Learning to use sentences with PECS – Phase 4

PECS requests with sentence strip

If you don’t know what the Picture Exchange Communication System® is then start with my post about phase one.  For those that do in this post I am going to look at stage 4 – Sentence Structure.

What is phase 4 of PECS?

Phase 4 of the Picture Exchange Communication System is Sentence Structure.  The objective is to move from the child from handing over one picture to using the sentence strip and creating multi word phrases. 

Letter requesting with sentence strip
Letter requesting with sentence strip

Implementing PECS Phase 4

With my eldest I waited a long time to move onto phase 4, in my mind it seemed like such a big step.  I wish I had done it sooner with him as he nailed it in one session with a PECS consultant. 

I am now working on phase 4 with my youngest and it’s a little more complicated.  The reason it’s harder with him is he is verbal (echolalia) but delayed and less patient after he has made a clear request verbally with one word.  I am using PECS with him to try and extend his sentences and encourage direct communication.  Whist he can use the sentence strip really well in a structured activity such as commenting on a book he needs lots of prompting to use the sentence strip when he is making independent requests.

Sentence starters

One of the key things we teach when using PECS is to differentiate between requesting something and commenting on it.    To do this we will use sentence starters.

PECS sentence starters
sentence starters

As the child has already learnt to make requests in the earlier phases in Phase 4 we will just use the ‘I Want’ sentence starter.  Once using the sentence strip has been mastered we can go onto use other sentence starters in later phases. 

So when my son comes to me requesting some ice cream I need to prompt him to do the following:

  • Go to his communication book
  • Put the ‘I want’ picture onto the sentence strip
  • Add the ‘ice cream’ picture to the sentence strip
  • Remove the sentence strip and hand it to me
  • Then point at the pictures and verbalise the sentence (if able to)
I want Ice cream request on sentence strip
Request using sentence strip

There are several steps to this so it can be very easy to get distracted and not complete the exchange. It is much easier to have two of you when you first implement the sentence strip, one to be the communication partner and the other acting as a silent prompter. As your child gets used to using the sentence strip you would phase out the prompting.

Using the communication book

I would really recommend having a PECS communication book once you get to phase 4. Not only to store the picture cards but because you need the sentence strip. It is easier to keep the most requested items on the front of the book or to use the front when encouraging communication for example at snack time.

It is also important for the sentence starters to be in one place, initially I had the ‘I want’ symbol on the front of the book on the top left.  Once the child is more confident and you have filled your book with lots of symbols, it may be easier to keep them on the first page inside the cover again on the top left. 

Remember to use your child’s preferred items when encouraging communication, they are not going to be motivated to use the sentence strip if they are not motivated to communicate in the first place. 

PECS book with TV show symbols
TV show PECS cards on communication book

You may be interested in using my TV Choice board. Once you master using the sentence strip you can move onto responsive requests in phase 5 and attributes.

Saying No

As your child increases their independent requests and your book is filled with more symbols you will find yourself having to say no more often.  It is important not to remove symbols and say no because this is a vital skill your child needs to learn to accept.  You may want to try using the Universal No Page.

Snack time is always a good time to increase PECS use and once your child has mastered requesting one item with the sentence strip you can encourage requests of multiple items.

Snack sentence strip
Snack requesting with sentence strip

If you haven’t been on the PECS training I really recommend it, PECS is a structured approach and the training is essential to fully grasp what you need to do. You may also be interested in the PECS Parent Pack.

Do you use the Picture Exchange Communication System? How have you got on with the sentence strip?

Was this article helpful?


  1. Anonymous
    16th September 2020 / 9:40 pm

    We found we had some challenges with David using ‘i want’ as a carrier phrase for everything and this made us take a step back. We found using alongside Makaton too was helpful as an additional way of communicating. I think it’s also really good for developing sentence structure which later can work with something like colourful semantics maybe? What do you think? #kcacols

    • admin
      16th September 2020 / 9:50 pm

      Yes we moved on to the next phases quickly with my eldest and worked on expanding attributes like colour, shape, size and a range of sentence starters like I hear / see etc. Having said that we are in the midst of I Want for everything with my youngest so will make sure we are changing it up regularly with him. I need to get better with Makaton whilst I use it I could definitely do more.

  2. Katrina | ChatterFoxBlog
    20th September 2020 / 5:24 pm

    I don’t know much about this system but I just wanted to say what a wonderful tool this seems to be. I like to see the support options available to help those with autism ( I wasn’t diagnosed until 21 and had a horrible time in school). It comforts me that support like this is available.


    • admin
      21st September 2020 / 11:33 am

      Thanks Katrina I am very thankful that there is so much available for my kids and whilst understanding is still not as widespread as it needs to be it is heading in the right direction. Just sorry you didn’t get the right support at school it has a huge impact.

  3. 20th September 2020 / 5:51 pm

    I don’t know about this system, but it looks like a brilliant way to communicate and one that really helps. #KCACOLS

    • admin
      21st September 2020 / 11:30 am

      It is brilliant for kids like mine when communication doesn’t just come naturally.

  4. Sensational Learning with Penguin
    24th September 2020 / 3:32 am

    Thank you for another great PECS post! We’re using an AAC app, but the strategies for building communication can still be quite similar. One thing I’ve been pondering regarding “I want…” is that it can sound quite blunt/impolite, can’t it? And our boy sometimes chooses to use “I like…” when he means “I want…”, and I think it’s really “I’d like…” that he’s trying to say. I’m unsure what to do about that. If you have any ideas on it please let me know 🙂 Thanks so much for linking up with #KCACOLS, I hope you’ll come back again next time x

    • admin
      24th September 2020 / 4:52 am

      I agree it can sound a little blunt. I think it has been chosen deliberately as a really functional phrase and any social aspects removed deliberately. I think if we have very limited language the most important thing is to get the message across clearly even if it isn’t how we would say it when we have more language.

  5. Flavia
    8th January 2021 / 1:21 pm

    I just discovered this website. Thank you so much for sharing your experience with us. I work in mainstream school with a wonderful little boy in the autism spectrum. He is non verbal and we use PECS to communicate. I haven’t been to a proper training, but had support from a SaLT to introduce it to him. He picked it up very quickly, which was amazing. His only sentence starter is “I want”, which is not ideal… He is not currently attending school (parent’s choice) so I can’t even try to introduce another sentence now. I am however putting together a PECS book for him to keep at home as I think it will massively help him and his family during these difficult times and beyond. I am trying to think of symbols he will need at home and I think the TV choice will be a hit! Thanks a lot.

    • admin
      8th January 2021 / 1:37 pm

      Hi Flavia, sounds like you are doing a great job. A PECS book for home will be really helpful to make sure he can ask for what he wants. I wouldn’t worry about just using the one sentence starter as ‘i want’ is a very helpful request and once he is ready to say more it will be clear and you can introduce more when he does get back to school. As for home PECS the most requested things will be favourite toys so my eldest its asking for LEGO / Puzzles and my youngest has his favourite julia donaldson and peppa pig character pecs so he can ask for his Peppa books and toys easily. I would ask the parents what he plays with at home and say you can get the cards made for them. Food is a big one at home especially sweet things like cake, ice cream, chocolate, crisps, juice, fruit, snack items. Also iPad and TV, bedroom would all be good things to include.

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