|An Introduction to Symbols|
|Back to Resource Index||ACE Centre June 2000|
|This short article provides an introduction to the types and uses of popular communication symbol systems. It is not designed to provide a comprehensive critique of the many systems available but instead provides an overview of the subject which students and teachers may find helpful. Published for inclusion on the NGfL resource database.|
We encounter symbols constantly in our daily lives - road signs, no smoking signs, etc - and we often incorporate them into our writing when appropriate. Many of us put an 'X' underneath our signatures, or use 'smileys' :-) in internet messages. One set of symbols that most of us use every day is text, which qualifies as a symbol system because the letters of the alphabet only hold meaning to those who have learnt to read that particular language. There is nothing in the letter C to say that it makes the sound at the start of the word "cat", we only know that because we have learnt this link in English.
Symbol systems augment language and literacy, and can often be vital learning and communication tools for students with physical and communication difficulties. Such systems contain a variety of symbol types:
Pictorial symbols are usually easily recognisable
Representational images may need explanation
There are pictorial images that represent an abstract concept...
...and purely abstract symbols
How do symbols help?
After recognising an object and understanding that a picture can represent that object, many students are able to use a symbol - which they may be able to physically sign, use in a communication book, use as or alongside an electronic communication aid, or eventually use in reading and writing with a symbol-based word processor. If symbols are used with electronic speech output communication devices, users can have the advantage of the symbols overlay to help them remember where messages are stored. Students making use of symbol systems to support their access to the curriculum can have their statutory tests adapted to include symbols.
When introducing symbols to students it is important to remember that symbol users have different needs when it comes to understanding and using symbols. Some students will find abstract symbols very difficult to understand, while others may need to use an abstract symbol system to give them access to the wide vocabulary and grammatical structure that they require. Symbol users or potential symbol users may therefore need to be introduced gradually to new symbols before they are expected to understand and use them independently. The labelling of an environment such as a nursery or classroom with common symbols such as chair, door, paint, paper, can help in the acquisition of symbol recognition by all pupils using that environment, whether they are symbol users or not.
It is important to use symbols to communicate with students who are themselves learning about symbols. In this way, staff and carers become familiar with the system that is being used. For example, a teacher can talk to a class while pointing to large symbols on a communication chart which all the class can see. Some of the children may not understand all of the words that the teacher uses, but the addition of the symbols can aid understanding.
Some examples of symbols in action:
Which symbol system?
Before we take a brief look at the most commonly used symbol systems in the UK, bear in mind that all systems have advantages and disadvantages, and it may be hard to decide which system will be the most appropriate for the student you have in mind. It can be difficult not to be influenced by the number of resources that are available for a particular symbol system. Alternatively, the number of users of one particular system in an environment can influence the choice of a symbol system for a new student joining that group. While ideally we should be providing each student with a system that best fits their needs, in practice this may be an time-consuming task within a class situation where there are two Blissymbol users, one Makaton user, three users of Picture Communication Symbols and two users of Rebus.
Symbolic development also plays a part in deciding which system is going to be appropriate for a user. As we develop, we come to understand that representations of an object that gradually become less similar to the original object can still represent it. If you are thinking of introducing a symbol system to a child, make sure that they already show some development of their recognition of represented objects. If the child is unable to understand the link between an object and a colour photograph of it, then it is unlikely that they will be able to understand the link between an object and a stylised line drawing representation of it. The following hierarchy is worth bearing in mind when deciding on a symbol system:
Selection of one type of symbol system does not preclude use of other more sophisticated systems (or text) when the user is able to move onto something more advanced. Also, systems may be mixed to suit the need of the user. For example a young child may begin to use an pictorial-based system but need a wider vocabulary, so embellished Blissymbols may be used to supplement the childs existing vocabulary without withdrawing any of it. In this way, the childs communication system is being extended, not duplicated. Symbols could be presented with the pictures that the child already knows and, at a later stage, the pictures could be removed if appropriate.
Now to look at the symbol systems themselves.
Commonly-used symbol systems
Here is a brief outline of the UK's four most commonly used symbol systems with some examples. Each entry has contact details to enable you find out more about them if you wish.
|This system, designed by Charles Bliss, contains symbols that are constructed from a number of basic shapes called elements - arrows, lines etc. The system has the facility to produce grammatical sentences, and users can alter or add to the meaning of a symbol by adding small graphical 'punctuation' symbols. Blissymbols are particularly suitable for use by cognitively intact individuals who may have cerebral palsy but who require a far wider and more complex vocabulary than can be provided in more pictorial systems. There are around 3000 symbols in the Bliss Reference Guide and the number of symbols is being added to each year.
Paper: Bliss Reference Guide book
Internet: The Blissymbol website
Other resources: Available from Blissymbol Communication UK, ACE Centre Advisory Trust, 92 Windmill Road, Headington, Oxford OX3 7DR. The UK contact is Gillian Nelms, tel 01608 676455 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
|to read||to break||to write||we/us|
|Makaton symbols were originally based on the Rebus symbol glossary and devised to be used by adults with learning difficulties. Some 350 core Makaton symbols are identical to Rebus symbols, but Makaton has undergone development as a system in its own right and now includes symbols designed to give access to a much wider vocabulary including categories such as transport, animals, buildings, places and people. Many of the Symbols are clear and easy to understand but as the more complex issues of science and maths are represented, the symbols become more abstract.
Paper: Books are available of the core vocabulary, National Curriculum, animals, transport and vehicle symbols.
Software: Makaton signs and symbols are available as a database, and can be used with Microsoft Word or with Writing with Symbols.
Internet: Makaton website
All resources: Available from the Makaton Vocabulary Development Project, 31 Firwood Drive, Camberley, GU15 3QD. Tel 01276 61390
Picture Communication Symbols (PCS)
|The PCS system originated in the United States as three photocopiable files containing 3000 symbols. PCS symbols are divided into sections: social, people, verbs, descriptive, nouns, and a large miscellaneous section with some food and leisure. Tenses and auxiliary verbs (eg is, was) are not included in this set. Both the photocopiable files and the associated software have been anglicised to make them more appropriate to the UK market. The software provides both a black and white and a colour library of the symbols.
Paper: Picture Communication Symbols are available as three separate books or as one combined volume with two addendums published in 1999 and 2000.
Internet: Mayer Johnson Website
Software: The Boardmaker software allows you to print Picture Communication Symbols. New additional symbols available as the Picture Communication Symbols Addendum. Picture Communication Symbols also available on CD (wmf format) for use within other programs such as Talking Screen or Writing with Symbols.
All resources: Available from Cambridge Adaptive Communication
|Developed from the American Peabody Reading Scheme and anglicised by Judy van Oosterom, most Rebus symbols are stylised pictures representing objects, actions and attributes which are immediately recognisable. The library contains plurals of certain symbols and qualifiers to show the future tense. Recently symbols have been added for individuals taking part in the Special Olympics and to complement the signing system Signalong. The total number of symbols is increasing each year as requests for new symbols are made, and to date there are between 4000 and 5000 symbols available.They can be reproduced in colour within the software.
Paper: Printout of Rebus symbol system in the Picture Index available from Widgit Software.
Internet: Sharing of resources made using Rebus symbols available on the Widgit Website through the Symbol Forum.
Software: Writing with Symbols 2000 contains over 5000 Rebus symbols. Previous versions of this software including Symbols to Sentences and GridMaker also contain Rebus symbols
All resources: Available from Widgit Software
Other symbol systems
There are a number of other symbol sets which aim to provide a direct representation of a limited vocabulary. Generally speaking they are of more use to the young and the less cognitively able communicators. They include Pick 'N' Stick and Compic pictures sets, both available from Winslow Press.
Other more abstract symbols systems include Picsyms, also available from Winslow Press, and Sigsymbols, available in the UK from Mrs A. Cregan, Tel: 01707 264587
Contact: Communication Matters
|© 2000 ACE (Aiding Communication in Education) Centre Advisory Trust, Oxford. Registered Charity No 1040868. Email us at email@example.com|