Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

3D Symbols

Implementing Project Core

Professional Development

Universal Core

Q. Why are you using a 3D printer to create the tactile symbols?

For the last decade, we have been teaching people to create tactile symbols to support students who are blind in accessing symbolic communication. We have relied heavily on the existing guidelines (e.g., TSBVI Standard Tactile Symbol List) for creating tactile symbols in a standardized way, and added symbols to those lists that reflected more conceptual vocabulary. We made endless sets of symbols using our handy glue gun and drawers full of materials we’ve been gathering for years. As our work expanded, we ran into two big problems: (1) symbols would get lost and we could never create new symbols that exactly matched the old symbols, and (2) our handmade symbols presented major choking hazards to many students. When 3D printers arrived, we realized they offered solutions to both of these problems. Once they were designed, we could recreate the exact symbol over and over again. Now, when a symbol students can use is lost (or destroyed), we can create a new one and there is no new learning curve. The 3D printer also allows us to create symbols with no small parts that could come off and present a choking hazard.

Q. Do the symbols on the 3D printer offer enough tactile information?

If you work with students who require tactile input, you have likely heard someone say, “plastic is plastic.” In other words, using the same material to produce symbols that are intended to represent a variety of words and concepts is problematic. While we agree that there are problems to address, the benefits of the 3D printer led us to try to design symbols that provided adequate tactile information even though they are all made from the plastic. In designing the symbols, we attended to the characteristics of materials that make them relatively easier or more difficult to perceive. These characteristics include things like roughness, compliance, coldness and slipperiness.

Q. I want to make my own symbols to add to the 3D symbols. What should I do?

As you work on adding symbols, consider sticking with the rules we’ve already developed in creating the first set of symbols for Project Core. The idea is to have a consistent shape for the word class:

  • verbs are red triangles with ridges like quarters around the edge;
  • prepositions are green squares with diagonal ridges around the edge;
  • adverbs are yellow circles with bumps like (like an inverse golf ball) around the edge;
  • adjectives are blue hearts with a smooth edge;
  • pronouns are white hexagons with a cross-hatched pattern around the edge;

Then, each shape has a word-specific symbol on it with the stamped word and braille to get the same orientation each time. Whenever possible, we used the same rules that are used by the Texas School for the Blind. You can find the Texas directory here:

When a word-specific symbol to attach to the base is not available, we work to find the most universally-applicable representation for the individual word because we want the students to learn to associate the word with all of its possible uses (over time) rather than focusing on a single referent.

Q. Should I provide my students with just a few Universal Core words at a time to get started?

We recommend all students have access to a minimum of 36 words, expecting that some students will benefit from fewer symbols on a single page and the partner may need to do much of the navigating between pages to model and invite students to use as they are getting started.

Q. How do I choose a Universal Core vocabulary format for my students?

Project Core has an online tool that helps teams make decisions regarding appropriate systems for individual students. The tool requires them to answer a few questions about each student’s ability to point, see, and visually scan an array of symbols. The online tool can be accessed at: This tool is not intended to replace more comprehensive AAC evaluations; it simply provides a suitable place to start.

Q. How do I determine if this is right for my students?

The need can be determined by answering a couple of questions:

  • Do you have students who cannot use symbolic language (speech, signs, or symbols) to communicate for a variety of purposes, across contexts and partners?
  • Do you have students who struggle with academic instruction because they lack sufficient communication skills?

If you answer yes to the above questions, Project Core holds potential for your students. There are no prerequisites for getting started.

Q. What if I am already using PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System)?

If students are successfully using PECS, the Universal Core can be provided as an additional support to expand the types and length of messages adults model and students may eventually compose. For some students, PECS vocabulary may focus on requesting or labeling items, with many nouns organized by category (e.g., foods, toys, places, activities) and one or two symbols for starter phrases such as I want or I see. Access to the Universal Core vocabulary may offer additional opportunities to expand communication and language. Adults can model symbol use by commenting, asking questions, seeking opinions and expanding the messages students communicate rather than only responding to requests.

Q. What if my students already have a speech generating device (SGD)?

If a student already has a speech generating device (SGD), the Universal Core vocabulary can be implemented using their existing system. We recommend students have access to all 36 words included in the Universal Core vocabulary. Most SGDs offer robust vocabulary options, which include core vocabulary. First, learn how to navigate to the 36 words on the student’s device. If the words are organized across a few different pages, consider making a key to refer to using the file here.  If the words are not available or the organization does not appear to be a suitable match for your student, refer to the user’s guide for the device and follow the steps to add a new page or pages to display the Universal Core vocabulary. For low-tech systems with smaller grids, review the symbol formats located at for ideas on multipage or level options.

Q. How much does the Program cost?

The training, tools and resources available from are free. The Program requires that ALL students have access to their own Universal Core vocabulary communication system. It also requires teachers have appropriate Universal Core vocabulary systems to use throughout the day. A range of Universal Core vocabulary systems are available as ready-to-print PDF files. Teams download, print in color, and laminate. Alternatively, each format can be printed and laminated for less than $30 at an external print shop (e.g., Kinkos). For students with existing speech generating devices, the Universal Core vocabulary can be accessed using their system.

Q. How can I assess my students’ communication abilities?

The Communication Matrix ( is free tool designed to help you recognize how each student is communicating using early behaviors for 4 primary reasons, including: to ask for things they want, refuse things they don’t, interact socially, and exchange information. The completed Communication Matrix profile can serve as a guide as you work to identify, honor and attribute meaning to these early communication attempts and in turn model more conventional and symbolic forms.

Q. How do I use the professional development modules?

There are detailed facilitator guides with scripted presenter notes, pre-recorded video content, and structured activities for 14 professional development modules. Each module requires between 30-60 minutes to complete. The suggested sequence for delivery is the order listed, with flexibility to schedule based on the time teachers have available for PD. As an alternative to a face-to-face model, there are also self-directed online modules. All modules are available at:

Q. Can we hire the Project Core team to do training for our school/team?

No, the Project team is focused on creating online professional development modules and supporting resources that provide schools with the materials needed to conduct trainings and implement the program without having the added expense of hiring outside support.

Q. How long does it take to complete the training?

The Program encourages teachers to get started using the instructional practices after an initial introduction. Up to 14 hours of professional development opportunities are available for self-directed study, facilitated group sessions, or a combination that meets individual or school district needs. Each module requires between 30-60 minutes to complete.

Q. I am unable to view videos on YouTube at my school.

We have added links to an alternate viewing site under each YouTube video in the modules in an effort to work around any internet filters.  If even these videos will not work for you, you do have a couple of other options.  You can download the full video from the facilitated materials for that module.  Or, you can talk with your IT department about allowing those specific YouTube links through any internet filters.

Q. I passed a module, but have not received a certificate.

Unfortunately, many people are having issues with the certificates getting caught by spam filters. You may want to speak with your IT department to ask for the e-mail address the certificate comes from ( to be allowed through the spam filters. If you have access to your Junk Mail/Spam folder, it may have been delivered there.  You can also enter an alternate e-mail address at the beginning of the module–the certificate will be delivered to whatever e-mail address you enter at the beginning. (As an aside, people using gmail often find their certificates are delivered to the spam/junk mail folder.)

Some people have also had success after adding the e-mail address ( to their contacts list.

We highly recommend keeping the electronic certificate you receive, especially if you are required to turn in copies to your testing coordinator.

As for the modules you have already completed, please contact us at  We will be happy to send any needed certificates to you!

Q. Are the videos Closed Captioned?

The videos available through YouTube are Closed Captioned.  Unfortunately, the alternate viewing sites are not.  Please talk with your IT department about getting access to the videos on YouTube.

Q. Why create universal rather than individual symbols?

In AAC, selecting the words to include and the symbols to represent those words is complicated. There are clear procedures outlined in the research literature, but those procedures can be time consuming and require teams with some level of expertise. For years, we followed these procedures and focused on helping teams learn to select and implement approaches to AAC that started with individualized vocabulary that was a best-fit for each student. We continue to think that work is critical, but we also believe it is critical to create a more universal solution that can be implemented by teachers who do not have access to a team, the expertise, or the time to develop individual solutions. There are simply too many students with significant cognitive disabilities who do not currently have access to AAC and too few people with the expertise to meet the need. The universal vocabulary is intended to fill a gap that will help all students move toward the robust, individualized solutions we know will lead to lifelong success in communication and learning.

Q. How were the 36 words in the Universal Core selected?

The 36 words were selected based in part on their rank order on a Project list of common words (621 total) that have been given priority scores based on their usefulness for communicating in social and academic contexts (see Dennis, Erickson & Hatch, 2013). In addition to the priority ranking, each word included in the Universal Core vocabulary is useful as a single word message for students who may not be combining two or more symbols together yet.

Q. How were the different Universal Core layouts designed?

The current arrangements are simply our best attempt to organize the words in a way that the relative position of the words stay consistent for both teachers and students from one layout to the next. Our goal is for students who start with a simplified layout to move to all 36 words on one page as possible. The different layouts are not research-based.

Q. What is the evidence-base for this instructional approach?

The current Project seeks to add to the literature base by investigating the use of a Universal Core vocabulary as a tier 1 classroom-wide support for students with significant cognitive disabilities. The components and teaching principles underpinning the program are informed by Mary Ann Romski and Rose Sevcik’s System for Augmenting Language (SAL) (1996, 2006), along with several reviews supporting AAC as an evidence-based practice (Chung, Carter & Sisco, 2012; Douglas, 2012; Ganz et al., 2011; Millar, Light & Schlosser, 2006; Schlosser & Wendt, 2008; Tien, 2008). Additionally, clear evidence supports modeling the use of symbols during natural communication interactions (e.g., Brady, Thiemann-Bourque, Fleming & Mathews, 2013; Cafiero, 2001; Drager et al., 2006; Romski & Sevcik, 1993; Sennott, Light & McNaughton, 2016). Finally, several studies have reported on the importance of core vocabulary based on frequency of use and flexibility across contexts and partners (Banajee, DiCarlo, & Stricklin, 2003; Beukelman, Jones, & Rowan, 1989; Dennis, Erickson, & Hatch, 2013; Marvin, Beukelman, & Bilyeu, 1994; Trembath, Balandin, & Togher, 2007).

Q. Why aren’t the words “yes” and “no” included in the Universal Core?

We recommend that all students have a natural or unaided way to communicate “yes” and “no” because they may not always have the Universal Core readily available. For example, suppose a student was hurt on the playground and taken to the hospital. Given the urgency of the situation, the school staff might not think of bringing the student’s AAC system along. The hospital staff would need to find out quickly if the student was in pain, where the pain was located (e.g., “Does your leg hurt?”), and if the student was feeling better as a result of intervention. This information could be communicated by answering “yes” or “no” with a head nod or shake, looking up for “yes” and down for “no”, blink once for “no” and blink twice for “yes” and so on. Since students with complex communication needs must learn to communicate “yes” and “no” without symbols, it was a practical decision to not include to make room for two additional core words, rather than using the limited space to replicate responses that can be expressed without using symbols.