Symbols provide a visual representation of an idea or word. Children who find difficulty in reading can be helped to visualise the meanings of words by seeing a symbol.
We use text for assisting in the delivery of major sections of the curriculum. Those students who have difficulty with text will frequently find frustration in handling many aspects of school life, from surviving in the general school environment, through literacy work, to understanding written instructions and worksheets for the curriculum.
If we can separate out literacy problems from other tasks then we can reduce the measure of frustration very significantly. There are many cases, other than the descriptions here, where teachers have seen much greater motivation through the use of symbols.
Clearly not all cases of poor behaviour will be helped by increasing motivation and involvement through symbol support, but for many students it empowers them to become learners. Symbols have also been shown to have a role in managing behaviour by creating more effective ways of communicating with students. Many are not able to understand or remember verbal instructions and information. Holding up a symbol card to reinforce a spoken instruction or request, can help a student fully understand what behaviour is required.
Symbols can give these children a voice to express themselves when words fail them.
By illustrating words, symbols can help a student to learn and recall information. This is particularly true for those students who operate more visually and whose visual memory may help to recall facts. It is also true that symbols can help to remind students of a concept. The symbol itself cannot teach the concept, but once a concept has been understood, symbols can reinforce that understanding and help make the comprehension more permanent.
For example, we have developed many Science symbols where the images can help students to recall the meaning of the concept, even though they may be perfectly capable of reading the word. Even difficult concepts, such as voltage (the push sending the current round a circuit) and the current (the flow that results) can be well illustrated with symbols.
Is it important to understand that symbols are different from pictures. We use the word picture to describe an illustration in a book, or a drawing on the wall. A picture conveys a lot of information at once and its focus may be unclear, while a symbol focuses on a single concept. This means that symbols can be put together to build more precise information.
Symbol based language and communication has been developed over many years and has a visual structure that supports different parts of speech.
Symbols are grouped in different sets.
The most commonly used across the UK are Widgit Literacy Symbols (previously kow as Widgit Rebus).
and Pictorial Communication System (PCS) symbols
The Makaton Vocabulary Development Project have both signs and symbols.
What you use with each person entirely depends on his or her own needs and preferences. What is really important to remember is that everyone is different with different abilities in spoken and written language, expression, vocabulary, sight, hearing and other individual factors.
The Widgit Literacy symbols have a much greater vocabulary spanning standard curriculum topics, adult vocabulary and higher literacy levels. They have a schematic structure and include grammatical markers for literacy expression.
Extensive information about symbols can be found by visitng the About symbols section of the widgit website.
Symbols can help support:
Some people may never gain full functional mastery of text. For such people symbols can be a lifeline. But the question exists whether a wider range of people can be helped with learning to read without forming any dependency on the images.
Some students struggle to learn the first 45 high frequency words. The Zed books use symbol support to aid word recognition as well as providing visually stimulating graphics. The books cover topics about real life experiences and students are motivated by the characters. Students begin to see themselves as 'readers' which improves self esteem and their ability to learn.
In the software that Widgit produces, it has always been possible to change the level of symbol support so that reliance on any visual clues can be removed if it is no longer needed.
The Zed books are provided in two levels. Set A has all the words supported, but Set B has the target words as text only. Set A may help in learning the vocabulary, and Set B in reading the text. The advantage of using symbols is that the books can cover more imaginative material. There are also two advantages of having the book electronically. First, small books can be printed to read and record progress. The second is that the books can be edited, for example by removing the target words completely for the pupil to hand-write in, removing all the text for a new sentence to be composed or by removing the pictures allowing them to draw their own.