Symbols 101 Part One

Symbols have been around for many years and it’s very rare for me to visit a school where they are not using one symbol set or another to support their students. From the earliest days when colleagues used to physically draw pictures over words with pencils, the use of symbols has provided support for early literacy, communication and served as a very useful tool for presenting information to visual learners. There is a strong evidence base which shows, where used appropriately; symbols aid the recognition, comprehension and retention of words.

Over the years, I must have trained hundreds of schools and organisations on the use of symbols to support communication and early literacy. My approach hasn’t changed much, and focuses firmly on encouraging colleagues to think carefully about whom they are writing for and the words that they choose to use before considering which (if any) symbol might be the most appropriate.

A typical training session would start with a game. I give each colleague a sheet of paper and a ‘secret’ word. Their task is to draw a picture that will communicate the ‘secret’ word to the group. I choose the secret words carefully, some nouns which are easy to draw such as car, bus and banana, some verbs such as running, eating and sleeping, again relatively easy to depict in a drawing. I’ll also throw in some more difficult to depict words such as mother, which and yesterday. As you can imagine, it’s a lot of fun trying to decipher the drawings to guess the words. The purpose of the exercise of course is to encourage those taking part to really think about the word I have given them and what they might need to draw to communicate the meaning of that word to their colleagues.

Drawing of a tree belonging to a man

Here’s a real life example from a recent training session. Have a look at the drawing above. Can you guess the word that it is trying to communicate?

The word I gave the colleague was ‘HISTORY

Did you work it out? No? Me neither.

The colleague who drew the picture explained that he found it incredibly difficult to come up with a picture that communicated the meaning of the word. “History”. He explained “history is about events that happened in the past and I couldn’t think of how to depict ‘the past’ in a way that my students who all have SLD / PMLD might be able to understand. So I drew a tree and man… ‘his tree’ get it? I put a bowler hat on the figure so you can tell it’s a man.”

This example illustrates quite nicely one of the difficulties we may encounter when we’re using symbols to add meaning to words. Quite simply, does the symbol we are using actually add meaning at all?

There are essentially three types of symbols.

  • Symbols which we just know, pictures of things, for example car, tree, house, book.
  • Symbols which can be worked out (decoded) for example big, jump, eat.
  • Symbols depicting more abstract words which are difficult to work out and usually need to be taught, for example yesterday, went, going and of course history.

If we’re going to use symbols effectively, we need to consider the words we are using and who it is for. The next time you’re making symbol resources, take a moment to look at the symbol that’s popped up. Does it communicate the meaning of the word? If not, can you work it out? If the answer to both of these questions is no, you might want to reconsider the words you are using in your sentence or plan to teach your students what the symbol means. Remember, write for your audience and only choose symbols that add meaning. If you need to use more abstract words, be prepared to teach your students what the symbol actually means.

In the next part, we’ll look at some simple applications (PC and ipad) that we can use to teach symbol vocabulary.

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About Ian Bean

Ian was the ICT teacher and curriculum coordinator at Priory Woods School in Middlesbrough which is internationally recognised as an example of best practice in the use of ICT to support teaching and learning for students with severe and complex difficulties including Autism. HIs leadership of ICT won for the school many local, national and international awards. The school web site which Ian designed and ran for many years and welcomes millions of visitors each month from across the globe.

Ian left Priory Woods to lead the Information Team at Inclusive Technology where he was responsible for delivering training and consultancy to schools around the world. While at Inclusive, Ian worked closely with the development team to help design much of Inclusive’s software output over the last seven years. This includes titles from the ‘Big Bang’, ‘Switch Skills’, ‘Target and Touch’ and ‘Maker’ series, each design underpinned by best practice research Ian carried out in schools and colleges. Most recently Ian worked on MyZone LP, an innovate switch accessible learning learning platform for children with SEN.

2 Responses to Symbols 101 Part One

  1. Jessica Doolan says:

    Hi Ian,
    Thanks for your great post. I love hearing about how other people talk about introducing & choosing symbols. I think your activity with your ‘his-tree’ man is a great example of how we can ‘map meaning’ onto anything. I guarantee that every person who reads your blog won’t be able to look at a man beside a tree the same way again. It’s so important for us to remember that with enough models and learning opportunities that we are the ones that have to power to make symbols have meaning for the people that we support.
    Jess

  2. Ian Bean says:

    Hi Jess
    Thank you for your comments. You are absolutely correct that for many of our students it is we (as teachers / therapists) who provide the meaning to the symbols that we choose to use. We can’t rely on our students to decode them themselves.

    Ian

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