Ideas to Share

Color Coded Picture Communication Symbols

The phrase "I wrote colored symbols on this paper" using color-coded picture communication symbols
Click above picture to read the PDF on my bulletin board.

My Experience
Background Colors


Some of my students are nonverbal (do not speak) so they are learning to point to picture communication symbols like the ones above to communicate. I chose black pictures on colored backgrounds for my website’s banner, following the method that I learned in a workshop at my school district’s instructional technology office. This symbol coloring style is based on the work of Carol Goossens, Ph.D., CCC-SLP (Certificate of Clinical Competence for Speech-Language Pathologists).

Almost twenty years ago, I attended a series of workshops hosted by my school district on “Engineering the Classroom.” This work built upon Carol Goosen’s Aided Language Stimulation approach to teaching students to effectively use picture communication symbols. Typically developing children easily progress from single word utterances to conversing in full sentences as they mature. Students who cannot speak often need much more instruction to improve their communication skills. While it is true that not everyone colors their communication symbols, I began using this technique as soon as I learned about it.

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My Experience

My personal experience aligns with what I learned in the workshop. Students have to see their communication system in use throughout the day (and preferably at home also). Just as children who talk or sign progress from single words to complete sentences, picture communication symbols users need that same opportunity. I have seen color coded symbols assist students to communicate. They also assist me to make sure that I provide a full range of symbols that allow for varied communication opportunities and experiences. Some students eventually outgrow the need for color coding, and other students may never need it, but I find it is a nice thing to have in my bag of tricks. I try to remember to point to symbols myself as I speak with nonverbal students; this models and validates their method of communication.

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Background Colors

Here is the list of background colors that I learned in the workshops.
Pink: Verbs (i.e. walk, eat)
Blue: Descriptors — adjectives, adverbs, etc (i.e. warm, slowly)
Green: Prepositions (i.e. on, before)
Yellow: Nouns (i.e. chair, paper)
Orange: Miscellaneous category of interaction words
Question-words (i.e. Who, How)
Exclamations (i.e. uh oh, wow)
Negative Words (i.e. no, don’t)
Pronouns (i.e. I, them)

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Although the workshop I attended was over twenty years ago, many people continue to use Carol Goosen’s Aided Language Stimulation with children and adults who rely on picture communication symbols to communicate. A brief survey on the Internet brought up two articles of interest. The first abstract I read was about working with adults (Beck, Ann R.; Stoner, Julia B.; and Dennis, Marcia L.). An investigation of aided language stimulation: Does it increase AAC use with adults with developmental disabilities and complex communication needs? Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 25-1, pp 42-54, 2009. Retrieved September 21, 2016, from The second abstract dealt with children (Bruno, Joan and Trembath, David). Use of aided language stimulation to improve syntactic performance during a weeklong intervention program. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 22-4, pp 300-313, 2006. Retrieved September 21, 2016, from Both of these articles confirmed what I learned in the workshop many years ago and through my own experience as a teacher.

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By Jeanne Stork

I am a special education teacher who supervised a technology lab for twenty five years. The lab had specialized software, adapted mice, additional adapted hardware, and picture symbol communication aids for students whose significant disabilities made it difficult for them to use the general computer lab. I taught students who could not climb the stairs to my lab in their classrooms. I also assisted teachers and other personnel in my school with their technology needs as time permitted. Before moving to the technology lab, I was a classroom teacher with a classroom computer that students and staff could use. Now, I am a semi-retired substitute teacher.

One reply on “Color Coded Picture Communication Symbols”

I have recently reduced my use of color-coded symbols because I was the only teacher in my school still using this technique. Like many methods used to teach communication skills, this technique works best in an immersive environment.


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