Friday, May 3, 2013

App Review: Expressive

In March, I attended a professional development training on utilizing Augmentative and Alternative Communication in the schools.  The training was put on by an Assistive Technology Specialist from Easter Seals of Massachusetts who spends much of her time conducting AT evaluations and determining the appropriateness of devices/access methods, etc.  During the training, the presenter stated that she has seen a trend of parents requesting iPads for the purpose of using them as communication devices for their children.  When most people think of AAC and the iPad, they think of Proloquo2Go.  But did you know that Smarty Ears has a whole line of AAC apps?

I'm going to share my experiences with "Expressive" with you today.  According to the app description, Expressive "is an entry to mid-level, easy to use, and powerful app that allows children and adults with speech impairment or communication difficulties to express their wants and needs through the use of pictures and symbols."  Expressive includes over 10,000 built-in images from the Smarty Symbols library and you can add your own images as well!

Getting Started:
As with most apps that have them, I started out by watching the video tutorial:

This tutorial gives you a great run-down of the app.  After watching it, I first checked out all of the preset categories.  Here is the home screen:

And from the "Categories" folder:

Notice the icons along the bottom, but on the left hand side?  These allow you to go back one level (the arrow) or back to the home screen.  Next, here's the preset "food" folder:

Now we'll check out some of the options along the bottom of the screen.  First, the gear icon, or settings:

In the settings, you can Lock the program (so that the user cannot make changes by adding/deleting icons).  You also can change the voice (there are 4 options, 2 male and 2 female) and speed of voice.  As you can see, the other options include having words begin with capital or lowercase letters, speaking the name of the folder as you open it, and automatically erasing messages after they are read.

The next icon along the bottom is the "i" button.  This will bring you to an in-app version of the video tutorial, provide you with the ability to back up to/restore from iTunes, and interact with Smarty Ears via email or Facebook.

The "X" button along the bottom will allow you to delete symbols that you do not need.  Tapping the button will bring up an "X" in the corner of each symbol/folder:

The last icon from the bottom of the home screen is the "plus" button in the right hand corner.  This allows you to add your own folders and symbols.  First, I chose to add a new folder.  From here, I can assign a name, color, and picture to the folder.  (This is also how you can add images).  

Naming the folder:

Assigning an image/color to the folder:

Adding an individual image (symbol cell):

One more important thing...Unless you have the screen rotate lock on, you can use the app in either portrait or landscape mode:

Using the app:
A few years ago, I worked with a student who required augmentative and alternative means of communication.  She had Speaking Dynamically Pro set up in the classroom and was working on expanding communicative intents and increasing the length of her message.  I had the opportunity to visit the Center for Communication Enhancement (Boston Children's Hospital) with the family and get some great tips on activity-specific boards.  I found that using activity specific boards (either physical boards or an app like Expressive) is also great for helping verbal students build sentence length!

Here's a folder I created for the activity of "blowing bubbles."  I set up the folder to include subjects (purple), verbs (blue), descriptors (yellow), noun (green).  For groups of students, I would include photos of the other children, as well as myself.  From this folder, the student can generate sentences like "I want (to) blow a lot (of) bubbles," "Matthew pop(ped) big bubbles," "I want Susie (to) pop big bubbles," "Johnny blow(s) small bubbles," etc.

And here's another folder I created for singing favorite songs:

Did I mention that you can use your iPad's camera roll to add images?  Here's a quick folder I created in about 5 minutes (including taking the pictures):

If you're wondering, those are trains (Thomas and some of his friends) and tracks.

So after using Expressive for a little while, here's what I think:


  • Expressive is very reasonably priced at $25.99.  You could even consider it a major bargain in comparision to some of the other AAC apps!
  • I love the customization!  Adding photos can make your folders more specific, relevant, and meaningful to the person who will be using the app.
  • The ability to remove preset folders/images.  This may seem like an odd "pro," but we've all seen presets that are not appropriate for all users  (in terms of meaningfulness, cognitive ability, linguistic ability, etc.).
  • Ease of use!  As a person who has configured a certain speech-output device (that shall remain nameless), I found Expressive to be EXTREMELY easy to set up!
Changes I would like to see in an update:
  • The voices are not the greatest quality.  They're difficult to hear even at full volume and the speech is a bit choppy. As I mentioned, there are 4 total voices - 2 male, 2 female.  One of each (male/female) has a British accent (if you're reading this from the UK, 2 of the voices have an American accent).  I don't know if Smarty Ears could add voices (or add voices of higher quality) without drastically increasing the size and price of the app, but I wanted to mention this.
  • I wanted to set up boards (see the bubbles and song boards above) that followed a certain format so that students could select a Subject, Verb, Descriptor, Object.  I was trying to get them to "stack" (e.g., "subject" column might have 3 or 4 cells, "Verbs" might contain 2 or 3, "Descriptors" may include up to 5, etc.  The app wrapped the cells so that I couldn't include a blank spot in my board.  Again, there might be a way to change this, but I wasn't able to do so.  I also wanted to add "Comment" icons along the bottom of the page, but coudn't do so because I couldn't leave spaces blank.

The Bottom Line:
So there you have Expressive by Smarty Ears.  This app is a viable alterative to more pricy speech output devices and AAC apps.  This is a great option for schools especially since they may not have the resources to spend on more costly alternatives.  Overall this app is very user friendly and great for use in speech-language therapy sessions.  I think that it would be difficult to hear a student using Expressive if they are in louder environments (e.g., cafeteria, gym, recess, free choice time in the classroom).  In those environments, the user/communication partner would still be able to utilize the picture symbols to get the idea of the message.

Expressive sells for $25.99 in iTunes.  Do you have students who require the use of AAC with voice output?  What are they using

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