The Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)

By Julie Stewart, M.Ed.


The Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) was created by Lori Frost and Andy Bondy in 1985 and is a unique alternative/augmentative communication intervention and is currently in its second edition.  PECS is divided into six distinct phases and starts by teaching an individual to exchange a picture of a desired item to a “communicative partner” to immediately receive access to the item.  When a child reaches mastery of Phase I, as designated by the PECS protocol, after teaching the child to understand the exchange, the child moves into Phase II.  Below are the descriptions provided on the PECS website for phase:


Phase II (Distance and Persistence):

Still using single pictures, students learn to generalize this new skill by using it in different places, with different people and across distances.  They are also taught to be more persistent communicators.

Phase III (Picture Discrimination):

Students learn to select form two or more pictures to ask for their favorite things.  These are places in a communication book—a ring binder with Velcro® strips where pictures are stored and easily removed for communication.

Phase IV (Sentence Structure):

Students learn to construct simple sentences on a detachable sentence strip using an “I want” picture followed by a picture of the item being requested.

Attributes and Language Expansion:

Students learn to expand their sentences by adding adjectives, verbs and prepositions.

Phase V (Answering Questions):

Students learn to use PECS to answer the question “What do you want?”

Phase VI (Commenting):

Now students are taught to comment in response to questions such as, “What do you see?”, “What do you hear?” and “What is it?”.  They learn to make up sentences starting with “I see”, “I feel”, “It is a”, etc.”


To successfully implement this evidence-based practice it is essential for individuals to attend an official training provided by the Pyramid Educational Consultants.  This training experience will help you discover the nuances that reading the manual simply cannot provide.  However, it is important to approach using PECS with a student with flexibility and an eagerness to troubleshoot.  Each student’s experience with PECS will be different and the pace of mastery for each phase will vary.  Be ready to plan ahead to be able to provide instruction and communicative opportunities across the entire schoolday and not during isolated events, such as lunch or snacktime.  For some students, PECS is just what they need to understand the power of communication and sometimes motivates them to begin using verbal language to communicate wants and needs.  BUT of course PECS is not an intervention that will produce results for all students and all options for teaching communication should be evaluated!!


Julie Stewart is a Field Training Coordinator for the KY Autism Training Center. She provides direct training and technical assistance to education staff, social and community personnel, counselors, job coaches and families.

KY Autism Training Center Winter 2013 Newsletter February 2013