Tangible Symbol Systems: Promoting Progress

The ability to communicate is a constantly developing skill. One key to promoting steady progress is to regularly document the learner's performance using objective data. Whenever the data shows that the learner has reached a learning plateau, variables should be adjusted to ensure continued progress. There are seven major changes that may promote progress.

The first and most important change is to expand the learner's vocabulary. As soon as the child has acquired one set of symbols, introduce more. Give the user the power to communicate symbolically about as many topics as possible.
Another step in targeting progress is to increase the size of the array of symbols. Generally a learner starts out using only one symbol at a time. Using a single symbol requires no discrimination, but does teach the learner what to do with a symbol. Upon the addition of a second symbol to the array, the learner begins to discriminate between symbols. Gradually increase the number of symbols available to the learner in the symbol array. The more vocabulary presented to the learner at once, the more efficiently he will be able to communicate.
Once a learner understands how to use a set of symbols under carefully controlled conditions, show her that the symbols can be used in other settings, such as at home, in the community, with other people, and at other times of the day. Make sure that the use of symbols generalizes to any appropriate context.
Once the fundamentals of communicating through Tangible Symbols have been acquired, encourage the learner to use symbols for different communicative functions. Generally learners start by using symbols to make requests or to make choices of items that they enjoy. Once learners have become adept at making requests, show them how to use symbols for other communicative purposes, such as labeling or making comments or asking questions.
Another approach to increasing the complexity of symbol use is to progress from single-symbol utterances tomato-symbol utterances. It is possible to chain tangible symbols together into simple phrases, just as it is possible to chain words together.
Tangible symbols must be available whenever they might be needed. Accessible symbols are more likely to be used by the learner. If a learner does not 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 has understood 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.
The final area of targeting progress involves changing to a more conventional type of symbol. Although it is more critical to teach a learner to communicate competently and spontaneously with a large vocabulary, teaching the use of more abstract symbols is one method of continuing progress.