Aided Symbol Input and the Communication Matrix

Author-Avatar Karen Natoci

11/25/2019 8:21 PM

The Communication Matrix is an assessment of a person’s early expressive forms and functions. The role of the communication partner is to use receptive supports to promote progress on the Matrix by being responsive and embed potential “symbols” to help “connect the missing piece of the triangle” as shown in Figure 1. The way partners do this may vary (using objects, gestures/signs, graphic symbols, speech generating devices) but the idea is for the partner to model (receptively) the use of language forms the learner may be able to use very soon. Modeling can be done by grabbing a relevant object in the learner’s environment or by slowly and deliberately selecting the appropriate message (1-2 symbols) on a child’s communication system while simultaneously talking. This is known as partner-augmented input. It helps to create clarity and adds multi-modal redundancy when communicating. The Communication Matrix training that I received helped me to conduct this slowly without any overt expectations from the learner. I have learned to appreciate this as many blog posts out there tend to push forward “fast AAC:” multi-symbol AAC modeling (sentence level modeling) when it is not within reach of a child’s MLU and developmental level. 

We know that many terms have been used (e.g., Aided Language Input, Modeling, Natural aided language, aided language modeling, aided language stimulation, Augmented Input) to describe the evidenced-based approaches to teach children who are learning to use AAC approaches by modeling the use of AAC tools and strategies in context. Here’s how I think about it using the Communication Matrix to help guide AAC interventions. 

An example of a level II student receiving augmented input with relevant objects in the environment:

It is time to board the school bus. The adult (communication partner) can bring a piece of the seatbelt to the student while saying “time to go on the bus” augmenting the message. In this scenario, the communication partner is “talking level III to the level II student.”

An example of a level II student who shows an interest in 2-dimensional symbols:

The knowledgeable adult (or peer) brings a photo or schematic drawing of the school bus into the interaction to augment the message. In this scenario, the communication partner is “talking level V to the level II student.”

Teams may choose several scheduled activities to represent and use during natural interactions using partner augmented input. By doing so, we establish the foundation for learners to eventually express themselves because they are being exposed to symbols and relevant objects/activities in meaningful ways throughout the day (the completed communication triangle referenced in my previous post)

Figure 1

A review of figure 1 (see end of post for figures) may show how receptive use of some key core words align with the Matrix. It may be a nice idea to bring the corresponding symbols with you to meetings and demonstrate just how to perform partner augmented input. The targeted symbols shown (stop, more, want) are used for a student who is mainly communicating at a level III. In this instance, the team agreed to emphasize these symbols (which themselves are level V) receptively, using partner-augmented input TO the student communicating at a level III. 

Figure 2

In figure 2, we circled the target area and shared symbols that align with the message to use receptively. The parents of this student were concerned about his need for more social experiences (he had orthopedic challenges and his expressions were difficult to interpret). This student was beginning to use a voice output communication aid to reinstate pleasurable activities (i.e., a big mac to say “more!”) The team used this image to justify the modeling of these core words (pictured here) to build the foundation for his eventual spontaneous use of “hi” or “hey” to greet or gain attention which would be found in his new and more robust AAC System. 

Figure 3

Sometimes we’ve drawn arrows on the Matrix (figure 3) to consider the learner’s needs and options for intervention and support. In this illustration, we consider supporting more communicative functions (horizontal) or type of symbolic support (vertical). 

Figure 4

Figure 4 shows how we may simply draw a circle around the communication function to promote using a new form (their new device). 

Figure 5

Figure 5 shows how we use partner-augmented input (PAI) that is just one level above where a learner is communicating. The black arrows depict the receptive communication taking place using modeling (PAI) strategies. 

Figure 6

The areas highlighted in yellow in figure 6 show how this student’s abilities were limited to using body based forms alone with live voice scanning. The areas in orange show how he, undergoing AAC device trials, benefited from using Unity (Accent 1400 with NuEye). The Accent allowed this student to communicate autonomous messages at a distance. This student’s abilities have moved beyond the scope of the Matrix. We included this image in his AAC Funding report. 

Figure 7

This Matrix (figure 7) kicked off a wonderful conversation with the team and family as the unaided and aided AAC tools and systems enhanced his communication in different ways with different partners. The “P” indicated in level VII are his pre-programmed messages, used strategically, so that the learner could be a more efficient communicator. 

Figure 8

In this Matrix (figure 8), the yellow shows this learner’s use of body based communication (unaided, including live voice scanning) with familiar partners to include the ability to convey new information through yes/no questioning. The green shows how using the Tobii further enhanced his ability to begin to communicate more completely, at a distance, and with unfamiliar partners. 

Figure 9

This figure (figure 9) shows how the most common way to use colors on the Matrix is to celebrate progress! As seen in this image, I like to use different colors to show change and usually start here before drawing arrows and circles all over it! 


Using the Communication Matrix in this way is an alternative, non-standard way of coding the Matrix to reference during an IEP or for embedding in a report. It can be a dynamic way to clarify how learners communicate using different tools and strategies, as well as a roadmap for measuring progress. Discussing the results of the Communication Matrix in this visual manner provides opportunities to talk about how partners may play an essential role to promote progress. 

Helping learners to use AAC systems effectively doesn’t come out of thin air! Expressive AAC use happens when thoughtful partners use partner-augmented input and practice modeling strategies during natural interactions. This can be illustrated by drawing right on the Matrix itself. Discussing receptive supports in a team meeting may help to build the foundation for eventual expressive use of a personal AAC system. Add patience and consistency… you have a recipe for success!

Note: All images in this post are reprinted with permission and are representations of the printed version of the Communication Matrix (Rowland, 2004).

SGD/Communication device,Level 1. Pre-Intentional Behavior,Level 2. Intentional Behavior,Level 3. Unconventional Communication,Level 4. Conventional Communication,Level 5. Concrete Symbols,Level 7. Language,Intervention Strategies

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