Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 2015; 31(2): 97–107 © 2015 International Society for Augmentative and Alternative Communication ISSN 0743-4618 print/ISSN 1477-3848 online DOI: 10.3109/07434618.2015.1036117
Interpretation and Construction of Meaning of Bliss-words in Children MARGARETA JENNISCHE & MARIANNE ZETTERLUND† Department of Neuroscience, Speech and Language Pathology, Uppsala University, Sweden
Abstract Blissymbolics as a graphic symbol system has the potential to represent a large number of vocabulary items using a small number of basic Bliss-characters. The aim of this project was to investigate how children with typical development, aged 3 years to 7 years 11 months, interpreted Bliss-characters and compound Bliss-words and then constructed their own Bliss-words. Children participated in a teaching procedure that included explanations and feedback on the structure and meaning of Bliss-characters. Their spontaneous interpretations of Bliss-characters and their ability to construct new Bliss-words were explored. Results suggest that Bliss-characters, although not very transparent, evoked spontaneous linguistic activities and were retained after brief explanations. Children aged 5 years and older appeared to discover the logic of the structure of Bliss-words. Children of all ages used Bliss-characters to represent new ideas. Some chose Bliss-characters resembling adult representations of concepts, others chose Bliss-characters representing personal associations. In sum, children retained many of the Bliss-characters after a relatively brief exposure and demonstrated semantic creativity in interpretation and construction of Bliss-words.
Keywords: Blissymbolics; Augmentative and alternative communication; Graphic symbols; Language development;Word-formation
each of which has a unique meaning (Blissymbolics Communication International, 2004). Figure 1 illustrates the graphics used as examples. Bliss-characters may have a concrete meaning (e.g., HOUSE, CHAIR, PERSON, PLANT) or an abstract meaning (e.g., FEELING is represented by a heart; PROTECTION is represented by the shape of a roof, which refers to the function of a roof: to protect; and MIND is represented by the shape of the skull). Bliss-characters can be sequenced or superimposed to form new Blisswords with new meanings. For example, a greenhouse is represented by the sequence of HOUSE-PLANT, a wheelchair is represented by CHAIR-WHEEL, the concept of lonely is FEELING-WITHOUT-PERSON (the adjective form is marked with the descriptive indicator above the first character). The Bliss-characters and Bliss-words are symbols that represent concepts. They are not intended to depict objects, but include features distinctive to the meanings (e.g., CAR has a steering wheel and wheels, ANIMAL has four legs). As the characters do not depict specific objects (i.e., a specific animal or car), they can represent the super-ordinate categories of cars and animals. The activity TO SWING does not include a picture of the object swing but only the core features: the swinging
Since the early1970s Blissymbolics has been used as a graphic communication system for persons in need of Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC). An international committee continuously works on the development of Blissymbolics, and today the Blissymbolics Authorized Vocabulary (Blissymbolics Communication International, 2014) holds more than 5000 Bliss-words (in old terminology: Blissymbols). Blissymbolics has a unique structure that differentiates it from pictures when used as an AAC tool. In studies researchers have suggested enhancing this structure when teaching Blissymbolics (Schlosser & Lloyd, 1993; Shepherd & Haaf, 1995). In the present study, we created a teaching procedure in which children were successively introduced to the structure of Blissymbolics. The children’s reactions to the Bliss-characters and Blisswords were studied in relation to how they interpreted and learned the characters and words and then generated their own new Bliss-words. In the text, the meanings of the Blisscharacters and Bliss-words are in capital letters and italicized. The Structure of Blissymbolics Blissymbolics is a concept-based graphic system (Bliss, 1965) that is based on a number of Bliss-characters, †
Marianne Zetterlund is now at Skanskvarnsskolan, Stockholm, Sweden. Correspondence: Margareta Jennische, Department of Neuroscience, Speech and Language Pathology, Uppsala University, Sweden. E-mail: margareta. [email protected]
(Received 20 March 2014; revised 25 March 2015; accepted 26 March 2015)
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Figure 1. Examples included in the paragraph Structure of Blissymbolics. The glosses of the Bliss-characters and Bliss-words are given under their graphic entities (Jennische, 2012).
directions. To indicate specific meanings, additional Bliss-characters are added to represent specific, distinctive, semantic features (e.g., ELEPHANT is ANIMAL⫹ NOSE). Within the same logic structure, advanced concepts, such as LEADER (a person with the function to think forward) and PERSONALITY (the emanation from a person), are included. Given that each Bliss-character or Bliss-word represents a concept with an intended meaning, this meaning can be explained in several ways, that is, with synonyms, as a sequence of words, or as a sentence. In the examples in Figure 1, only one English gloss for each meaning is used. All Bliss-words in the Figure and Tables have been drawn with WinBliss™ (Anycom AB, 2001). Studies on Blissymbolics Early studies into Blissymbolics focused mostly on children’s spontaneous interpretation of Bliss-words compared to other graphic systems. Different studies evaluated the visual transparency of Bliss-words (the degree to which the meaning is obvious without referents). Bliss-words and pictographic symbols were either matched with corresponding pictures of the referents or were indicated after auditory input. The results of a large number of studies showed that pictographic systems were more transparent and easier to interpret than Blisswords (Alant, Life, & Harty, 2005; Burroughs, Albritton, Eaton, & Montague, 1990; Hurlbut, Iwata, & Green, 1982; Mirenda & Locke 1989). Bliss-words were found to be easier to learn than written words (Huges, 1979). In the Burroughs et al. (1990) study comparing the interpretation of Rebus symbols with the interpretation of simple and compound Bliss-words in speaking preschool children with language delays, a training component was included, during which the participants were told the correct interpretation following their spontaneous interpretation during a pre-test. The results of this study showed that with training, the percentage
of correctly interpreted Bliss-words increased by 72% (from 5.4 to 78.6%) while the percentage of correctly interpreted Rebus symbols increased by 35% (from 57 to 92%). Thus, Bliss-words were not always transparent, but when told their meaning, the children demonstrated relatively rapid learning. Visual translucency and the complexity of Blisswords have been studied as two variables influencing the learnability of Bliss-words (Hetzroni, Quist, & Lloyd, 2002; Luftig & Bersani, 1985). In these studies, translucency was defined as the perceived relationship between the Bliss-word and the referent, once the referent was provided; while complexity was defined as the number of lines or strokes used to compose the symbol. In their study of undergraduate students, Luftig and Bersani (1985) reported that translucency facilitated learning, while complexity hindered learning. Hetzroni et al. (2002) concluded in their study of three preschool children with little or no functional speech that (a) highly translucent Bliss-words were learned more quickly than Bliss-words with low translucency, and (b) that high complexity could assist learning of highly translucent Bliss-words but could hinder learning when translucency was low. Alant, Zheng, Harty, and Lloyd (2013) asked children with autism to rate the translucency of Bliss-words on a four-point Likert scale (from not at all to exactly alike) on 3 consecutive days. They concluded that repeated exposure may increase the perceived degree to which a Bliss-word represents its meaning. In each of these studies, translucency was studied through paired associate learning. Huang and Chen (2011) investigated the impact of teaching by introducing the real referent, the real object, and the picture or motion for each symbol, when teaching pictographic symbols of low translucency to children with cerebral palsy (CP). They found that the children with CP had good success learning low-transparency symbols, but that their rate of learning was slower than the learning rate of a peer group. Carmeli and Shen (1998) pointed out that approaches focusing on visual relationships between Bliss-words and word referents were too narrow, and so introduced the term, semantic transparency/translucency, which refers to how well the different components (characters) of a Bliss-word relate to its meaning. From this point of view, some Blisswords were highly semantically translucent, with high guessability and high semantic agreement scores. For example, the word bedroom was orally explained as room for sleeping). Other words, such as citizen (explained as a person related to the earth) were the least semantically translucent, and were rated at 0 on a scale for guessability, and received a low score on the scale of agreement. Participants in the Carmeli and Shen study were adults without disabilities. The authors emphasized the importance of the inner conceptual relationship between the meaning of the target referent and the composite meaning of the Bliss-word components. A core feature of Blissymbolics is that all elements included in a compound Bliss-word contribute to the Augmentative and Alternative Communication
Interpretation and Construction of Bliss-words meaning of the Bliss-word. The question may then be asked, does teaching the semantic elements facilitate learning the Bliss-words? Schlosser and Lloyd (1993) taught symbol elements to mainstream preschool children before introducing compound Bliss-words in a story-telling context. The teaching of elements did not contribute to the acquisition and retention of the Blisswords compared to the results of the control group, who had not been taught the elements separately. However, the same study showed that knowledge of the semantic elements facilitated generalization to untrained compound Bliss-words. Shepherd and Haaf (1995) studied the importance of understanding the meaning of the elements included in the Bliss-words for learning Bliss-words. They used two different training methods to teach Bliss-words to 6- and 12-year-old children without disabilities: Half of the children were taught compound Bliss-words through paired associations and the other half were taught both the composite meaning of each Bliss-word and the meaning of each included element. The results showed that, when the elements of the Bliss-words were included in the training, the children, regardless of age, learned the Bliss-words faster. In accordance with Schlosser and Lloyd, Shepherd and Haaf also found that the children who knew the semantic elements were better at generalizing their knowledge to new stimuli than those who did not know the elements. Thus, the children showed the ability to use the elements to derive new meanings. Vygotsky (1978) has described how guidance in the zone of proximal development from a more experienced person in situations of interaction is essential for cognitive development. Therefore, in a situation in which Blissymbolics are being taught, guidance to assist children in discovering the logic of the system could be considered essential. The current study focused on the impact of children’s explorations of Bliss-characters, including discussions of the meaning of their graphic elements, on tasks in which they interpreted and formed their own Bliss-words. The children were asked to tell the meaning of Bliss-characters and Bliss-words before and after explanations, and subsequently to construct their own Bliss-words. The research questions were: What are the children’s spontaneous interpretations of Bliss-characters and Bliss-words? Will they capture the structure of the Bliss-words? Will they learn and retain their meanings after explanations? Can children construct their own Bliss-words, and how will they explain their meanings? Informed consent was obtained from principals at the schools and from parents of the children prior to commencement of data collection. This complied with Swedish ethics regulations for this kind of study.
General Method Participants Children were recruited from mainstream urban preschools and elementary schools in different parts © 2015 International Society for Augmentative and Alternative Communication
of Sweden. The investigators were teachers, speechlanguage pathologists (SLPs) and SLP students, all with good knowledge of the Bliss system. All investigators took part in an advanced course in Blissymbolics at Uppsala University. A total of 43 children with typical development between the ages of 3 and 7;11 participated: 14 were between 3 and 3;11 (6 boys, 8 girls); 6 were between 4 and 4;11, (2 boys, 4 girls); 8 were between 5 and 5;11, (5 boys, 3 girls); 8 were between 6 and 6;11, (5 boys, 3 girls); and 7 were between 7 and 7;11, (5 boys, 2 girls). The principals of the schools selected the appropriate classes from which to draw the students; parents of the children were given information regarding the project in the classrooms; and the children were included in the study on a first come, first served, basis. Exclusion criteria were severe developmental disorders. No further individual information regarding the general development or the language development of the children was collected. The children had not previously seen any Blisscharacters or Bliss-words. They had no knowledge about the use of Blissymbolics or AAC.With a few exceptions the children and the investigators did not know each other. Materials and Procedure All of the investigators participated in the design of the study and had agreed on the same procedures and instructions to be used with the children during the assessment. During the process, the investigators also discussed the children’s answers and expressions and the results were later organized and summarized. The study was conducted in Swedish. The children each participated individually during a single session of approximately 30 min. During the session, each child was seated next to the investigator. All of the tasks were introduced to all of the children in the same order. All spontaneous responses were written down and included in the analyses. The study was carried out in three separate parts: Part I, interpretation of single Blisscharacters; Part II, interpretation of compound Blisswords; Part III, children’s own constructions of compound Bliss-words both for given meanings (Part III A), and for their own ideas (Part III B). A pilot study was conducted to test the protocol (the sequence of all tasks). It was concluded that the protocol was too long for the 3-year-old children, and so a shorter protocol was developed for this age group that was comprised of the first 6 of the 12 tasks in Part II and the first three of the six tasks in Part III A. Some minor variation was observed in task completion. Due to a misunderstanding, only 7 of the targeted 15 Bliss-characters in Part I were presented to six of the 3-year-olds. In Part III A, only seven 3-year-olds participated in at least one of the three tasks. The other 3-yearolds had lost concentration by then. All of the children in the other age groups completed Part III A. Part III B, the children’s own constructions of compound Bliss-words for their own ideas, inspired some children to give at least one suggestion (two out of six 4-year-olds,
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two out of eight 5-year-olds, six out of eight 6-year-olds, and six out of seven 7-year-olds). In the pretest of Parts I and II, the children gave their spontaneous interpretations of the Bliss-character or Bliss-word. After each item, the investigator gave the explanation of the Blisscharacter (Part I) and the strategy for interpreting compound Bliss-words (Part II). The same procedure was then carried out for the next item. Directly after they completed all items in each part, the children demonstrated how many they had learned (the posttest). The focus of Part III was on the children’s own constructions of Bliss-words, which they created by choosing and combining Bliss-characters, and on their explanations of the meanings of the words.
Part I: Interpretation of Single Bliss-characters The two research questions of Part I of the study were (a) How do children between 3 and 7;11 years of age spontaneously interpret single Bliss-characters?, and (b) Can children between 3 and 7;11 years of age retain the correct interpretation after being provided with the explanation (posttest)? The purpose of this part was also to familiarize the children with the meaning of the Bliss-characters, which would be used in the second and third parts of the study. Method A total of 15 different Bliss-characters were included, representing HOUSE, CAR, BOAT, BOOK, CROWN, ANIMAL, PERSON, HAND, FOOT, PROTECTION, HEAD, FABRIC, TABLE, FLOOR, and BED (see Appendix to be found online at http://informahealthcare.com/doi/abs/10.3109/07434618.2015.1036117). The chosen Bliss-characters were all frequently used in children’s Bliss-vocabulary. They also represented a range of typical features of Bliss-characters: they were pictographic, and included pointers to depict meanings; they carried distinctive features (e.g., ANIMAL, four legs); and they represented an abstract meaning, (PROTECTION). It was possible to combine the chosen Bliss-characters to form compound Bliss-words. Three Bliss-characters at a time on separate cards were put on the table and the investigator pointed at the first of them and said, Now you will see some pictures I have. They are a little unusual but maybe you can see what they are anyway. What do you think this is? The children were not asked to give one word or one meaning, but to tell what they thought the characters could represent. The children first gave their spontaneous interpretations (pretest) of the first Bliss-character. If they gave the intended answer the investigator said, Yes, that´s right, it is a….. If the answer was incorrect the investigator explained the shape and meaning of the character (see Appendix to be found online at http://informahealthcare.com/doi/abs/10.3109/07434618.2015.1036 117). The explanations were part of the protocol. Most of the explanations were in accordance with those in
Semantography (Bliss, 1965), but some were adjusted so that the children could understand the meanings. When all 15 Bliss-characters were introduced, the same procedures were followed while the children were asked to look at them again; they were offered an extra explanation if needed. The children were again asked to say the meaning of all the Bliss-characters (the posttest). All answers of the pretest and posttest were written down. Data Analysis The children’s answers to what they thought the Blisscharacters represented were grouped according to content and structure. Three groups were regarded as correct: (a) the character gloss, (b) synonyms to the gloss, and (c) descriptions of the intended meaning within the category of the Bliss-word (e.g., PERSON both person and man were correct and FOOT both foot and feet, and someone who walks and a pointer which points at the foot). Incorrect interpretations were also grouped and included as incorrect in the calculations (i.e., a word with an incorrect meaning (roof instead of protection; a novel word; a sequence of words or a sentence with incorrect meaning; a number or letter or geometric form; a character read out as a story; a rearrangement of the characters on the table to make a picture; and an answer, I don’t know from the children). All groups were given a code. The percentage (M, SD) of correctly interpreted Bliss-characters per age group was calculated in the pretest. As noted previously, six of the 3-year-olds participated in only 7 of the 15 Bliss-characters; the percentage for those 3-years-olds is calculated on the seven Bliss-characters. A calculation for each single Bliss-character was also performed to describe their variations of transparency (correct interpretation without explanation). The children’s results in the posttest (%, M, SD) showed how well they retained the meanings after explanation. Testing for statistical significance was performed with Paired Samples Test (2-tailed p). IBM SPSS Statistics 20 was used. Results Children spontaneously gave many different possible interpretations of the characters (e.g., CAR was interpreted as glasses, train, bicycle; ANIMAL was interpreted as m with a cover, a bench, a tree house, a house of playing cards, monster teeth, something strange – a cutting board; PERSON was interpreted as flag pole, hammer, broom, stick). Some Bliss-characters stimulated the fantasy of the children (e.g., CAR was an old Santa Claus sleigh, and ANIMAL was an old man that lies like an m.) The orientation did not seem important for some children (e.g., BOAT was interpreted as a pole with a lamp, umbrella, mushroom, parasol, lollipop). Fourteen percent of the total number of answers was, I don’t know. The results of the pretests and posttests are presented in Table I. Regardless of age, the mean percentage of children’s spontaneous correct interpretations (pretest) was very similar, at between 23% and 30%. After Augmentative and Alternative Communication
Interpretation and Construction of Bliss-words Table I. Part I. Single Bliss-characters: Percentage of 15 Blisscharacters Correctly Interpreted Before (Pretest) and After Explanation (Posttest) Presented by Age Group.
3-year-olds 4-year-olds 5-year-olds 6-year-olds 7-year-olds
14 6 8 8 7
23.8 23.3 24.2 29.2 27.6
12.4 3.7 10.0 14.2 15.1
64.0 65.6 85.0 79.2 79.0
27.0 12.9 5.9 21.8 20.5
⫺ 6.86 ⬍ .001 .001 ⫺ 7.18 ⫺ 17.71 ⬍ .001 ⫺ 6.91 ⬍ .001 .001 ⫺ 6.09
Note: n ⫽ number of participants. M ⫽ mean percentage. SD ⫽ standard deviation. Six of the 3-year-olds only participated in 7 of the 15 Blisscharacters. The percentage for those 3-year-olds is calculated on the seven Bliss-characters.
explanations by the investigator, the 3- and 4-year-olds retained on average about 65% of the correct interpretations and the 5- to 7-year-olds retained between 79% and 85% of the Bliss-characters. The percentage increase between pretest and posttest was significant for all age groups. The variations within the groups were large. Table II shows the percentage of all children who gave correct interpretations of each one of the Blisscharacters before and after the explanation, respectively. Some of the characters were easy for the children to interpret (correct guess at pretest), and thus were very transparent, without any explanation (e.g., HOUSE received a score of 79.1%, and CROWN a score of 88.4%). Several other characters had no correct guess at the pretest, and so were not transparent at all (e.g., BOOK, HAND, PERSON). However, after explanation, the correct interpretation of all the different Bliss-characters was retained by 54–97.3% of the children. There was one exception: PROTECTION. The concrete meaning, roof, was produced on the posttest by 48.6% of the children instead of the perhaps too advanced concept of protection. Discussion Most Bliss-characters were associated with many meanings. The children gave spontaneous meanings Table II. Part I. Percentage of Correct Interpretations of Each of the 15 Bliss-characters Before (Pretest) and After (Posttest) Explanation.
HOUSE CAR BOAT BOOK CROWN ANIMAL PERSON HAND FOOT PROTECTION HEAD FABRIC TABLE FLOOR BED
79.1 27.9 58.1 0 88.4 0 0 0 8.1 2.8 5.4 0 32.4 13.5 43.2
95.3 86.0 83.7 72.1 93.0 57.1 58.2 54.0 75.7 32.4 64.9 59.5 81.1 64.9 97.3
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to the characters along with evoked associations. This illustrated that they were prepared to give meanings to rather abstract forms and then revise those meanings once the intended shapes and functions had been explained. Gelman and Bloom (2000) pointed out children’s openness to naming abstract forms once they know the function and see a resemblance in the shape or know the creator’s intent with the object or drawing. The observations in Part I of the current study may indicate that Bliss-characters stimulate the processes of giving meaning and naming in early vocabulary development in children with typical language development. If so, the explanations for the test items (e.g., the discussion of the shapes and their underlying meanings) by the instructor may be of importance. The results of the pretest, Part I, confirmed findings from many earlier studies that Bliss-characters have low transparency (Hurlbut et al., 1982; Mirenda & Locke, 1989). The variation between characters was large. The difference in correctly interpreted Bliss-characters between pretest and posttest resembled the results obtained by Burroughs et al. (1990), who showed that with some training, the Bliss-characters were rapidly learned.
Part II: Interpretation of Compound Bliss-words The three research questions for Part II were (a) How do children between 3 and 7;11 years of age spontaneously interpret the meaning of compound Bliss-words? (b) Can children between 3 and 7;11 years of age retain the correct meaning of the Bliss-words after they have been explained?, and (c) Can children benefit from guiding feedback to apply the logic structure of the Bliss-words in the interpretation of new Bliss-words? Method In the second part of the study, the same 15 Bliss-characters were used. A total of 12 compound Bliss-words were used for the meanings of “boat house,” “garage,” “castle,” “driver,” “king,” “sailor,” “glove,” “shoes,” “hat,” “table cloth,” “sheet,” and “carpet,” each containing a sequence of two Blisscharacters (Table IV). The 3-year-olds were presented with the first six Bliss-words. The investigators followed the same procedure to introduce every new Bliss-word. Two cards with single Bliss-characters (e.g., HOUSE and BOAT) were put together and the investigator asked, If you put that one (the HOUSE) together with that one (the BOAT), what do you think it could be? If the spontaneous answer was correct, the investigator confirmed, Yes it is a boat house, a house for boats. If the answer was wrong, she explained, It’s a boat house. Look, this is a house and you can put a boat in it. They then looked at a page with the whole printed Bliss-word, HOUSE-BOAT to see what the printed Bliss-word looked like. All 12 Bliss-words were worked through, one by one. The children could have an extra explanation if they wanted. Finally, the
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children were asked to name all of the printed Blisswords again. Each of their responses from the pretest and the posttest were carefully noted. Data Analysis All of the children’s spontaneous interpretations of the Bliss-words were analyzed and sorted into groups. Three new groups of incorrect interpretations were added: two correct words not integrated into one concept, two correct words in wrong order, and incorrect words not integrated into one concept. As in Part I, synonyms or expressed sentences within the category of the meaning of the Bliss-word were treated as correct answers. For example, PERSON-CROWN means ‘king’ (royal person); also treated as correct were queen, princess, prince, and a man who drives a car instead of ‘driver.’ The percentage (M, SD) of correctly interpreted Blisswords for both pretest and posttest were calculated for each age group. The difference between the pretest and the posttest provided an estimation of the children’s ability to retain the used Bliss-words. Testing for statistical significance between the pretests and the posttests was performed with the Paired Samples Test (2-tailed p). Six children were excluded from these calculations: three 3-year-olds, two 4-year-olds, and one 5-year-old. For three of the children, most pre- and posttest data were missing and for the other three, more posttest data were missing. The test administrator did not document why the children did not fulfill the tasks. A change in the percentage of children who spontaneously gave correct interpretations on the successively following new Bliss-words (i.e., the next Bliss-word introduced) should give insight into the children’s ability to benefit from the guiding feedback they were given in generating meanings of new Bliss-words. An increase in percentage would show the children’s ability to self-generate meaning for new compound Bliss-words.
concept, for example, HOUSE-BOAT (a boat house) became a house beside a boat, and a white mushroom and a house; PROTECTION-HEAD (a hat) became roof and person and PERSON-CAR (a driver) became a car and a person. Other answers showed that the children had integrated the Bliss-characters but not the target meaning into one concept, and often invented meaning (novel words), for example, HOUSE-BOAT (boat house) became harbor, HOUSE-CROWN (a castle) became a house-crown; PERSON-CAR (driver) became a carperson, a human-car, a man-boat; PROTECTIONHAND (glove) became a roof-hand; FABRIC-TABLE (table cloth) became a sewing-table; a little house (the author has observed that children put a blanket over a table to make a little house); and PROTECTIONHAND (glove) became umbrella or parasol. Some children were inspired to express a small story when giving their interpretation, for example, PERSONBOAT (sailor) became a person who goes fishing by boat, I go on my grandpa’s boat, PERSON-CROWN (royal person) became girl who has her birthday (the author has observed that at the primary school a child will wear a crown on the child’s birthday); PROTECTION-HEAD (hat) became a person who is protected by the roof. Finally, some answers revealed the child’s active thinking before giving the correct answer, for example, HOUSE-CROWN became a house-crown or a crown-house, maybe a palace! and PROTECTIONTable IV. Part II. Percentage of Correct Responses for All Children’s Answers to the Bliss-words during Pretest.
Words in order of presentation
Correct answers as a percentage of all responses
The children gave a variety of spontaneous interpretations. Some of the answers showed that they had not integrated the included Bliss-characters into one
Table III. Part II. Compound Bliss-words. Percentage of 12 Compound Bliss-words Correctly Interpreted Before (Pretest) and After Explanation (Posttest) Presented by Age Group.
3-year-olds 4-year-olds 5-year-olds 6-year-olds 7-year-olds
11 4 7 8 7
15.2 20.8 52.4 56.3 64.3
20.4 21.0 22.4 19.8 23.9
31.8 60.4 83.3 91.7 88.1
21.7 35.6 16.0 11.8 12.6
.041 ⫺ 2.35 .086 ⫺ 2.52 .013 ⫺ 3.50 ⫺ 6.56 ⬍ .001 .012 ⫺ 3.57
Note: n ⫽ number of participants. M ⫽ mean percentage. SD ⫽ standard deviation. The 3-year-olds only participated in 6 of the 12 Bliss-words. The percentage for this group is calculated on the six Bliss-words; three 3-year-olds, two 4-year-olds and one 5-year-old were excluded because of missing data.
Note. Only the first six Bliss-words were presented to the 3-year-olds. Augmentative and Alternative Communication
Interpretation and Construction of Bliss-words HAND became something that is protection for the hand, a mitten! In Part II the 3-year-olds participated in 6 of the 12 items. The percentage of correct answers varied according to age. There was an increase in percentage of correctly interpreted Bliss-words by age group. In the pretest, M correct answers from the 3-year-olds was 15%; from the 7-year-olds it was ⬎ 60%. In the posttest, M was 31% for the 3-year-olds and almost 90% for the 7-year-olds. The percentage increase of correct interpretations between pretest and posttest was significant for all age groups except for the 4-year-olds, where only four children were included. The variation within groups was high (Table III). A clear increase was found in the percentage of correct spontaneous interpretations as a result of the guiding feedback included with the instructions (see Table IV). In Table IV, the Bliss-words are listed in the same order as they were presented to the child. Each time a new classifier (the first Bliss-character in a Bliss-word) was introduced, the percentage was low; however, it increased considerably for the Bliss-words that followed. This was particularly clear when PERSON and PROTECTION were introduced as classifiers. Before these classifiers were introduced, correct answers for PERSONCAR (“driver,” 27%) and PROTECTION-HAND (“glove,” 37%) were comparatively low. After the guiding feedback, scores rose and the children produced spontaneously correct interpretations of PERSON-BOAT (“sailor,” 76%) and PROTECTION-FOOT (“shoes,” 70%). When the last classifier (i.e., FABRIC) was introduced, the first spontaneous interpretation, FABRIC-TABLE (table cloth), was already correct for 46% of the children. Discussion The most striking results in Part II of the study were the variety of spontaneous associations and semantic activities the Bliss-words evoked in the children. In some cases, the children were inspired to go far beyond the intended concept to create a short story about a personal experience. These findings resemble descriptions of typical stages in concept formation by Bjorklund (2000), who found that concept formation and categorization in children is an unstable process. Small children categorize concepts according to their experience, thus, vocabulary items they find to be closely associated form a theme (e.g., a fish and a boat, a certain person and a dog). As children develop, the abstract, semantic, hierarchical categorization of concepts gradually develops (e.g., the hierarchy of animal categories). In the current study, the many descriptions of meaning the Bliss-words evoked might have reflected the children’s different stages in concept formation. The children also made up novel words to express the meaning. Novel words are described as © 2015 International Society for Augmentative and Alternative Communication
typical for children during vocabulary development (Mellenius, 2004). Mellenius found that preschoolage children actively explore the formation of new concepts and make use of different linguistic processes, for example, compounding to invent words for their needs (e.g., the Swedish word vattenfl agga, which in English means water-fl ag). Other answers from the children in Part II revealed logical semantic thinking leading to the intended concept (i.e., from house-crown to palace). The results provide evidence that, when provided with support (in this study, guiding feedback), children develop the ability to self-generate meanings to new compound Bliss-words. In Part I, the Blisscharacter PROTECTION was mostly interpreted as roof. It could be discussed whether this was maybe too abstract a concept for these age groups. When the Bliss-character was introduced in context (i.e., with other Bliss-characters to form a word), the results showed that the children had understood or learned the concept and were able to generate meanings for never-before-seen Bliss-words such as PROTECTION-FOOT (shoe). The sequenced presentation of the Bliss-words revealed the logic and the abstract meaning to the children. For the pretest of Part II (the spontaneous interpretation of a sequence of two Bliss-characters), the children had to remember the meaning of the characters they learned in Part I. Some children were not sure of the meaning of all of the separate characters, which probably influenced the results of the pretest negatively.
Part III: Children’s own Constructions of Compound Bliss-words The specific research questions of Part III were (a) Can children between 3 and 7;11 construct Bliss-words with given meanings by combining two Bliss-characters (Part III A)?, and (b) Can children between 3 and 7;11 spontaneously generate their own new Bliss-words by combining Bliss-characters (Part III B) and if so, how will these be explained? Method During Part III A, all 15 cards with single Blisscharacters were displayed on the table in front of the children (3 cards ⫻ 5 rows). Each child was asked to pick up and combine the Bliss-characters he or she thought would best make up six Bliss-words with the meaning of “library,” “stable,” “a person who likes animals,” “sail,” “towel,” and “the king’s car.” During Part III B, 15 cards with Bliss-characters were again displayed on the table. The children were asked to make their own Bliss-words by choosing Blisscharacters and then to tell the meaning. In Parts III A and B, all of the children’s combinations and their explanations were noted.
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Data Analysis To analyze the children’s choice of characters used to construct their own Bliss-words, a multi-step procedure was followed. First the median number of Bliss-words containing the intended two characters per child was calculated for each age group (4–7-year-olds). Differences between the age groups were then analyzed with the Kruskal-Wallis Test for Independent-Samples followed by the Mann-Whitney U Test between individual groups. Given the small number of children in each group and the small number of concepts (just six), together with the fact that some children in each age group were missing one to three items, nonparametric statistics were used. Data from three children who had six missing items and one child with five missing items were excluded (two 4-year-olds, one 5-year-old, and one 6-year-old). No 3-years-olds were included in these calculations (see Materials and Procedures). Next, the number and percentage of all children (4–7;11 n ⫽ maximum 29) who picked out the two intended Bliss-characters to make a Bliss-word for each of the six given concepts was calculated. The sequential order of the Bliss-characters was not taken into consideration in these calculations. Other choices of Bliss-characters for the given concepts demonstrated young children’s interpretation of concepts during language development. In Part III B, the children’s spoken meanings of all of the new Bliss-words they generated were analyzed and sorted into groups according to structure. Next, those groups were ordered by frequency. Results In all age groups (4–7-year-olds) there were children who picked out the two intended Bliss-characters for some of the six given concepts; the median number of Bliss-words per child with the intended two characters increased considerably by age group (4 years: Mdn 2.5; 5 years: Mdn 3; 6 years: Mdn 5; 7 years: Mdn 5). The difference between age groups was statistically significant (alpha ⫽ .05), with p ⫽ .013. Follow-up testing identified differences between children in age groups 4 and 6 (p ⫽ .042), 4 and 7 (p ⫽ .012), and 5 and 7 (p ⫽ .011). The number of all children between 4 and 7;11 who picked out the two intended Bliss-characters to make up the Bliss-word for each of the six items was counted (see Table V). For five of the six concepts, between 60 and 84% of the 4–7;11 chose the intended Bliss-characters. For the item “someone who likes animals,” 52.2% of the children chose the intended Bliss-characters. Thus, the majority of the children chose the intended Blisscharacters spontaneously. Many of the children put the Bliss-characters in the right order and seemed to have captured the structure of Bliss-words, although this was not part of the instruction. The children who had made choices using other than the intended two Bliss-characters explained their choice with a small story (including their associations to a personal situation). For example, “library” as BOOK-BED-HOUSE was explained as,
Table V. Part III A. Children’s Generated Bliss-words for Given Meanings (items), including Number and Percentage of Children, 4–7;11 years old, who Chose the Intended two Bliss-Characters.
Item (n participants) Library (n ⫽ 22)
Intended Bliss-characters (n who selected intended sequence)
HOUSE-BOOK (n ⫽ 13) BOOK-HOUSE (n ⫽ 4) Stable (n ⫽ 25) HOUSE-ANIMAL (n ⫽ 19) ANIMAL-HOUSE (n ⫽ 2) Someone who likes PERSON-ANIMAL (n ⫽ 11) animals (n ⫽ 23) ANIMAL-PERSON (n ⫽ 1) Sail (n ⫽ 20) CLOTH-BOAT (n ⫽ 4) BOAT-CLOTH (n ⫽ 8) Towel (n ⫽ 21) CLOTH-HAND (n ⫽ 6) HAND-CLOTH (n ⫽ 8) The king’s car CAR ⫹ CROWN (n ⫽ 10) (n ⫽ 23) CROWN ⫹ CAR (n ⫽ 9)
Total number (and % of n) 17 (77.3%) 21 (84%) 12 (52.2%) 12 (60%) 14 (66.7%) 19 (82.6%)
If you’re going to read, you might get a little tired; “library” as CAR was explained as, You go by car to the library. Examples from some of the other children also revealed the children’s own individual associations for a vocabulary item. ANIMAL-PERSON-HOUSE was suggested for “stable” by a 6-year-old child, who explained since it is people that work with the animals, and from a 3-yearold, HOUSE-BOAT, since the animals live by the lake. Some suggestions for “someone who likes animals” were PROTECTION-ANIMAL and PERSON-BOOK (from a 3-year-old). Analysis of the children’s spoken explanations of their generated Bliss-words resulted in groupings, based on structure, as follows: single or compound words with an integrated meaning, novel words, a sentence or story (i.e., the sequence of chosen Bliss-characters is spoken out as a sentence or story), possession, and visual interpretation. Examples of the 4–7;11 year-olds spontaneously generated Bliss-words (Part III B) are presented in Table VI. The examples show a great variety of linguistic activity in word formation in children in all of the age groups when constructing the Bliss-words. In most cases, the children read out the selected Bliss-characters as a whole sentence (e.g., FOOTFLOOR ⫽ The man walks on the floor) – see examples in Table VI. The second and third most common type of spoken explanation was to read out the chosen Blisscharacters as one concept with an integrated meaning: either (second most common) as an existing compound word or single word (e.g., BOOK-ANIMAL ⫽ animal book) or (third most common) as a novel word (e.g., CLOTH-BOOK ⫽ a cloth-book for babies). Discussion The children who were given some instructional practice during Parts I and II of the study demonstrated in Part III the ability to choose Bliss-characters to represent new words or concepts.They produced a large variety of created Bliss-words and provided explanations for the meanings of the concepts. The choice of two intended characters Augmentative and Alternative Communication
Interpretation and Construction of Bliss-words Table VI. Part III B. Examples of Children’s Generated New Blisswords from Their Own Ideas, Sorted According to the Structure of the Children’s Spoken Interpretations.
The invented Bliss-word is spoken as a story: FOOT-FLOOR ⫽ the man walks on the floor (6 yrs) CROWN-CAR-HOUSE ⫽ the king who drives to his castle (6 yrs) TABLE-BOOK ⫽ someone who threw the book on the floor (3 yrs) PERSON-TABLE-BOOK ⫽ a man who sits reading a book (6 yrs) as one concept, an existing compound word or single word: BOOK-ANIMAL ⫽ animal book (4 yrs) CROWN-ANIMAL ⫽ moose, it’s an animal with a crown, and it’s the king of the forest (6 yrs) HEAD-CLOTH ⫽ scarf (7 yrs) CLOTH-FOOT ⫽ socks (6 yrs) HOUSE- ANIMAL ⫽ my home,my home with many animals, and it is not a barn (4 yrs) as a novel word: CLOTH-BOOK ⫽ a cloth-book for babies (4 yrs) ANIMAL-PERSON ⫽ an animal-person (5 yrs) TABLE-HOUSE ⫽ a house-table, with which you can play (6 yrs) HAND-CAR ⫽ a hand car (6 yrs) as a visual interpretation: HEAD above LEGS AND FEET ⫽ a person (5 yrs) LEGS AND FEET ⫽ roller-coaster. The pointer is what you sit in (6 yrs) as a possession: PERSON-CAR ⫽ the man’s car (6 yrs) CROWN-BOAT ⫽ the king’s boat (7 yrs) Note. Age of child in parenthesis.
for a concept (e.g., HOUSE⫹ BOOK ⫽ library) represented the adult choice for representing the concept in a hierarchical organization, where the first character represented the super-ordinate category. The results showed that the choice of two intended characters increased with age, comparable to typical concept formation (Bjorklund, 2000). When children from each age group constructed new Bliss-words using their own ideas (Part III B), they generally included a sentence indicating their associations to explain the meaning of their constructed Bliss-words. This is in accordance with earlier stages of development in concept formation (Bjorklund, 2000). The children’s activities during Part III of the study showed how children with typical development use compounding of Bliss-characters to express new meanings and their own ideas. This activity resembles the linguistic process of compounding to form new spoken words when a spoken word for a concept is missing, as described by Mellenius (2004). Without explicit instructions, some children showed that they might have captured the principle of starting with the Bliss-character, which defined the type of concept, for example, BOOK (the classifier) and BOOKANIMAL ⫽ an animal book); see Table VI. In Swedish, as in English, the sequenced order of the intended spoken words is an animal book. According to Mellenius (2004), children show an alertness to the structure of words during the period of intense word formation. It is possible that the guiding feedback the children received during Part II of the study (e.g., It’s a boat house. Look, this is a house and you can put a boat in it), helped the children gain an understanding of the proper structure © 2015 International Society for Augmentative and Alternative Communication
of Bliss-words and to be able to use their intuition to generate their own Bliss-words.
General Discussion This study investigated spontaneous reactions to Blisscharacters and Bliss-words by young children with typical development. It also looked at what those children could learn during a short teaching session. After their first spontaneous interpretation of Bliss-characters, the children were given explanations of the Bliss-characters (Part I), were implicitly guided to interpret and discover the logical structure of the compound Bliss-words (Part II), and were given the opportunity to form their own new Bliss-words and to explain the meanings of the words (Part III). The results of the study show that the Bliss-characters and Bliss-words evoked spontaneous linguistic activities and semantic thinking in the children, that many children self-generated meanings and retained the intended interpretations after short explanations and teaching sessions, and that the Bliss-characters could inspire children to construct their own Bliss-words. The teaching procedure was realistic in the sense that the investigator used the shapes of the Bliss-characters and the structure of the Bliss-words to explain meanings of concepts and show the logic of the system, thus providing a step-by-step introduction to Blissymbolics. Less realistic were the time pressure and the specific nature of the instructions, which were necessary for the study but did not allow for adapted instructions for the youngest children or additional time for those who needed it to learn. The lack of transparency found in most of the Blisscharacters (Part I) meant that it was not possible to interpret them without explanations being provided. Still, they seemed to inspire the children to use their imaginations in giving them names and explanations. The alternative could have been passivity and many answers of don’t know. One may speculate that the neutral shape of the Blisscharacters helped and perhaps was even an advantage for the imagination, because there were no distracting details that could lead the child away from his or her own inner image. In addition, the compound Bliss-words (Part II) inspired the children to find possible meanings. In all age groups from 3–7;11 the children gave interpretations of the new Bliss-words, but there was a marked increase in providing and retaining the intended meanings of the items in children 5 years and older. Vocabulary Development Blissymbolics is presented as the most difficult to learn and the least transparent of all AAC graphic systems (Beukelman & Mirenda, 2013). The present study provides an alternative perspective.The findings of this study regarding children’s reactions to Blissymbolics might indicate that the Bliss-character shapes and Bliss-word structure stimulate innate processes in early vocabulary development (e.g., factors important for name-giving;
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Gelman & Bloom, 2000), as shown in the children’s willingness to interpret the Bliss-characters and accept the interpretations when they were told the intended meanings. The dynamics in typical concept formation (Bjorklund, 2000) might have been reflected in the richness of associations to the Bliss-words; additionally, the attempts to compound new Bliss-words, which sometimes appeared to the investigators to be non-words, could have been the same as children’s explorations to form new spoken words (Mellenius, 2004). In spoken language, all children are exposed to abstract concepts, even though it takes time for these to be fully understood. Abstract concepts are difficult to present graphically. In Blissymbolics, the shape of a concrete entity has been given an abstract meaning, which is related to the concrete meaning (e.g., the shape of a roof, meaning protection). In the study, the abstract meaning of protection was difficult for the children to retain but seemingly was quite well understood when used in a Bliss-word (e.g., PROTECTION-HEAD, meaning hat). The very neutral shapes of the Bliss-characters and the use of ideographic expressions for abstract meanings might have stimulated the children to a higher level of thinking than simply naming the pictures. Furthermore, the neutral shapes and the structure built on distinctive features might have facilitated the use of superordinate categories as well as discovery of the semantic hierarchical categorization of concepts. Learnability Statistics were included to complement the qualitative findings. These quantitative measures provide an estimate of the learnability of the Bliss-characters and Blisswords (Part I and II) with the procedure used. In both Part I and Part II, the differences between prettests and posttests were significant. This was also the case in the study by Burroughs et al. (1990) of speaking children with language delay, which found a significant improvement in the interpretation of Bliss-characters after explanations were given. In the studies by Schlosser and Lloyd (1993) and Shepherd and Haaf (1995), children without disabilities could make use of their knowledge of the meaning of characters to interpret new Bliss-words. The design of the present study did not allow for a distinction to be made between initial learning and retention of information over time; however, the use of the Bliss-characters in Part III showed that the children had retained and made use of the intended meanings. Significant individual variations were observed within the groups. It was unclear why some children were more successful than others in finding the intended meanings, but concentration and maturation were probably part of the explanation. Some children of the same age groups learned and generated the intended meanings while others did not. It is likely that more children would have accomplished more with assistance from individualized teaching sessions that included discussions on conceptual meanings and demonstrations of how meanings could be shown graphically with Bliss-characters.
Clinical Implications In the current study, Bliss-characters and Bliss-words activated linguistic exploration in children with typical development; for children without speech, this may be of importance for their language development. Because Blissymbolics is built on a limited number of characters representing basic concepts, children who communicate with Blissymbolics could use their own communication aids for linguistic explorations. In play or school activities they could be stimulated to make new combinations, to create their own Bliss-words, and to express their own thinking and ideas. Results from the current study might assist such activities as part of teaching Blissymbolics. The children’s suggestions might provide a valuable source for discussion within the context of Vygotsky’s (1978) zone of proximal development. In addition, Blissymbolics could be used by teachers to introduce advanced words or abstract concepts. A major advantage of communicating with Blissymbolics is that the person can make up a new Bliss-word when a word is missing in his vocabulary (Vanderheiden & Lloyd, 1986). The Bliss-characters used in a Bliss-word are meant to be distinctive for (i.e., strongly associated with) the referent as determined by the international committee, which coordinates the development of the Blissymbolics Authorized Vocabulary. Those Blisscharacters could be the foundations for discussions of the underlying meaning of Bliss-characters and Blisswords. As an educational tool for teachers, Blissymbolics is different from pictographic systems in this respect – learning component parts (Bliss-characters) supports the development of generative language (i.e., the ability to communicate new concepts). Limitations and Future Research This study did not include a control group and only used one teaching method; as such, it cannot be determined whether the children’s responses were the result of the explanations provided or simply the naming of the Blisscharacters. The small number of children in each group, as well as the fact that some of the children did not complete the whole protocol, also limits confidence in possible interpretations of the results. Because the children’s answers were analyzed and discussed during the course of the study and summarized by the authors in this article, no information on coding reliability is available. One of the major questions addressed in the study was the impact of the children’s exploration of the Blisscharacters and Bliss-words. While the results provide evidence of active linguistic engagement by children with typical development, these findings cannot automatically be generalized to nonspeaking children with disabilities in need of AAC. How Blissymbolics might encourage those children with complex communication needs to develop their linguistic activities, and what might be the best procedure to include exploratory activities in the introduction of Blissymbolics as an AAC tool, are topics for future studies. Augmentative and Alternative Communication
Interpretation and Construction of Bliss-words Conclusion During a 30-min teaching session, children between 3 and 7:11 were asked to first interpret Bliss-characters and Bliss-words spontaneously, and then, after explanations and guidance, to provide their personal interpretation of the structure of selected Bliss-words. In all age groups, the Bliss-characters and Bliss-words evoked spontaneous linguistic activities characteristic of typical vocabulary development. After being provided with explanations, children 5 years and older retained most of the Blisscharacters and Bliss-words; some retention among the younger children was observed, but at a lower level. After receiving guiding instruction, the children self-generated meanings of previously unseen Bliss-words. During the last part of the session, the children constructed new Bliss-words. Many of the children demonstrated they had captured the idea of combining Bliss-characters to create Bliss-words to explain new ideas. In most cases, they explained their new Bliss-words with a sentence related to their own experiences. The variety of linguistic activities evoked may indicate the potential for Blissymbolics to be an educational tool for concept training, and may inspire new approaches for teaching Blissymbolics as an AAC graphic communication system. Acknowledgements We would like to acknowledge the participants on the course on Blissymbolics 2011, Uppsala University, during which this project was designed and data were collected and discussed: Sabina Alkass, Marita Andersson, Marita Axelsson, Hanna Bergström, Amelie Grape, Åsa Lindqvist, Anna Lindström, Therese Mattsson, Maria Nolemo, Annika Olsson, Rigmor Parsmo, Maja Torstensson, Margareta Wallmark, and Elin Winbladh. Declaration of interest: The authors report no conflicts of interest. The authors alone are responsible for the content and writing of the paper. References Anycom, A. B. (2001). WinBliss™, THE tool for symbol management (Version 184.108.40.206). Retrieved from http://www.anycom.se Alant, E., Life, H., & Harty, M. (2005). Comparison of the learnability and retention between Blissymbols and CyberGlyphs. International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders, 40, 151–169. doi: 10.1080/13682820400009980 Alant, E., Zheng, W., Harty, M., & Lloyd, L. (2013). Translucency ratings of Blissymbols over repeated exposures by children with autism. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 29, 272– 283. doi:10.3109/07434618.2013.813967 Beukelman, D. R., & Mirenda, P. (2013). Symbols and rate enhancement. In Augmentative and alternative communication:
Supplementary material available online Supplementary Appendix to be found online at http://informahealthcare.com/doi/abs/10.3109/07434618. 2015.1036117 © 2015 International Society for Augmentative and Alternative Communication
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