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Augmentative and Alternative Communication: A Glossary

You will hear many terms as you look for the best Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) system. This page explains some of those terms to help you in your search. You should talk to your speech-language pathologist, or SLP, if you have questions.

Common Symbols

Words, gestures, and pictures are symbols that we use to explain our thoughts and feelings. For example, the word “dog” and a picture of a dog are both symbols. They both mean the animal we have in our home. You use symbols like this to communicate with AAC. Some common symbols are listed below:

Some gestures are common, and most people understand them. These include shaking your head or shrugging your shoulders. Other gestures are not as clear but are still used to communicate. You can share simple ideas with these gestures but cannot have long conversations.

Sign languages.
You can learn to use hand shapes and face and body movements to communicate. Sign language is a true language with its own rules and grammar. People who cannot hear may use sign language, but people who cannot talk may also use it. Sign languages are different around the world. For example, American Sign Language is common in the United States. It is not used in other countries.

You can spell words using hand and finger shapes. You use this for proper names or when you do not know the sign for a word.

The sounds you say and put into words are symbols. Some AAC devices will produce speech.

Language representation methods.
This term describes how an AAC system uses symbols to help us talk about our ideas and feelings. There are three main ways you can use AAC to communicate. These include single-meaning pictures, alphabet systems, and pictures with more than one meaning.

  • Single-meaning pictures. Each picture means one thing, and you point or scan to the picture you want. You may need to learn what some pictures mean, since not every word has an easy picture to go with it. You need to have a lot of pictures to say everything you want to say. For example, a 3-year-old would need more than 1,000 pictures to have all the words he might want to say.
  • Alphabet systems. You need to be able to read and spell to use this type of system. You have the letters of the alphabet in front of you, and you point or scan to each letter. Some systems are able to guess the word after the first few letters, which can save time.
  • Pictures with more than one meaning. You may hear this called semantic compaction. You put pictures together to form words and phrases. One picture can mean different things when combined with other pictures. For example, a picture of a frog can mean frog, jump, or green. If you point to a frog and a rainbow, you mean “green.” If you point to a frog and an arrow, you mean “jump.”

Core vocabulary.
We use only a few hundred words for most of our communication. These words make up our core vocabulary.

Fringe vocabulary.
These are the words we use for the small part of communication not covered by our core vocabulary.

Sending Messages

There are many ways to send messages. You can use speech, gestures, writing, and head movements if you can control your body. When you use an electronic AAC device, it sends the messages that you put into it.

Selection Techniques

You need to be able to choose what you want to say using AAC. How you select your message depends on your body and the system you use. You should think about how fast you can choose your messages with your AAC system. Faster choices will help you communicate better. You can use direct selection, scanning, and encoding.

  • Direct selection. This includes pointing with some part of your body, like a finger, toe, or your eyes. You may also point with a beam of light, headstick, or mouthstick. You can use switches if you are not able to point. You can touch the switch or turn it on by blowing into a tube or moving your eyebrow. Direct selection is the fastest way to make choices.
  • Scanning. In scanning, you get one choice at a time. You have to point to or stop on the word or picture you want. A very simple scanning system has someone show you a picture and ask, “Is this what you want?” The person will keep asking you this until you get to the right picture. Some devices have lights that pass over each choice on the screen or board. You use a switch to stop the light on your choice. You may scan each letter to spell a word or scan to find a picture of what you want. There are also scanners that use sounds or that scan the board or screen in patterns. You do not need to control your hands or feet to scan. But, you may need better thinking skills to learn how to scan.
  • Encoding. You can use codes instead of words or pictures. Numbers are the most common codes. For example, you may choose 1 to mean “Can I talk with you a minute?” or 2 to mean “I'd like to have pizza for lunch.” Codes can also be letters or shapes. You can share long messages faster by using encoding. In most cases, the other person will to need to know the codes, too. Some AAC devices will say a message after you enter the code.

See ASHA information for professionals on the Practice Portal’s Augmentative and Alternative Communication page.

To find a speech-language pathologist near you, visit ProFind.

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