We are frequently asked “How do I transition a student / a client / my child from Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), to some sort of speech output device?” People give a variety of reasons for wanting to move on from PECS. Sometimes it’s a desire for voice output. Other times it’s the difficulty of organizing, maintaining and carrying around an increasingly large PECS book. But most of the time we hear “he’s stuck at requesting”, “she is only asking for things”, “we can’t have a conversation beyond ‘I want’ or ‘I see’”, “I want to know what he’s thinking”, “how can she tell me if something’s wrong?”
If we look at all the reasons we communicate, we see that requesting is a very small part of what we do to connect with other people. There are many other reasons we communicate:
We need to add different kinds of words to enable full communication. We can’t rely on just “I want” and “I see”. We have two questions to answer - which words to introduce, and how to introduce them?
We usually start with adding core words to a language learner’s communication system. Core words are those words that are most frequently used in everyday conversation - verbs like stop, go, come, get; adjectives like more, good, little; pronouns like I, you, it, that; prepositions like up, on, there. With words like these, there’s so much more we can say. Learn more about core words.
So now we know which words to include - how do we introduce them into a communication system? There are two directions we can go. We can switch right away to a new communication system with a robust language system and voice output. Or we can gradually transition to a new system by adding core words to the PECS system and the environment, while making a plan to eventually switch to a more robust communication system.
The choice between these two alternatives will depend on how well the child and the child’s team (school staff, therapists, parents) tolerate change. In making this choice there are two issues that are often forgotten. First, the people most resistant to change are often the child’s team rather than the child. And second, while it may be tempting to take the gradual route to a robust voice output system, remember that this may result in more changes in the end than going directly to the robust system.
If you choose the gradual route to core words, here are a few ways you can add core words to the existing PECS system:
No matter how you add core words into the mix, remember that core words, while powerful, are difficult to represent in a picture. What would a picture of “do” or “it” look like? This means that in order for the child to learn the meaning of these new words, adults will need to model the words in 1-2 word sentences during daily activities and conversations. At this stage, when the child is just transitioning from PECS, you’ll want to model telegraphic sentences like “get it”, “put here”, “go in”, “you eat”.
It’s important to model just above the child’s current level - you’re showing the child the next step they will take when they're ready. And remember, you should model without requiring the child to imitate what you’re doing! You’re just showing the child the possibilities, not correcting him or teaching him using drills. See the presentation Core Words: Focus on Model(l)ing to learn more about modeling with core words.
Don’t stay too long with a hybrid PECS / core word system - you’ll be missing the depth and richness of a full vocabulary of all word kinds, as well as voice output which can be helpful in understanding language and even providing a consistent model for speech. There are a number of AAC solutions that can help you take the next step in language and communication teaching. In any system, here’s what you should look for:
The AAC system you are transitioning to may have different vocabulary levels to choose from. If you’re transitioning to Proloquo2Go, we recommend using Crescendo, the built-in vocabulary that comes with Proloquo2Go, and selecting the Intermediate Core vocabulary level. While it may be tempting to select the Basic Communication vocabulary level, because of its similarity to PECS, that’s exactly the reason NOT to use Basic Communication! You need to be taking the student to the next step on their communication journey, not repeating the same step they’ve already mastered.
You’ll also want to set up the new system to have as many buttons per page as possible. Choose the smallest button size that the child can physically tap. This will give them access to as much language as possible without having to navigate away from the home page. If the home page seems too busy at first, it’s easy in most systems to hide or mask some of the words temporarily, and reveal them gradually as the child progresses. This way, the buttons that have already been learned stay in the same location as new words are revealed. For more information on how this can be done in Proloquo2Go Crescendo, watch Getting started with Proloquo2Go 4 and Introduction to Crescendo Vocabulary.
You may want to have the PECS book around during the transition to the more complex system. If the learner has been successful in getting their needs met using the PECS book, it is likely to cause distress if the PECS book disappears. How long both systems will need to be available will of course vary from person to person.
If the learner uses the PECS book to communicate, you can model on the new system how they would find the same item there. But remember you’re modeling on the new system just to show them it’s possible to find the word on that system, not to require them to re-communicate what they've already told you quite clearly with the PECS book! You can also take the opportunity to use the new system to say something about what the learner requested with the PECS book - describe it, make a comment about it, use a verb that is not in the PECS book but that is appropriate to item that was requested. This will show the learner that there are possibilities available with the new system that they can explore.
However you manage the transition from PECS to a full communication system, you can be sure that you’re allowing someone to communicate more fully - and they’ll thank you for it. They may also protest, refuse, flirt, tell you a story or a joke, or ask you questions - because you’ve given them the means to communicate more fully!
Have you done the transition from PECS to a full communication system? Share your experience below.
Recommended links for additional information: