sometimes we use an object identical to the referent as a symbol. For instance, a few raisins glued to a square of cardboard might be the symbol for raisins.

Partial or associated objects. Sometimes we use parts of objects or objects associated with activities as symbols. For instance, a short length of chain (a partial object) might be used to represent the tire swing. A plastic hook (an associated object) might be used to represent hanging up your coat.

Photograph of a tire swing.  Photograph of a short piect of chain.

Video reference iconOne or two shared features. The symbols discussed to this point bear a very obvious physical relationship to their referents. In other words, the symbols and referents share a number of percetual features, such as shape, size, color and texture. The fewer perceptual features that a symbol shares with its referent, the more abstract it is. A more abstract level of representation involves symbols that share only one or two features with their referents, depending upon the sensory abilities of the learner. Brandon's symbol for the slide, for instance, was made of smooth metal similar only in texture to the real slide. (See Brandon's case study).

Photograph of a coat hung up on a hook.  Photograph of a plastic hook.          Photograph of a wooden slide, with steps on the right side and the slide on the left side.   Photograph of a smooth piece of metal.

Card containing the raised shape of a pretzel.Thermoform Symbols
The process used to reproduce brailled text (thermoforming) can also be used to make three-dimensional symbols. Through a combination of heat and vacuum, a thin plastic sheet is molded overpart of an object. This captures some ofthe size and shape of the referent but not color or texture. Entire pages of these symbols can be bound in a book which is lightweight and portable, increasing its accessibility.

Creating associations. Some referents do not lend themselves easily to representation through tangible symbols — locations, for instance, or activities that don't involve particular objects, or equipment that doesn't have removable pieces. In other instances, the logical symbol for a referent may be so similar to one already in use that it would be difficult for the learner to distinguish one from the other. In any of these cases, we may artificially create a symbol, teaching the symbol-to-referent association by permanently displaying the symbol at the activity site or on the equipment. In this case, a perceptual association is developed by repeatedly pairing the symbol with the referent (through receptive exposure) prior to its introduction as a symbol for expressive communication. At one school a plastic star shape was attached permanently to the office door next to the handle. As they entered the office, the students were encouraged to scan the star shape tactually or visually. Several students than began to use an identical star shape for a symbol for that room. Other school locations were represented with unique shapes that came to be associated with each room by attaching the shape to the door.

photograph of an office with a closed door   photograph of a three dimensional star.

Woman helpful hints iconScavenging Materials for Three-dimensional Symbols
Never throw away a broken toy. The part you can salvage may become your next symbol. To find materials for symbols, try shopping at second hand stores and garage sales. Buy two of the same toy and reserve one of them for symbols. A hacksaw, utility knife, and hot glue gun are invaluable tools.

Boy helpful hints iconMiniature Items Make Poor Symbols
It's sometimes possible to use ready-made miniatures such as doll house furniture or charms made for necklaces and bracelets as 3-dimensional symbols. These are very convenient symbols if the learner has the visual and cognitive abilities necessary to understand their meaning. The drawbacks to using miniatures are:

  • Individuals without sight will probably not be able to perceive the relationship between a miniature and the object that it looks like. Think about the sensation that you derive from sitting in a chair (asensation that impacts chiefly on the posterior of your anatomy). It has no similarity to the sensation derived from feeling a miniature doll's chair with your fingers. How would a person without sight connect the feel of a tiny doll's chair with the sensation of sitting down in a real chair?
  • Even individuals with good vision require relatively advanced cognitive skills to perceive the relationship between a miniature and a full-sized version of an object, particularly if the discrepancy in size is very great.
  • Ready-made miniatures are available for only are stricted number of potential referents.

Two-dimensional symbols

Two-dimensional symbols are pictures of referents. They may be photographs or line drawings, colored or black-and-white, and specific or generic.

picture of a card with a three dimensional object (a Lego) on top of it.Borders for Three-dimensional Symbols
When we use symbols that bear a very strong resemblance to their referents, such as identical, partial or associated objects, we run the risk that the learner will not be able to distinguish the symbol from the referent. To avoid this problem you may attach the symbols to some sort of border, such as a cardboard backing or a piece of plexiglass. This distinguishes the symbol from the actual object.

Photographs. When taking photos for symbol use, it's worthwhile to attend to the amount of background "information" that you include. For some people, a picture of the referent in the context it's associated with is a meaningful symbol. For another person, the background should be a solid color, contrasting in color to the referent pictured. In this case, the backgrounds used across different photos should be similar, so that when the learner chooses from an array of photo symbols you know that he is responding to the image and not to the colored background.

Image of three cards.  First one on the left is a picture of a spoon.  Middle card contains picture of a milk carton.  Third card on the right contains picture of an open lunch box.

Specific line drawings. These two-dimensional representations are line drawings of referents. They are specific, meaning that they look like the actual referent used, rather than a generic version of it. Photographs may be traced and then photocopied onto regular paper and sized to accommodate the user. They may be colored like the referent.

picture of three cards, each with a picture on it.

Boy helpful hint iconOne Symbol, One Referent
Don't use the same symbol to represent both an activity and an object used within the activity (for instance, a milk carton to represent both “lunchtime”and “milk”). The double meaning can be very confusing for the learner.

Generic line drawings. These are the two-dimensional images available through commercial sources. For those who can use this level of representation meaningfully, it's easy to keep up with their growing vocabulary. Pictures may be photocopied or printed off the computer using specially designed software. These images are generic in that they do not, in most instances, look identical to the actual referent. With the exception of color that you may add, the car picture may not look much like the user's actual car.

picture is of three cards.  The first card says 'toy cars' and has drawings of a truck and a car.  The second card says 'bubbles' and has a drawing of a bottle of bubbles, a wand, and bubbles.  The third card says 'ball' and has a drawing of a ball.

Woman helpful hints iconvideo reference iconCombining Two-and Three-dimensional Symbols
Alberto had some usable vision but was quite reliant on tactile information and tended not to use his vision. For him, we combined a photographic image with a three-dimensional representation of the referent on the same card. The photo was placed at the top of the card so that when he tactually scanned the three-dimensional portion at the bottom, the photo was not obscured. This system increased his exposure to two-dimensional representations, but at the same time maintained his access to a symbol type that he readily understood. Over time, we were able to reduce the tactile information provided by the three-dimensional portion of the symbols, making that portion smaller and smaller (see Alberto's case study).

Where to Start?

Tangible Symbols Pretest

The goal of Tangible Symbol Systems™ is to provide a means for the pre-symbolic communicator to move into the world of symbolic communication as smoothly and successfully as possible. It is often difficult to determine which type of symbol to start with for a particular learner. Even individuals with functional vision may at times require the concreteness of three-dimensional symbols to make the cognitive connection between symbols and referents. For some two-dimensional symbol users, the specificity of a photographic image of a referent in context may be more meaningful than a line drawing of that item: for others, a photograph may be distracting because it's more cluttered than a line drawing. There was a time when an individual who did not speak would immediately receive instruction in sign language. Now there seems to be a tendency to presume that line drawings are the appropriate modality for the non-verbal child. It is not always that simple. To avoid wasted time and frustration it is important to assess what is currently the most meaningful type of symbol for each individual.We will reassess periodically throughout intervention to see when and if an individual is ready to advance to a more abstract type of symbol.

The Tangible Symbols Pretest will help you to determine what type of symbol to start with. It is used to record the learner's ability to match objects to various levels of representation. The pretest is also designed to help flag any possible bias in responses related to the position of the symbol in the array. Finally, the pretest should give you an idea of how many symbols the learner is capable of scanning and disscriminating between in an initial array.

Use the following forms to structure the information that will help you develop tangible symbol systems for specific learners.

Girl helpful hints iconNot a Pretty Picture
At a recent conference we were approached by a child psychiatrist who wanted to vent his frustration with the picture communication systems that he had seen imposed upon some of his clients recently. Why, he asked, is the assumption made that any child can understand what pictures mean, regardless of his cognitive or sensory abilities? Pretesting for the ability to understand various levels of representation is a good way to avoid the indiscriminate use of any particular type of symbol.

Part 1

The first form contains space to record performance on matching tasks involving zero to two distractors, in arrays of one to three items. It allows for the relevant number of unique arrangements of items (one arrangement for zero distractors, two arrangements for one distractor, and three arrangements for two distractors). The (+) indicates the position of the corresponding symbol or referent in the array. Under each level of representation, three lines allow for testing across three different items (referents). Use the fourth line to calculate the percentage of correct responses. Examples 1 and 2 on page 25 illustrate how to use Part 1.

Part 2

The second form may be used to record data if you need to perform more detailed probes. For instance you might want to probe performance on a single type of symbol across multiple trials and multiple referents. Example 3 on page 26 illustrates how to use Part 2.

Order of testing

The Tangible Symbols Pretest is arranged in order from the more conventional and abstract types of symbolic representations to the less conventional and more concrete types. Test in this order based on your knowledge of the learner. There is no need to probe to three-dimensional symbols if an individual succeeds in tasks involving two-dimensional symbols. Don't presume a certain level of representation based solely on the sensory and cognitive labels of the learner. Remember, Tangible Symbol Systems™ is all about individualization.

Testing materials

Refer to your preference probe results to determine what materials you will present to the learner in this pretest. We find it useful to have at least three different items from that list to present.


The typical format is to present a different preferred item to the learner at each trial. The item remains tactually or visually present to the learner but he does not yet get it. Now an array of symbols is presented (randomly vary the position of the correct symbol in the array) and the individual should indicate the symbol that corresponds to the presented item. If he does so, then allow the learner to briefly interact with that item. If he responds incorrectly (that is, he does not select the corresponding symbol/item or does not respond at all) then show the correct response and proceed to the next trial. Other format possibilities include:

  • Reverse the order of presentation (i.e. first present the symbol and have the learner indicate the item that corresponds to it from an array of 2-3 items).
  • At times we will begin a pretest by presenting only a single symbol after an item has been presented. Encourage the learner to somehow indicate that symbol and when he does so, then reinforce him with that item. Once he understands what you expect him to do, then try arrays of 2-3 symbols.
  • It's important to remember that at the point of pretesting we are not insisting on the specific response that we may later require during instruction. Our major purpose here is to determine what level of symbolic representation is most meaningful/tangible to the learner right now. If need be we can modify the indicating response in the context of daily instruction later on.
  • Be sensitive to exactly how items are positioned. For instance you may need to adjust the spacing of items in the array or the position of the array in relation to the learner.

When a learner stumbles, you need to determine whether it's the level of representation or if it's something else that impedes him. For example, present a different preferred item from your list (perhaps he did not like what you were offering). Try a smaller array (i.e. fewer distractors). Finally, if necessary, move to a less abstract level of representation.


Three examples of pretest data are provided on the following forms. A description of the data depicted accompanies each example. Blank forms are provided in the Appendix.


Image of example of tangible symbols pretest part one

Image of a tangible symbols pretest part 2 worksheet with a callout to example 3. Example #3.  Resuming our pretest at the 3-dimensional partial/associated level presented in a 2-symbol array, the learner made no response (NR) to two presentations of either the CD player or the cup.  When the cologne was presented he readily and correctly responded.  Likely he was telling us that he wanted to begin his day with cologne and not music or a drink!  86% of all responses across all referents at this symbol level and in a 2-symbol array were correct.  However, 3-symbol arrays continued to cause difficulty at this time (0%).  A probe ahead of 3-dimensional symbols with 1-2 shared features similarly showed poor performance (40% at a 2-symbol array), suggesting that for now this was not an appropriate level around which to build his communication system.

Say What You Mean

The Comprehension Check

Comprehending the meaning of each tangible symbol is crucial to success. When someone is learning how to speak, it's easy to figure out whether he understands what a new word means. You can say "What is this?" or "Tell me what you want" and see whether he uses the correct words to answer your questions. For the tangible symbol user, we need to systematically embed comprehension checks into the acquisition of each tangible symbol. If we don't attend to comprehension from the very beginning of instruction, then we may find out that the user has only learned that tangible symbols are things that you give to people (or point to or look at) that result in something positive happening eventually. What he has not learned is that each symbol means one thing and one thing only. In other words, the user does not understand the 1:1 correspondence between a particular symbol and a particular referent. This situation will be difficult to remedy if it is allowed to persist. That's why we incorporate a comprehension check into the learning of every symbol as soon as the symbol array exceeds one.

One-symbol arrays

If instruction begins with an array of only one symbol, there is no opportunity to check the student's understanding of the symbol, because no discrimination is being required. At this step you present an array of two objects that the child is interested in. He indicates his choice pre-symbolically, but does not yet get that object. With the desired object remaining visually or tactually apparent, you present him with the symbol that corresponds to the chosen item. If he acts on that symbol correctly (e.g. picks up and gives, touches, looks at), he gets the object. What the user learns at this stage is simply what to do with a symbol. He does not necessarily learn to associate the symbols with any specific referent or to discriminate between symbols. As quickly as possible, we move on to an array containing more than one symbol.

photograph of a girl (Sammi) who is leaning on an oval.  Her teacher sits beside the oval, supporting it, with his hand behind her back.Wise Choices
When new choices are presented to the learner it may be that a casual visual inspection of them doesn't afford enough information for an informed decision— especially if she has a significant visual impairment or doesn't attend closely. In this case it's important to allow the learner to scan the array of items tactually prior to making her choice. In some cases, you may need to offer a brief “sample” of what each choice is about (for instance, by turning on the massager or activating a noise-making toy briefly). As the learner comes to associate how the object looks or feels with what it does, this “sample” maybe eliminated.

Multi-symbol arrays

Comprehension checks begin when the array of symbols includes two or more. Now the learner must discriminate the correct symbol from an array of possibilities. There are two major requesting procedures used to check comprehension as a learner first attempts to use tangible symbols presented in multi-symbol arrays. They differ in the order of presentation of the object and symbol arrays.

Objects first, then symbols. First, offer the learner a choice of objects. Once the learner has indicated which object he wants, offer a choice of symbols for the same objects. If the learner chooses the symbol that corresponds to the chosen object, this shows comprehension, as opposed to random choice. If the learner chooses the wrong symbol, do not give him the chosen object. Show him the correct symbol and set up a new choice of items.

photograph of a boy and a woman who are sitting at a table.  There are objects on the table.  The boy is looking at a large round object.   photograph of a boy and woman sitting at a table.  There is a card on the table with a strip of Velcro and several objects.  The boy has one hand to his face and the other hand touching an object.  The woman is holding down the card with her left hand and has her right hand, palm up.

Symbols first, then objects. The second procedure is just the opposite—the learner first chooses from an array of symbols, and then chooses the corresponding object. This is closer to the natural sequence of communication—first we ask for something, then we get it. Again, if the learner chooses the wrong object, don't give it to him. Show him the correct object and set up a new choice of symbols.

In this picture, a boy and woman are sitting on the floor.  The woman is holding two objects, one in each hand.  The boy is pointing to the object in the woman's left hand.   In this picture, a boy and woman are sitting on the floor by a box of large plastic puzzle pieces and a smaller box with other objects.  The woman is leaning toward the boy.  She has something in her closed left hand, and her right hand is facing down, slightly closed.  The boy is looking at her hands.   In this picture a boy is sitting on the floor building something with interlocking pieces.

One of these comprehension checks is built into instruction for every new tangible symbol, and is continued until the data show that the learner clearly understands the meaning of that symbol. We generally require the learner to demonstrate comprehension for each symbol with at least 80% accuracy across two consecutive sessions, using an array of a least three symbols. The comprehension check should be eliminated on a symbol by symbol basis. Thus, a learner using a multi-symbol array may be using some symbols without comprehension checks, while other newer symbols still require comprehension checks every time they are used. Once the comprehension check is eliminated, the learner is allowed to use tangible symbols just like one uses words – without an elaborate routine.

Boy helpful hints iconChange Gauge
A change in instructional variables such as size of array or level of representation, may cause some confusion for the learner. The comprehension check can be reinserted into the instructional procedure whenever questions arise. It is your gauge to judge whether or not the learner can handle that change at this time.

Avoiding a position bias

As we implement either of the requesting procedures, we randomly alter the position of symbols and referents as we present choices. This is done to avoid the development of a position bias, where the user simply indicates symbols or referents in one particular position, regardless of what they represent. If you suspect a position bias, you should take data on the position in which symbols are presented, and the position from which the learner chooses. If the data show that a position bias is present, then you need to be more systematic about how you present symbols and materials. It may also be useful to consider temporarily changing the type of distractor symbols in the array.

Distractor symbols

photograph of two cards.  The first card says 'bubbles' and contains a drawing of a bottle of bubbles and a wand blowing bubbles.  The second card says 'toothbrush' and contains a drawing of a toothbrush.In the requesting paradigm, there is always one correct choice of symbol. In a multi-symbol array, all symbols except for the correct one are called distractor symbols. Generally, as we implement requesting procedures, we give learners choices of two or more things that they enjoy, so the distractor symbols are all for preferred items. Be sure that the learner scans the symbols and referents carefully either visually or tactually. If the learner doesn't seem to attend closely to the choices presented, you may need to introduce the tasks of attending and discriminating between symbols more gradually. As a temporary measure you may use dis-tractor symbols for something other than preferred items until the learner's performance improves.

Non-preferred distractors. Try offering choices of one highly preferred item paired with one item which the learner does not like. Now the importance of the choice is heightened, since choosing the non-preferred symbol is not nearly as pleasant as choosing the preferred one.

photograph of two cards.  The first card says 'paint bursh' and contains a drawing of a paint brush.  The second card is blank."Nothing" symbols. For some individuals, we use what we call a "nothing" symbol as a distractor. The "nothing" symbol is an abstract shape or a blank card that is never associated with any referent. When the learner chooses this symbol, he gets "nothing", and the trial starts over again after a minute or so. In this way, the individual learns that it makes a difference which symbol he chooses, but the task is made easier, because he only has to learn to avoid the "nothing" symbol.

Talk to Me

Examples of Expressive Tangible Symbol Use

Receptive and expressive communication learning should be embedded into functional routines throughout the learner's day. Below are two sample routines to give you an idea of the flow of instruction.

picture of Sammi standing by the oval.  Her teacher is behind her and is holding her hand while they both touch the oval.  Sammi has her eyes closed and is smiling widely.1. In the playroom, the communication partner waits for Sammie to gain his attention by taking his hand. In response to Sammie's bid for attention, the partner says "What do you want?" indicating an array of the oval roller, the therapy ball and the barrel bolster by assisting her to tactually scan this array of play equipment.

Sammie wastes no time in reaching for the object she wants, in this instance, the oval roller.

Now that the partner knows what Sammie wants, he indicates the display of tangible symbols for oval, therapy ball, and bolster, assisting her to tactually scan the array of 3-dimensional symbols, and asking her to "show me what you want".

picture of Sammi leaning on her oval with a teacher standing next to the oval.   picture of Sammi and her teacher by the oval.  The teacher is pointing to a board with pictures and holding Sammi's left hand toward the board as he points.   picture of Sammi and her teacher with a board with pictures that is on top of the oval.  The teacher is helping Sammi point to something on the board.

All this is done in the presence of the desired object. Sammie must now respond by picking up the symbol for the oval and giving it to her partner.

If correct, then Sammie is given a healthy dose of interaction on the oval with her partner's help.

 picture of Sammi and her teacher with a board containing pictures that is on top of the oval.  Sammi's teacher is holding Sammi's right hand.  Sammi's left hand is resting on the oval and Sammi's head is facing up, with her eyes closed.   picture of Sammi lying on top of the oval, holding onto either side with her hands.  Her teacher is kneeling behind the oval and holding it with his hands.

If Sammie had picked up the "ball" symbol, then the partner would say "No", indicate the correct symbol (giving Sammie receptive exposure to the symbol), and then begin another trial: Sammie would not be allowed to play on the oval.

picture of sammie lying on her oval.  The teacher is kneeling on the side of the oval. She has her hand on top of her partners hand which is placed on top of the oval.Pauses in the play are interspersed throughout, providing frequent opportunities for Sammie to request more play by taking her partner's hand to the oval. She may indicate that she is finished with that toy by not reinstating, or by pushing the object away. By the end of the play time, many such opportunities to use tangible symbols to make a request have occurred.

2. At lunch, Bryan gets to choose from a menu of options from the cafeteria. These are represented through line drawn symbols spread out on the table in front of him. Anxious to eat, Bryan taps his teacher for attention.

Next he extents his cup, clearly asking for a drink.

Before his request is responded to, he must present the corresponding symbol to his communication partner.

At that point she pours him a cup of milk.

picture of Bryan seated at a table with a lunch tray and a menu of options from the cafete¬ria. These are on small cards spread out on the table in front of him, and are represented through line drawn symbols. picture of Bryan seated at a table with a lunch tray in front of him.  His teacher sits across from him and Bryan is showing her a card. This is a top view  picture of Bryan seated at a table with a lunch tray in front of him.  Bryan is handing his teacher a card containing his lunch choice. This is a top view  picture of Bryan seated at a table with a lunch tray in front of him.  Bryan's teacher is pouring a glass of milk.

Girl helpful hints iconEncouraging Spontaneous Communication
As Sammie and Bryan become proficient symbol users in these fairly structured routines, their teachers will begin to arrange the environment to encourage them to communicate more spontaneously. There are many factors that encourage or discourage spontaneous communication in an activity. The ACE (Rowland & Schweigert,1993) is an environmental inventory that may be used to suggest ways to encourage spontaneous communicationin an activity regardless of the communication mode used by the learner.

Listen to Me

Examples of Receptive Tangible Symbol Use

photograph of a woman and girl sitting on the floor.  The woman is holding a series of cards containing pictures on her lap and appears to be speaking.  The girl is looking away from the teacher.Using tangible symbols for receptive communication gives the learner experience in associating symbols with referents, provides specific information in a manner that the learner can understand, and also demonstrates how to use symbols. These are all good reasons to use tangible symbols to communicate with the learner receptively.

Symbols for activities

Most often, symbols are used receptively to represent the activities that make up an individual's daily routine, frequently in "calendar systems." Such symbols provide enough concrete information to allow the user to develop some expectation about the forthcoming event. Often symbols for completed activities are returned to and stored in a "finished box" that is placed next to the calendar system. The presence of the "finished box" gives the learner the option to retrieve a symbol from the box and communicate about an activity that is not in the schedule. It's a good idea to require that the learner show the activity symbols to you so that the opportunity to use them expressively is built into the use of the calendar from the very beginning.

photograph of a girl standing by a large board that contains large pictures.  On a strip at the top of the board there are small cards with pictures.  The girl is placing one of the cards on one of the large pictures.Receptive use of tangible symbols for activities is not simply something you do to the learner. You must expect a specific response (such as going to the coat rack when you give the symbol for going home) and you must allow time for the learner to make a response. The following strategies will help you to monitor the receptive use of activity symbols and the learner's understanding of them.

  • Post a list of the specific symbol/activity pairings and how they are to be used.
  • Model and monitor their use for all potential communication partners.
  • Identify and monitor the responses from the learner.
  • Collect data on these responses. This will allow you to track the emergence of anticipatory responses and the development of the learner's understanding of the 1:1 correspondence between symbol and referent.

Photograph of a woman interacting with a boy.  They are both seated on the ground with a box of objects.  The woman is handing an object to the boy and he is looking at that object.   Photograph of a woman interacting with a boy.  They are both seated on the ground with a box of objects.  The woman is using her fingers to signal to the boy and he is looking at her.

Planning the Daily Calendar
There are many chances to communicate as you set up the activity calendar at the beginning of the day. You might sort through the activity symbols together with the learner and converse about the planned activities as you place the symbols. For some time slots, you may be able to offer the learner a choice of activities. Once a symbol has been placed in the calendar sequence, you may have a discussion about the materials and people involved in the activity, using any existing tangible symbols to discuss those topics.

Photograph of a woman and a girl interacting by a large board that displays the daily calendar.  The teacher is pointing towards the board and the girl is looking at a series of small cards, containing symbols, that lie in the teacher's lap.   Photograph of a woman and a girl interacting by a large board that displays the daily calendar.  The girl is placing a symbol on the board.   Photograph of a woman and a girl interacting by a large board that displays the daily calendar.  The teacher is holding one finger up for the girl who is again looking at the cards in the teacher's lap.

Symbols for items and people

Symbols for individual items and people may also be used receptively. You might show the learner a symbol for an item you want him to give to you. Or you might simply label items by pointing first to the item, and then to the corresponding symbol. Use the symbols like you would use speech, to indicate specific items and people to the learner.

Photograph of a woman and a boy sitting at a table.  In front of the boy is a sheet containing small cards with symbols.  The woman and boy are both pointing at the same symbol.   Photographs of a woman and a boy sitting at a table.  In front of the boy is a sheet containing small cards with symbols.  The boy is pouring himself a cup of juice while the teacher looks on.

Keeping an Eye on Things

Monitoring Daily Instruction

photograph of a boy and girl who are at a chalkboard.  A man is kneeling behind the boy and holding a clipboard with paper and a pen.  The boy is holding a sponge by the board.It is important to design steps that encourage the learner to be successful independently. Moving too quickly and expecting too much from the learner increases the chances that she will fail. Repeated failure weakens motivation and impairs understanding of the value of communication. The goal is to move at a pace that challenges the learner without overwhelming her. This increases the chances that she will succeed.

Monitoring the learner's performance regularly using objective data will allow you to track the adequacy of your instructional design. When the acquisition criterion is met (the criterion we generally use is "Chooses correct symbol with 80% accuracy over two consecutive days"), then a change in the procedure should be made to guarantee a steady learning progression.

Data collection is also individualized. Each practitioner must develop a system designed to ask and answer specific questions about a learners' acquisition and the efficacy of the current instructional step.

Woman helpful hints iconThe Story's in the Data
George couldn't seem to break out of the 60-70% range of performance day after day. Looking at the data, it was clear that his mistakes were occurring near the end of each instructional session. The mistakes were not specific to certain items. Perhaps George was getting bored and this was his way of demonstrating that. We introduced away for George to indicate “finished” so that he could tell his teacher when he was tired of the activity. Another preference probe was also conducted.

On the next page is a sample of a data form that we have used to collect data on tangible symbol acquisition on a daily basis.

In this particular example we are tracking the following information for each opportunity:

  • The items or symbols in the array (/) to make sure choices are spread out across all items
  • The item selected, and whether or not it was correctly paired with the symbol or referent (+ or –)
  • Gaining attention is also being monitored, noting in this example only opportunities in which the learner independently gained attention ()

Look at the third opportunity (column 3) on the sample data sheet. After independently gaining his teacher's attention (), Donatello was offered a choice of clay (/), a book (/) or a toy bear (/). He picked the book and the teacher removed the clay and the bear. When she offered him the array of the three corresponding symbols, however, Donatello failed to select the "book" symbol (–). The teacher would therefore show him the correct symbol, and then start a new opportunity.

From this data sheet it is possible to compute data on the entire session, as well as on each individual item. In Donatello's case, his symbol use was accurate 63% of the time over all ("Session Total"), and he gained his teacher's attention 75% of the time. If we look at the "book" choice, we can see that although he chose the book three times out of the five times that it was offered, he only chose the correct symbol once, for a total of 33% correct (or chance performance) on this particular symbol.

The data sheet is more efficient if it provides current protocol information such as array size and order of presentation as shown at the bottom of this example. Data collection strategies should be flexible enough to allow you to adjust the type of information you are seeking. For one child the data sheet called for noting the position in the array of the selected item, as there was some question about position bias. In that case we added an L, M, or R (for left, middle, right) to the boxes (for example; +/ M would tell you that the item-symbol correspondence was correct and the symbol was in the middle position of the array). Other variables that we have tracked include level of assistance, latency of response and use of spoken words by the learner. A blank copy of a data sheet set up to track four day's worth of data appears in the Appendix.

Image of a sample daily data collection form. From this data sheet it is possible to compute data on the entire session, as well as on each individual item. In Donatello's case, his symbol use was accurate 63% of the time over all (Session Total), and he gained his teacher's attention 75% of the time. If we look at the book choice, we can see that although he chose the book three times out of the five times that it was offered, he only chose the correct symbol once, for a total of 33% correct (or chance performance) on this particular symbol.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Promoting Progress

When the daily data show that the individual has achieved the current learning goal, decide what to do next to promote continued progress. There are seven major changes that you can make that will promote progress in tangible symbol acquisition. These are described below in the approximate order of importance.

Expand vocabulary

It is essential to increase the learner's vocabulary so that she can communicate about the many aspects of her environment. Therefore, the first and most important change is to expand the learner's vocabulary. As soon as the individual has acquired one set of symbols, introduce more. There are an infinite number of referents or topics about which an individual can communicate using tangible symbols. Ongoing preference probes will enable you to keep up with the need to add new vocabulary.

Increase size of array

video reference iconGradually increase the number of symbols available to the learner in the symbol array. The more vocabulary presented to the learner at one time the more efficiently he will be able to communicate. Also, the learner will be less dependent on the communication partner for deciding what symbols should be in an array. For some learners, the size of the array may be restricted by limited motor abilities. For example you may remember Katie's case study from the videotape. She is a child with restricted trunk control who uses eye pointing as an indicating response. She is able to turn and look at the symbols in a way that is readable, to the left, midline and right with the symbols spaced 10" apart. The limit of her array size is three for now.

photograph of two rows of cards containing pictures of food and eating utensils and their corresponding labels.


Generalization of behavior does not occur spontaneously for many tangible symbol users, but must be systematically targeted through instruction. Once a learner understands how to use a set of symbols under carefully controlled conditions, show her that the symbols can also be used in other settings, such as at home, in the community, with other people, and at other times of the day. Generalization is also necessary for the sake of consistency. Take the situation where certain materials are used in a variety of contexts throughout the day. It might be confusing to the learner to require that he use tangible symbols to request those materials if he can get them at other times without having to use the symbols. Therefore, the expectation should be the same in all contexts, namely that access to those items is accomplished through the use of the tangible symbols.

New functions

Once learners have become adept at making requests, show them how to use symbols for other communicative purposes, such as labeling or making comments. Although being able to obtain things that are desired is likely the single most important communicative function, there are other reasons for communicating which broaden the user's options for interaction. Sometimes it helps to teach the learner to use a different indicating response to express new functions. For example, some learners will touch the symbol for the referent they want to comment about, while they pick up and give symbols for things they are requesting.For learners who are able to combine symbols into a single utterance, requests may be naturally distinguished from other functions because they are preceded by a symbol for "want" or "I" + "want"

Multi-symbol utterances

It is possible to chain tangible symbols together into simple phrases, just as it is possible to chain words together. "Want" is usually one of the first symbols to be incorporated into multi-symbol utterances. In cases where the user points to or touches symbols that are fixed on the array, symbols for "want" or "I" + "want", can be added to the permanent display. Often the learner at this stage has her communication system in a book, with a page or more for each context of the daily routine. Generic vocabulary such as "want","more","finished"will be placed on the facing page for each context's vocabulary.

If symbols are removable (as in the case where the learner uses a pick up and give response) a "want card"may be used. In this instance,the learner selects the symbol for the desired item, removes it from the array, places it on the "want card" and hands the card to his partner.

photograph of a woman and a boy seated at a table.  There is a board with small cards containing symbols in front of the boy.  The boy is pointing to a symbol in the upper left hand corner while the woman looks on and appears to say something.   photograph of a woman and a boy seated at a table.  There is a board with small cards containing symbols in front of the boy.  The boy is pointing to a symbol in the center of the board while the woman looks on.

Photograph of a woman and girl sitting at a table.  There is a book containing symbols in front of the girl.  The woman is facing the girl and is holding her hands, palm up while the girl is touching the book.   Photograph of a woman and girl sitting at a table.  There is a book containing symbols in front of the girl.  The girl is handing a symbol to the woman.


Tangible symbols must be available whenever they might be needed. If a learner doesn't have constant access to her symbols, she will not be able to communicate at will. Unfortunately some symbols may be large or difficult to carry from site to site. Once a learner understands how to use one type of symbol, think about how to make the symbols more portable by making them smaller, lighter, or placing them in a permanent array such as a book that can be easily carried. Portability should also encourage use of the symbols in more settings, including the general community. If the meaning of a symbol is not immediately obvious to strangers in a new setting, then a printed label should be added for each symbol so that anyone can understand them.

photograph of a case used to carry symbols.  It is hard-sided and contains several three dimensional symbols.
With this clipboard the learner has access to all the vocabulary needs in the playroom.
photograph of a woman and boy sitting across the table from one another.  In between them is a board containing symbols.  The boy is handing one of the symbols to the woman.
This book contains all of this child's symbols

Change the type of symbol

Another area for change is the type of symbol—or the level of representation. Although you may probe this variable to discover what is the most appropriate level of representation to start with (see Tangible Symbols Pretest), this is usually the last variable to change after the initial pretest. Initially it's more important to teach a learner to communicate competently and spontaneously with meaningful symbols, than to spend valuable time and energy trying to teach the use of more abstract symbols.

Once an individual is ready to learn a new type of symbol (periodic probes will help gauge this readiness), you want to move to a level of representation that is more abstract, more conventional, and/or more portable. Our research has shown repeatedly that the acquisition of one type of tangible symbol is likely to serve as a bridge to more abstract types of tangible symbols and sometimes even to abstract symbols such as speech, manual signs or printed words (Rowland & Schweigert, 2000).

Woman helpful hint iconvideo reference iconTangible Symbols and Speech
For individuals who have a few speech approximations, the introduction of tangible symbols does not cause them to abandon the little speech they are using, nor does it prevent them from acquiring new spoken vocabulary. It does, however, provide a means of communicating symbolically that is immediately meaningful to the user, allowing access to more interaction and greater participation than would be the case if we responded only to the limited speech. (Remember Kenyari and Catherine from the videotape? See also Alberto's and Damien's case studies)

Plotting A Course

The Intervention Record

video reference iconThe daily data you are collecting will show you when you need to adjust instruction to promote learning. The Tangible Symbol Systems™ Intervention Record spells out the options for making changes in the instructional program and provides a form for tracking the systematic changes that you will make. Instructional changes are divided into four categories. Under each category are a number of variables that might be addressed. In the first column, the status of all relevant variables is described to document the nature of instruction at the outset. In the following days/weeks, the additional columns are used to describe just those variables that are adjusted when a significant change in the instructional procedure is made. A sample form appears on the following page. It shows the major changes that occurred in Alberto's case study on the accompanying videotape. A blank form appears in the Appendix. Each variable on the Intervention Record is explained below.

Assessment (You may need to assess for readiness, preferences or type of symbol)

  • Assess for symbolic readiness.Indicate if you are conducting a communication assessment designed to determine if the learner has the needed pre-symbolic communication behaviors.
  • Preference probes.Indicate if you are investigating what is motivating to the learner at this time. Often this is an on;going part of instruction.
  • Tangible Symbols Pretest:Indicate if you are assessing for the most meaningful level of tangible symbol representation for the learner at this time.

This is Not a Cook Book
Tangible Symbol Systems™ is not acook book approach to instruction. A cook book approach does not allow individualization, which is key to our instructional process. However, our approach is systematic and logical and its success is based upon a clear rationale and decision making that is based upon objective data.

Symbolic features for promoting progress (These are the seven major areas of change described in the previous chapter on Promoting Progress)

  • Vocabulary/Materials.List the specific referents or topics that are being represented using tangible symbols.
  • Array size. Describe the number of tangible symbols presented to the learner at one time.
  • Generalization. Describe any new contexts in which instruction is occurring and identify new communication partners.
  • Communicative function. Describe the functions for which tangible symbols are being used in this situation.
  • Length of symbol utterance. Describe how many tangible symbols the learner is stringing together into one expression.
  • Symbol display/portability. Describe how the symbol array is presented to the learner, and strategies (such as a book) for increasing accessibility to the symbols.
  • Symbol type . Describe the level of symbolic representation that is being targeted at this time.

Comprehension check (Factors related to the comprehension checks embedded in instruction)

  • Order of presentation. Describe whether the learner will choose from an array of objects first then symbols or from an array of symbols first then objects to demonstrate comprehension.
  • Distractor symbols. Describe whether the other symbols in the array are preferred, non-preferred, or "nothing"symbols.
  • Position check. Describe tracking of object/symbol position in the array to monitor for possible position bias.

Teaching routine: cues, responses, consequences (These cover the major steps included in the teaching routine from start to finish)

  • Instructional cues. Describe what the teacher does to prompt the response.
  • Array scanning. Describe what the teacher does, if anything, to insure that the learner is aware of what is in the object and symbol arrays.
  • Attention gaining. Describe how the learner will gain the attention of the partner.
  • Indicating response. Describe how that learner will gain the attention of the partner and how the learner will indicate the symbol to the communication partner.
  • Level of assistance. Describe any physical assistance, model/demonstration, or other assistance that is being provided to assist the learner to make his response.
  • Consequences. Describe any procedure used in the event of an incorrect response by the learner. Also describe any specific procedures to be followed to reinforce a correct response by the learner.

Image of a sample tangible symbols intervention record

Moving On

Successful Transitions to New Environments

photograph of a boy sitting at a table.  In front of him is a board containing several cards with symbols.  He is using his left hand to manipulate the symbols.  With his right hand he is holding a spoon in a cup of liquid.You and the learner have invested a tremendous effort into establishing a new and meaningful communication system. Now it's time for the learner to move on to a new setting. We have found that transitions are full of peril for the user of augmentative and alternative communication systems. Sometimes systems are completely abandoned. Sometimes a new type of symbol is introduced that the learner doesn't understand. It is the learner who suffers most from these lapses in continuity.

To safeguard against difficulties it's important to provide the new environment with the symbol system itself as well as information about the way the individual uses the system. Often it's the parents who are left with the responsibility of transmitting such information to a new setting, without any systematic means of relaying such information.

In the Appendix is a Symbol Acquisition Record that may be used to describe a learner's symbolic vocabulary as it grows. A copy of this record could be passed on to new settings. Although some of the vocabulary may not be relevant in the new setting, this record shows the learner's capacity to communicate symbolically. Another resource is the “Let's Talk” materials (Rowland, Schweigert & Dorinson, 1995) which address the transfer of information about communication systems to new environments.


Tangible Symbols Pretest
Part I



Aray of Symbols
(+ = referrent; - = distractor)
Type of Symbol (Level of Representation)
Referrent Items
+ - -
- + -
- - +
Distractors Used / Comments
Generic Line Drawing 1              
% correct        
Specific Line Drawing 1              
% correct        
Photograph 1              
% correct        
Symbol sharing only one or two features with referrent (e.g., size, shape, color, texture) 1              
% correct        
Partial or associated object (e.g., a wheel for a toy car) 1              
% correct        
Identical object 1              
% correct        

Tangible Symbols Pretest
Part 2



Aray of Symbols
(+ = referrent; - = distractor)
Trial Type of Symbol
Referrent Items
+ - -
- + -
- - +
Distractors Used / Comments

Daily Data Collection

Function Targeted:  


Protocol                               Scoring System


Protocol                               Scoring System



Protocol                               Scoring System



Protocol                               Scoring System


Tangible Symbols Intervention Record



Access for symbolic Readiness          
Preference Probes          
Tangible Symbols Pretest          

Symbolic Features for Promoting Progress

Vocabulary / Materials          
Array Size          
  -  Setting
  -  Partner
Communication Function          
Length of Symbol Utterance          
Portability / Symbol Display          
Symbol Type          

Comprehension Check

Order of Presentation          
Distractor Symbols          
Position Check          

Teaching Routine (cues, response, consequences)

Instructional Cues          
Array Scanning (tactile/Visual)          
Attention Gaining          
Indicating Response          
Level of Assistance          
   - if correct response
   - if incorrect response

Symbol Acquistion Record

Recorded By:  


Date Acquired

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This publication was developed under a grant for the Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education. Opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Education, and such endorsements should not be inferred.