How can I use Proloquo to teach categories?

  • 8 minute read

AssistiveWare Proloquo® organizes fringe words into categories. Children who are learning to use AAC need to be taught how categories work. As part of the “Proloquo explained” blog series, it is written for anyone who wants an in-depth explanation of the design of the new Proloquo AAC app.

(Updated February 14, 2024)

Proloquo has a robust vocabulary that sorts fringe words into categories. For example, common first words like dog and mom are sorted into categories (folders) like Animals and People. However, many emergent AAC users do not yet understand the concept of categories. For example, they may know the word dog but not yet understand that a dog is an animal. Fortunately, Proloquo is explicitly designed to help children learn both words and categories. This article describes how children learn categories and how you can use Proloquo to teach them.

Learning words

Children learn the concept of categories as they learn new words. Learning words and developing language is a process of learning what a word means and what it doesn’t. Part of that process is learning what groups the word might belong to.

For example, some common first words are mom and dog. Children first learn mom as their mom and dog as their dog or one particular dog. Over time, their understanding grows from specific to more general as they try to figure out what all moms or all dogs have in common. They might overgeneralize, calling all animals with 4 legs dog or all women mom. They might under-generalize, by focusing only on specific characteristics, such as only recognizing dogs if they are walking on a leash. The words children use reflect what they know about the words themselves. Their words show us how they are searching for patterns and commonalities to understand word meanings, such as when a 4-legged creature is a dog vs. when it is a cat. They are also searching for these patterns to apply context, such as knowing when something is big vs. when it is small. After all, a baby is small, but compared to a puppy, it is big! A dog can be big, but compared to a house, it is small.

Learning categories

In a way, even common simple words (like mom and dog) are a category because they represent a general concept. Learning about words is a process of associating many ideas and characteristics with that concept.

Over time, through interaction and experience with words and others, children learn how things can be put in groups. They learn that moms are a type of people. They learn that dads, teachers, and sisters are also types of people. They learn that dogs are animals, but not all animals are dogs. Children learn to do this by comparing and contrasting examples and non-examples of each group as they try to decipher what essential qualities make something a dog vs. a cat or a mom vs. a dad.

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The top level animals folder in AssistiveWare Proloquo

Learning words through graphic symbols

Spoken language is deeply abstract and symbolic. There is nothing inherent to the sounds of “dad” vs. “dog” that means that particular sound must mean one and not the other. Spoken words are an auditory symbol, a sound that represents a concept like dog vs. dad. Yet the sounds of speech are fleeting, gone as fast as they are spoken. The same word can sound different when spoken by different people in different contexts, with different accents, shouted vs. whispered, or spoken in isolation vs. in a sentence. Yet children learn words by mapping these fleeting abstract sounds to the things they observe around them.

Graphic symbols appear very abstract to adults who are unfamiliar with AAC. This is because we take the symbolism of speech for granted. A child who can’t speak but who understands spoken words understands abstract symbols. For other children, introducing AAC is their entry point to understand speech because they get a visual to pair with each spoken word. The power of graphic symbols is the concreteness with which they represent abstract, fleeting speech.

Proloquo uses SymbolStix symbols to represent the most common words in our language. However, the concreteness of graphic symbols may unintentionally make it harder for children to learn the broad concept. The graphic symbol of a dog may suggest only one type of dog. The symbol for people may suggest only one type of person. All nouns represent a category, whether that category is narrow like dogs or broad like animals. All children learn specific nouns, like dog or cat, before learning categories (like animals or pets). Adults have to explicitly support children to learn that the graphic symbol represents the big idea, not a single example.

Some adults are tempted to use photographs instead of graphic symbols. They intend to offer children something more concrete than graphic symbols. However, photographs are so concrete that they can further undermine learning language. After all, a photograph explicitly represents that person or that dog. Photographs can make it easier to learn a proper noun, like a dog named Sancho, but they interfere with the ordinary concept development we learn through using words like dog. We can use photographs like illustrations or images in a book to explore types of dogs or examples of dogs. Photographs on buttons in a child’s AAC system can represent the specific dogs in a child’s life. But we use graphic symbols to represent the word itself. This allows other people to talk about their dog, and it allows the child to talk about other dogs.

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AAC users need access to words that represent a category such as ‘cat’ as well a button for their cat.

Learning categories through graphic symbols

Learning categories is a process that occurs throughout early childhood. Children who cannot speak are often at a disadvantage when it comes to learning. They often don’t have access to the broad terms like animals or more specific categories like mammals or fish. They need lots of opportunities to observe, explore, interact, compare, and contrast these terms before the categories make sense. Part of learning to use AAC is learning how the graphic symbol represents the broad group of things and not just one example of it. This is one reason why categories should be explicitly taught.

Fortunately, the folder organization and graphic symbols in Proloquo’s Crescendo Evolution™ vocabulary can help teach the concept of categories. We placed words in scientifically accurate categories that support children to learn those categories over their lifespan. For example, foods are sorted into scientific food groups, such as Proteins and Vegetables, rather than by meals like lunch or dinner. What one person considers lunch food can be very different from another’s, but food groups are scientific. Animals are sorted by types, such as Mammals or Fish. Descriptors like farm animals are available as a concept, with a button, but not as a category because the animals raised on a farm differ from one farm to another

Teaching categorization with fringe folders

Fortunately, the labels on the folders have graphic symbols that are a strong visual cue about what might be inside. Help emergent users notice the symbol on the folder, just as you would help them notice the images in a picture book. Ask them to think about what words might be in the folder. Then encourage them to open the folder and see which ones they guessed.

Adults model AAC systems to teach children what the symbols mean and how to use them. Modeling a symbol includes modeling how folders work. When you model a word, you can occasionally use a think-aloud strategy to teach the categorization. Use the context of the folder to define and explore the meaning. “A shark is a type of fish. Fish are a type of Animal. Look! A ray is also a type of fish! What other types of fish do you see?”

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The Fish folder in AssistiveWare Proloquo

Children will likely need repeated explanations before they fully understand the concept of mammals vs. fish. Encourage kids to explore sophisticated words like invertebrate. Compare and contrast the different folders to help children learn the meaning of each one. Use the symbols as visual cues as children grow in their understanding from a concept like Animal to words like predator or herbivore. As children develop new interests, help them think about whether they need a new folder vs. expanding an existing one. For example, before creating a new folder for a dinosaur lover, help the child think about the subfolder of Reptiles. Compare and contrast it with the subfolder of Birds. Decide with the child whether Dinosaurs should be their own group or should be included with another.

The folder organization in Proloquo supports you to teach a wide variety of categories. You even have sufficient vocabulary to join the debates on whether Pluto is a planet or whether birds should be grouped as reptiles! Whether you are teaching animals or vehicles, biology or nutrition, the folders in Proloquo reflect what science knows today.

Most importantly, don’t wait to use fringe folders until children show they understand the concept of categories or sophisticated terms. Categorical thinking needs to be taught. Every time you model a fringe word, you can help teach these bigger ideas.


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