Symbol Supported Text and Literacy

Communicate: Symwriter, Communicate: In Print 2 and Boardmaker V6 all allow users to easily pair symbols with text as shown in the examples below.

symwriter example

Symbol supported text generated in Communicate: Symwriter

Boardmaker Symbolate example

Symbol supported text generated in Boardmaker V6

As more and more software comes out which lets people pair symbols with words easily, we are getting more enquiries about how to do this – and also when people should do it! However, as the technology makes this easier, we are also receiving lots of questions in trainings and workshops about whether symbol supported text is a valid way to support literacy development and the best way to go about it.

For this reason, I thought it would be useful to find and summarise the research available on symbol supported text for literacy development as well information using symbols to support documents in Easy English.

The Center for Literacy and Disability Studies at the University of North Carolina did a review of the literature in the area of supporting literacy development with symbols and found that “while this practice provides some students with access to content they would otherwise be unable to access independently, there are many issues to consider before implementing this practice broadly”.

Most of the research looking at the use of symbol supported text has focused on the effect of pictures paired with words on reading individual words. The results have suggested that it slows down word learning (Pufpaff, Blischak & Lloyd 2000; Samuels et al. 1974) and that children learned to read more words when they did not have pictures (Saunder and Solman, 1984). However, current practice has suggested that modified picture supported reading can be of benefit if your goal is to develop emergent readers and writer’s early literacy attitudes and understanding. It is important to note that at no point does the literature or current good practice support the wholesale use of symbols to develop literacy or using symbols long term in a literacy program.  Currently, no research has considered the influence of symbol supported text on language learning.

Information about producing documents in Plain English has advocated for the use of clear and concise language that is appropriate for the intended audience (Plain English Campaign, 2004).  Easy English is specifically targeted at people with disabilities and is distinct from Plain English as it recommends the use of key pictures, logos, and photographs to facilitate understanding of meaning in printed material. (Communication Aids and Resource Materials, 2005) A literature review by Johnson et al. revealed that there is little empirical literature to support this recommendation. (Johnson, Bloomberg & Hui Ting, 2006) However, anecdotal reports gathered via user testing with adults with disabilities have provided some valuable information about the use of images to support written information.

So, in summary, there are some key questions that you need to ask yourself before you implement symbol supported text…

  1. Who am I planning on using symbol supported text with?
  2. For what purpose am I using symbol supported text eg. For reading or access to information?
  3. What level of support does the person have in their environment?
  4. What level of symbol supported text do I need eg. Fully supported text or just keywords?
  5. What symbols are going to be most meaningful for that person?

Once you have answered these questions – you should be better informed about when it is appropriate to use symbol supported text with the people that you support!

For more information about the software programs that I mentioned, why not take a look at our Symbol Software Comparison Chart or log into one of our free online training sessions on either Communicate: Symwriter or the Boardmaker: Symbolate Cram Session.

There are also some great online resources that might help you to find out more about any of these programs and information about symbols and supported text:


Communication Aids and Resource Materials. (2005). Easy English writing style guide. Retrieved from Scope

Sum, H. & Johnson, H. (2006) Do key pictures assist in extracting information presented in text for adults with developmental disabilities who are nonreaders? Unpublished honours thesis, La Trobe University, Victoria, Australia.

The Use of Pictures in Early Reading Instruction. Research to Practice Brief. The Center for Literacy and Disability Studies, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Plain English Campaign. (2004). How to write in plain English. Retrieved from Plain English Campaign Web site:

Pufpaff, L.A., Blischak, D.M., & Llyod, L.L. (2000). Effects of modified orthography on the identification of printed words. American Journal on Mental Retardation, 105 (1), 14-24.

Samuels, S. J., et. al. (1974). Effects of pictures and contextual conditions on learning to read. Occasional Paper No. 25, Minnesota University.

Saunder, R. J., & Solman, R. T. (1984). The effect of pictures on the acquisition of a small vocabulary of similar sight-words. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 54(3), 265-275.

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About Katie Lyon

Katie is a speech pathologist and augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) consultant who has been working with young children and adults with complex communication needs for the past 13 years. She has had worked in various roles including Coordinator of the Non-electronic Communication Aid Scheme and Regional Communication Service in Victoria as part of the state-wide Communication Access Network. She has a keen interest in supporting families, teachers, direct support workers and therapists to access information about AAC and assistive technology through education and training. She currently works part-time with Spectronics and part-time with the Communication Resource Centre at Scope in Victoria.

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