Symbol Supported Text: Does it really help?

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The introduction above has been written in symbols. Did you find it easy to read? Did you struggle to read it? Is the version below easier?

When I first started working as a speech language pathologist, nearly 25 years ago, we were all using symbol supported text to help our struggling readers and writers. We used it with the intention of "simplifying" text so that the people we were working with were able to "read" the text. However, this approach fell out of favour for the simple reason that it didn't practically help many of the people we were working with - and also because we realised that the students we were using it with seemed to take longer to learn to read traditional text when we used symbols paired with writing.  However, I have noticed that recently some people have started using this approach again and I'm writing this blog post to reflect my concern that we haven't learned from our own history.

For symbol supported text to be successful it requires a really good knowledge of symbols. Most of you will not have been able to read the first part of this blog with meaning - it only made sense to you when I added the text to the symbols. As a Speech Pathologist who has been working in the area of AAC for most of my working life, I feel I have a good knowledge of symbols - but every time someone takes a piece of symbol supported text and removes the text I struggle to read it, just as you did.

For these reasons (and for others) using symbols to support a student's understanding of text is an approach that doesn't always achieve its intended outcome. It is also an approach that may have unintended consequences as it may also interfere with literacy development.

Erickson, Hatch & Clendon (2010) cover the research around this topic and I strongly recommend you access this article as further reading. In summary, though, there is a lot of research out there warning us to exercise caution in using this approach with developing readers and writers.

As you can see in the symbol supported text above, sometimes a symbol can actually increase confusion for a student when it is used to represent a word that has multiple meanings.  A symbol can direct a reader to incorrectly interpret a word using one of its alternative meanings, thereby preventing the reader from gaining comprehension of the piece of text.

In addition, some words don't have an obvious representation. A word like "the" is represented by a graphic symbol that is possibly even more abstract than the word. At least the student gets to see "the" repeatedly in lots of different environments, which gives them a greater chance to not only learn the word but also to learn how it is used. Lots of other people also know what "the" means. The symbol representing "the" will only be seen in limited places, is understood by a small number of people, and is probably just as difficult to learn as the word "the" - all of which makes it harder for the student to learn a representation that isn't universally accepted.

There is also a lot of research, going back to the 1960s, showing that a student will learn a word more easily when he or she is taught the word on its own. Teaching the word paired with a symbol does not help student to learn the word - in fact pairing the word with a symbol delays the student learning the text. This research has been conducted with different groups, including people with intellectual disability.

And please don't think that I don't like symbols. Symbols are enormously important in AAC and I use them daily. They are have a pivotal role in communication development and success and also in behaviour supports, such as visual schedules.  But I don't ever use them in literacy teaching or compensation for all the reasons listed above and I encourage you to be careful about using symbol supported text as well.

And for lots more information, including specific references, please read:

Erickson, K.A., Hatch, P. & Clendon, S. (2010). Literacy, Assistive Technology, and Students with Significant Disabilities. Focus on Exceptional Children, 42(5), 1 - 16.

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Comments (15)

  1. Reply

    Hi Jane, This was our experience exactly. After diligently using text with symbols we discovered that at 4y.o Morgan could use text alone just as well or better. As always though it relies on sound early literacy instruction, exposure and expectations.

    • Reply

      Absolutely Merell! Good literacy practice has to be in place for good literacy outcomes for all students.

  2. steven aylward


    Hi Jane, thank you for highlighting such a great topic with AT. Of course a person can think about usability and whether a product or system works well to serve a function. I never thought before of how tech that we think will be helpful can actually hinder development and learning. I wonder though, if the person who is using this type of technology would be better served by sticking to the technology (even if it hinders learning in the classical sense) if that is the same type of technology and format that they will use as adults in the world of work? What are your thoughts on that?

    • Reply

      HI Steven,

      I don't know if you are familiar with the article by Anne Donellan about the "least dangerous assumptions"? In it she states "“the criterion of least dangerous assumption holds that in the absence of conclusive data, educational decisions ought to be based on assumptions which, if incorrect, will have the least dangerous effect on the likelihood that students will be able to functional independently as adults.” So using this model (which I firmly believe in) we would never use symbol supported text. We want ALL students to become the best readers and writers they can be. So we need to put in place the BEST practice we can so they can be the BEST readers and writers they can. We can never assume that a student "won't" or "can't" learn literacy - that is the dangerous assumption which leads to poor outcomes. So - since this approach hinders literacy development, we shouldn't be using it.

      And you probably didn't expect such a strong response - but I've got fairly strong views on this matter!



      PS The reference for the Donnellan article is Donnellan, A. (1984). The criterion of the least dangerous assumption. Behavior Disorders, 9, 2, 141-150.

  3. Anna Newstead


    Hi Jane, I thought the symbols represented a wordy daily timetable. "First we are going to go to school, then do some reading, then have a difficult swimming lesson, then we will do some PE to get strong, then we will do some maths, playdough, have a play outside with friends then play with some blocks, then have a general look around." Bloody confusing!!!

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  5. Raf


    Symbol supported text doesn't normally include a symbol for every single word, does it?

    I've not had a huge amount of exposure to it, but I'm sure I've seen documents where sentence structure has been re-jigged for clearer English, also allowing the use of a couple of symbols per sentence to support understanding eg "Some people can't/find reading difficult. Sometimes they use symbols instead of writing. Does having symbols as well as writing help?"

    • Reply

      HI Raf,
      Many times when symbol supported text is done in special education classrooms, it does include a symbol for every word. Or sometimes it is reduced to keywords. However - if the purpose of the exercise is literacy instruction then symbols shouldn't be included.

      What you are referring to is known as Easy English - It is an approach that is used in producing documents for people who don't have functional literacy - often used by government departments or organisations in disseminating information. The purpose is to get the information to as many people as possible recognising that many people need Easy English to read a text.

      So - it comes down to purpose as it so often does. If you are a school/teacher/tutor teaching literacy then you shouldn't use symbols. If you are trying to get information to as many people in the community as possible then changing the text to Easy English and putting in the occasional easily understood symbol to support meaning is a great idea.



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  8. Angelica


    Hello im a parent of a 5 year old very low functioning autistic non verbal little boy. He just started to recognize some words that we use really often he loves reading books with me and we have rescently introduced a low tech aac board, he seems to recognize some of the symbols on his board and has been using them to communicate and mainly request.
    i agree with u that translating every single word in a paragraph using aac is way to confusing for everyone. But to introduce one to two words per page with the sign that he is using on his aac board is that as bad??? Just because we use some of this resources to help him become more familiar with the symbol. Im not sure my child will ever learn to read regular text or write so that is why i feel i should prioritize his ability to use his communication board ..what do u think??

    • jane


      Hi Angelica - my apologies for my slow speed in answering. I have been away from my office for nearly three weeks. You can absolutely use one or two pictures to support the understanding of the text - this is what children's picture books already do and it's a great way to support comprehension. Usually, the pictures drawn in the books are better at supporting comprehension than the symbols we might use because they represent the meaning of all the text. There's also no evidence that having symbols accompanying text helps an individual to learn them in their communication book. We learn symbols in our communication system because they are consistently located (which helps us to develop a motor and vision plan) and because they are used repeatedly by others to talk to us. Hope that helps.

  9. Kerri


    Hi Jane,
    I am looking at trying to get students who have AAC access to "read to self" books/activities. Many of my students are currently using and learning low tech core boards. Any suggestions on how to get a new AAC learner to participate in a "read to self station?" I have seen suggestionns of adapted books... and was thinking of doing something along the lines of emphasizing 1-2 words that we have been studying from our core/fringe words similar to what Angelica talks about.
    I promise I am trying to do things right... but also am learning as I go.

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