Do we really need to mask vocabulary?

Do we really need to mask vocabulary?

Should we mask words in a system or should we have all words available? In this post we discuss ways of masking that doesn't restrict the user. 


Before we get to answering this question, I want you to think back to when you first learnt how to drive. That moment when you nervously opened the driver’s seat door, plopped down behind the wheel and stared out the window in trepidation and excitement.

For most of us, when we first learnt how to drive, we were taken to an empty parking lot where the nearest obstacle was a light post 50 metres away. The music was turned off, it was in a quiet area and there was only one other person in the car with you, the instructor. The removal of distractions helped you focus on the environment and what you needed to do.

Okay, so now instead of being taught this way, imagine that you were forced to learn by jumping straight on a motor way. How well are you thinking about gear changes and pre-emptive braking when you have cars zooming past, tailgating and honking? We all know that learning the basic skills of driving is quicker and easier when the task is simplified, broken down and practiced.

Now I want you to think about how hard it would be to learn if you had a cognitive impairment and/ or a motor impairment in each of those two scenarios. The importance of simplification and support becomes even more crucial for learning.

Speech and Language

Learning to communicate has similar comparisons. The act of language learning is a cognitively demanding activity and speech production requires complex and precise motor movements. Luckily for us, as a child, our brains are powerful and benefit from increased neural plasticity.

With all that we have spoken about, let’s now consider speech and language learning through an AAC system.

Individuals using AAC are going to have a cognitive or motor impairment that prevents them from communicating verbally. Right of the bat, they are at a disadvantage in learning this new skill of communicating through a device.

We need to be mindful that learning language and communicating through AAC, like driving and verbal speech is both a cognitive and a motor task.

It stands up to reason then, that an individual learning to coordinate their cognitive decisions and their motor executions on a device would benefit from learning AAC in a way that is broken down and simplified.

This simplification is what we call masking.


When a device is masked, an individual is able to look at a screen and see only the words intended to be learnt in that moment. They can then easily locate and select this button, hear what it says and see their communication partners reaction. The device user then learns that this button I pressed means that.

Masking is a powerful feature, but as Uncle Ben says “with great power, comes great responsibility”. There is a danger in masking words, that is, we may prevent a device user from being able to say more than they can. We also stop the user from being able to explore the vocabulary available in the device.

Lastly, it significantly impacts our ability to model additional language that may come up in everyday interactions. We can never know what a client will want to say so we should not restrict that ability.


So where is the balance? We don’t want to restrict them, yet language learning is so much simpler with masking.

On vocabulary systems such as Unity and LAMP Words for Life we have the function called “Vocabulary Builder”. This allows an individual to toggle back and forth between masking and having the full vocabulary showing. It allows them to set up a screen of 2-3 words, teach this, then toggle all vocabulary back up so that the user can instantly practice finding it with the rest of the words showing.

We make the cognitive task simpler by removing the need to scan through multiple images. We also simplify the motor task by either starting at a one hit level or by removing the accuracy needed for a full vocabulary. Then, when success is seen on the masked level, we quickly switch back to the full vocabulary.

This process of saying a word with masking turned on and then saying it with all words showing should happen as soon as the client demonstrates success at selecting that word independently. This can happen within a few minutes.  This process can be easily replicated with the next word you are trying to teach.

Now we have a way of teaching new words quickly and the ability to provide them with a full vocabulary. It is important that the user practices finding their target words in a full system but there is no reason why this process can’t be simplified at the very start to reduce their barriers to entry and to increase their likelihood of success.

Remember that access to more words than less is best. But like learning to drive, simplifying a complex action first, helps us to learn it more quickly and effectively. Make sure that you always have access to a language system that offers masking or vocabulary builder.

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