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March 2021

Tip One: Visual Scene Display (VSD) Books

Tip Two: Symbolated Books

Tip Three: Sensory Bins

Tip Four: The Pen Friend

Who is Michelle?


Successful use of AAC is not just about finding the right tool and supporting an individual’s understanding of how to use the tool (operationally, linguistically, socially, and strategically, Light and McNaughton, 2014). It is also about communication partners, and their involvement in the process of learning to use, using, and implementing AAC.  

We are fortunate to have worked alongside Michelle Walden for several years. Michelle is a special educator working in the public schools. She has supported a number of students with complex communication needs using a range of different AAC tools. She is innovative and creative and totally understands that incorporating symbol sets and language targets into academic tasks and the environment is integral to successful AAC implementation.  

Michelle has implemented AAC into formal and informal literacy programs, classroom routines, MCAS alt requirements and more. We are thrilled to be able to showcase many of her examples in this month’s Spotlight Series! 

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TechTip: Lite-Tech Visual Scene Display Books

What is goal/purpose?  

Lite-tech Visual Scene Displays (VSDs) are a powerful tool for promoting and encouraging participation in literacy for students with more complex communication needs in a contextualized way. Visual Scene Displays are manipulative, interactive, and provide opportunities for communication as well as language development between the student and his/her communication partner.


For more information on VSDs in shared book reading, please reference Samarasinge, S.I.S., & Muttiah, N. (2018). Effectiveness of shared book reading to increase receptive vocabulary skills of 3-4 year old children with autism. [Undergraduate Thesis, The University of Kelaniya].

How is it used?  

Students and their communication partners can engage with Visual Scene Displays in a number of ways. VSDs can be used for focusing on story specific vocabulary, such as character, setting or even talking about the plot. Additionally, they can be used to encourage commenting, or asking and answering questions. With the salient pieces of the story being manipulated, it can provide a visual cue for students when answering questions. For example, you may ask your student “Who is the character?” while gently moving the character. Either independently, or with support from his/her communication partner, students can practice following one step directions such as “touch”, “point to” or “pull off.” The student may touch, point to, or pull off a piece. This could then be highlighted by the communication partner. For example, “You got the juicy red strawberry!” or "You touched the fluffy kitty," Additionally, communication partners can, for example, demonstrate an action performed by the character- “Go fast, puppy” (while moving the manipulative piece quickly).   

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How is it accessed?  

VSDs are created by making 2 color copies of the picture book. The pages are then laminated. Using 1 copy of the book, salient pieces of the book are cut out from each page. The cut out pieces are then affixed to the corresponding page of the other copy using either Velcro or craft magnets. If needed, the pieces can be “built up” using small squares of foam to allow for more distance between the page and the piece to be manipulated, therefore simplifying access for those with motor difficulties or visual impairments. Magnets are especially beneficial for students with dexterity challenges, fine motor weakness or challenges with grip strength. The magnet allows for easier removal when compared to Velcro.  

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Symbolated Books

TechTip: Symbolated Books

What is goal/purpose?  

For students who are in the pre-literacy stage of learning, symbolated books are a means for increasing access to content and exposure to the symbol itself. By selecting and including specific language targets, symbolated books allow communication partners to model language in a clear and focused manner. They provide a meaningful way of embedding the use of core language in the classroom and are a great way to boost interest in books and help students to develop concepts of print. Additionally, through multiple exposures, students begin to generalize the symbol, see it, and use it elsewhere. While the student may see the word and symbol “go” in the book, communication partners can then model the word in other situations, such as when leaving a room, playing a game or when walking, thus increasing exposure to the concept and allowing for greater generalization across settings for the student. 

How is it used?  

Students and their communication partners can use Symbolated Books in a variety of ways. By targeting language that is familiar to the students as well as introducing a couple of new words, symbolated books offer an opportunity to immerse students in language as well as allow for repeated exposure to familiar symbols and concepts. Symbolated books provide a great opportunity for modeling on both high-tech communication devices and on lite-tech language boards. 

How is it accessed?  

When deciding on which language targets to focus on within your symbolated book, be selective. Most of the symbols should ideally be ones your student has had previous exposure to and is familiar with. Symbolated books can be created by making a color copy of the book or by scanning the pages. The pages should be laminated for durability. Once you decide on your target vocabulary, symbols can be added to the story by either directly importing the symbols or by affixing them with Velcro.

Sensory Bins

TechTip: Sensory Bins to Promote Language and Communication

What is goal/purpose?  

The use of sensory bins can target specific skills such as turn taking, expanding utterances, following 1 step directions, asking/answering WH questions, as well as allowing for continued exposure to core and fringe vocabulary. 

How is it used?  

By targeting both core and fringe vocabulary, content specific sensory bins (such as those that relate to picture books) allow for students to be immersed in language and encourages repeated exposure to concepts and ideas. Both core and fringe words should be selected and incorporated into exploration of the sensory bin. These language targets might include core words such as: go, in, where, who, see and like. Fringe vocabulary may include words such as caterpillar, cocoon and butterfly. When working with these concepts and ideas, communication partners can reference a corresponding lite-tech communication board with their student or have the individual icons available representing each of the words. Using the items in your sensory bin, you may encourage language exposure through statements such as “I see the butterfly” or “You like the butterfly” after your student pulls the butterfly from the bin. You may ask your student questions such as “Where is the caterpillar?” or “Who is eating the apple?” Additionally, you may have your student follow a 1 step direction such as, “Put caterpillar in cocoon.”  You can encourage expanding utterances from “go in” to something such as “go in cocoon.”   

How is it accessed?  

Sensory bins can be created using materials of various textures, colors, smells as well as those that offer an auditory component such as dried beans, rice or tissue paper. Items that relate to your specific story or content area can be added to a plastic bin. For example, if creating a sensory bin to correspond with The Very Hungry Caterpillar, plastic fruit such as apples, strawberries and watermelon can be included along with a stuffed or felt caterpillar. 

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Pen Friend

TechTip: The Pen Friend

What is goal/purpose?  

The PenFriend is an audio labeling device. It allows you to record labels with your voice for use across a range of academic activities and learning opportunities. These labels enable voice output for participation in a variety of areas such as phonics, guided reading and small and whole group lessons. 

How is it used?  

For participation in phonics lessons, letter sounds can be recorded and the labels affixed to the letter. For something like a guided reading lesson, recorded labels can be placed under each individual word, or the words can be recorded as one whole sentence and the label placed under the sentence.            

How is it accessed?  

By touching the tip of the pen to the label and pressing the record button, you can record your voice. When you want to playback your recording, touch the tip of the pen to the label. The recorded labels can be placed under the words in a story, the numbers in a math equation or it can be used to record letter sounds for participation in phonics lessons.  

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