Alphabet charts can be a powerful way to support face-to-face communication for individuals who are unable to rely upon speech to communicate in all situations, all of the time.
While some people may choose to rely predominantly upon an alphabet chart to support their face-to-face communication, typically someone will use an alphabet chart alongside a host of other communication strategies, including gesture, signing, vocalisation and sometimes high tech AAC.
While alphabet charts are an obvious tool for those who are literate, they are also highly recommended for use alongside a symbol based communication book for those at the very earliest stages of literacy. The can be a great way to support early exploration of speech sounds and spelling, particularly for those who find holding a pencil more difficult.
For information and guidance on how to design and use alphabet charts, read the ibook, Getting Started with AAC: Designing and using alphabet charts
Alphabet charts can be laid out in different ways. There are advantages and disadvantages to each method, and some suit different access methods better than others. Ultimately, the choice comes down to personal preference and what seems to work best for an individual and their communication partners. You may also want to think about how an individual uses the alphabet when writing and accessing a computer. Sometimes there are good reasons for having different layouts across different tools, but often it is a good idea to be as consistent as possible.
ABC spelling boards
Arranging letters in alphabetical order has the advantage of minimising the time needed to learn where the letters are, as the layout should feel familiar. The potential disadvantage is that is has not been designed to meet the needs of someone spelling using one finger/body part. Due to its familiarity, an ABC layout can work particularly well for someone using listener mediated scanning.
A selection of ready-made ABC spelling boards are available for you to download for free here.
Encoded layout spelling boards
Encoding is a way of helping someone to use direct access if they aren't able to point to the 26 individual letters of the alphabet on an alphabet chart. Encoding groups letters together, thereby reducing the number of target areas on a page. The communicator can then indicate a group of letters, and clarify which letter they want from this group using a second movement.
Alphabet charts can be encoded in a variety of ways, including colour, number, shape, position. Encoding takes time to learn, both for the individual and for their communication partner.
A selection of ready-made encoded layout spelling boards are available for you to download for free here.
Frequency layout spelling boards
Frequency layout describes an approach where letters are arranged so that the most frequently used letters in a word, e.g. 'e' and 't', are accessed more quickly or easily than letters that are used infrequently, such as 'q' and 'z'. Unlike QWERTY and ABC layouts, there is not one 'standard' frequency layout. The design of a frequency layout will be affected by the access method being used. If letters are being read aloud to an individual, the most frequently used letters are best at the beginning of the list. If the letters are being selected directly, however, it may be better to place the most frequently used letters in the centre of the page to minimise movement.
A selection of ready-made frequency layout spelling boards are available for you to download for free here.
High contrast spelling boards
Visual accessibility can be increased by using a high level of contrast between the background and foreground colours. Commonly used high contrast combinations include yellow and black, and yellow and blue. In addition to contrast, you should also consider glare. For example, a large expanse of bright yellow background might generate a lot of glare that could be difficult for an individual. It is often advisable to avoid gloss laminates, which can reflect overhead lighting and cause distortion and glare, and to use matt laminates instead.
A selection of ready-made high contrast spelling boards are available for you to download for free here.
QWERTY spelling boards
This is the arrangement of letters that you find on computers and typewriters. QWERTY layouts can work well for people accessing boards by direct touch. It is not a layout that has been designed to speed up letter selection, however. The QWERTY layout has been designed to be used with ten fingers, and for someone using one finger or some sort of pointing tool, there is going to be a lot of movement around the board.
A selection of ready-made QWERTY spelling boards are available for you to download for free here.
Spelling boards with words and phrases too
In addition to letters on an alphabet chart, you may want to consider providing easy access to commonly spoken words and phrases. This may be to support someone who is able to read well, but finds spelling what they want to say more tricky. Even someone who can spell well, however, may still find it quicker to point to words and phrases that are commonly spoken, rather than having to spell these words and phrases letter-by-letter each time. Alongside commonly spoken words or phrases, you may also want to include useful problem solving words or phrases, such as, "mistake", "start over", "I don't understand", "you decide please", "It's not here", "please can you add a word / phrase for me?" etc.
A selection of ready-made spelling boards with words and phrases are available for you to download for free here.