Guide to using communication symbols in mainstream classrooms

Who this guide is for

Anyone wanting to make their lesson materials accessible to more children including children with communication or learning difficulties.

What you will learn

  • How to effectively support children with communication difficulties using picture symbols
  • How to use picture symbols to support children’s access and communication, for example:
    • To support whole class teaching – such as in material displayed on an interactive whiteboard
    • To support group/table work
    • To support access to worksheet based tasks
  • How adding picture symbols to text will increase your awareness of when language is easier/harder for those children who struggle

The benefits for the children you work with

  • Children know what to focus on most because it is highlighted with communication symbols
  • Improved memory for key information
  • Increased engagement and interaction in lessons including those who struggle and those with speech, language, and communication needs (SLCN) and/or learning disabilities (LD)
  • Increased independence for those with SLCN/LD
  • Reduction in confusion/frustration for those with SLCN/LD

Benefits for you and your teaching

  • Easier to use the same set of lesson materials to include more children
  • Easier to adapt your teaching to children with a wider range of abilities
  • Reduction in the number of times you need to repeat instructions and explanations
  • Helps you understand how complex a piece of text is – and therefore how you might modify your language or provide simpler explanations to include more children

About symbols

What are symbols and what do they do?

A picture symbol is used to support the understanding of text.

For example:

If you saw this sentence, would you know what it meant?

ಇಂದು ನಾವು ಸಾರಿಗೆಯ ಬಗ್ಗೆ ಕಲಿಯುತ್ತಿದ್ದೇವೆ

The language is “Kannada” a language spoken in parts of south-west India. See note 1 below to see if symbols help.

Symbols can be quicker to learn and quicker to get to the meaning.

Look at this sentence:

Now what does this sentence say?

Even if the concept is abstract – for example “understand”, you will probably have been able to work out what the second sentence means with the help of your prior encounter with the symbol for “understand”. See note 2.

What skills does a child need to have for symbols to be useful?

A child needs to have some level of symbolic understanding for symbols to be useful. This means that they need to know that one thing can represent another thing. If a child can respond appropriately to a spoken word or a sign or a gesture then they have symbolic understanding. The vast majority of children in mainstream school will have some level of symbolic understanding – even if they have significant learning difficulties.

What makes a good symbol?

The key things to think about are:

  • How learnable is the symbol?
  • How clear and focussed is its meaning? Are there extraneous parts of the symbol that may confuse the meaning?
  • How easy would it be to guess the meaning of the symbol having not seen it before?
  • How consistent is the design of the symbol with other symbols in the set? Greater consistency will improve learnability and guess-ability.

Compare these two symbols:

If you wanted to choose one symbol to use for “sit” for all of the following sentences, which would it be and why?

  • He sat on a bench.
  • Sit on the bus.
  • She sat on her chair.

There isn’t an absolute right or wrong answer, so there may be specific situations where you might choose the first symbol. The first symbol does look more attractive; however it also contains extra information which is not about the concept “sit” – it’s very obviously a bench, it’s a boy, it’s a green bench, it’s a boy wearing a red top and blue jeans. For some it may be harder to filter out this extra information to concentrate on the core meaning – “sit”.

How concrete does a symbol need to be?

The symbols used by many companies for their logos are not at all concrete for example Amazon, Apple – yet we understand what they represent. Even if we haven’t seen a logo many times before, the association with the company can be cemented quite quickly – think about this the next time you see a new logo.

I used to play a game with teenagers who had significant communication difficulties – they were at the old P-levels P4-P5 for English Listening (understanding no more than one to two words in a phrase) and using no speech. At the start of the game, each young person would draw a picture of one of the others in the group on a grid on the same piece of paper. During the game, after having a go, a child would point to one of the drawings on the paper to indicate who should go next. The others would always know who had been chosen and the appropriate one would have their go. Some of the drawings were no more than a squiggle – but they still worked.

You can, therefore, get away with less than ideal symbols, and you could even draw something to help understanding in the moment and it will probably help. Clearly, however, consistent and focussed symbols are going to be more beneficial in the longer term.

Extra information in symbols

Many symbol systems include abstract elements which give more information in the symbols. This could include language concepts that are difficult to capture in the symbol itself. For example:

An arrow to show past or future:

Note the arrow is an abstract symbol; additionally not all languages and cultures would interpret an arrow to the left as being the past and an arrow to the right as being future.

These examples are from the Arasaac symbol set; Widgit symbols use a larger arrow pointing to the left to indicate the past.

Arasaac uses a “plus” symbol for plural (Widgit uses a double plus):

Other bits of information may include room (for example a square box around a symbol showing what goes on in the particular room), building (for example a house shape around a symbol for the items or activities that take place in the building), jobs (for example a person symbol plus key items from the job), and many others. See the Widgit Schema,  or do a search on Arasaac – and use the pictogram options to add modifiers – for example cat.

Using symbols

It’s important to understand that just because you’ve thrown a load of symbols at the children, this is not necessarily going to help them. Here are some things to think about:

Prior knowledge

What a child already knows will affect what they are able to understand – even if there is a symbol there.

Contextual knowledge

The meaning of a piece of text depends on what has already gone before. You may have introduced Thomas Eddison two or three sentences ago, and you are now referring to him as “he”. If you need to symbolise “he” how might you do it? Would you use a generic symbol for “he”, or might a picture of Thomas Eddison be preferable?

Word order

In English, the order of words is often important in order to know who has done what to whom. Other languages may use a different word order from English, or word order may be less important as there are other things that are used to show who is doing what to whom.

For example:

What’s happened in this (Spanish) sentence?:

See note 3 to find out.

Passive sentences

Who is doing the drawing in each one? What could we do in the second one (which is a “passive” sentence) to make it clear that John was doing the drawing and not Mary?

You could symbolise the “was” as well:

Or (often better), avoid using a passive sentence altogether.

Word order and time things happen

Both these sentences mean the same thing – but the order in which they have been written is different. If you just looked at the symbols in the first one, you might turn on the machine first. To make the sentence clearer, you should probably use the second version – things happen in the same order that you say them. If you use the first form, you will need to symbolise “before” as well:

Note that this sentence is more complex, there are more symbols to process and it is less accessible than the sentence “Read the instructions, then switch it on”.

How can symbols support children? Why it helps.

  • They are another way of showing meaning, and in a way that can be closer to the meaning of the message
  • Memory effect for visually presented information
  • Helps a child to find the key information (if symbols are added selectively to text)
  • Helps adults to focus on key messages for those who struggle (where symbols are used selectively)
  • Can help with providing a differentiated message to children – for example, more complex text for the more able children/most of the class, and key information highlighted with symbols – giving access to less able children and a summary for everyone else

For some children, symbols will make the difference between following a lesson and not following a lesson. Particularly children with:

  • Speech, language, and communication needs (SLCN)
  • English as an additional language (EAL)
  • Special educational needs and disabilities (SEND)

The extra confidence that children get from being more sure of what it is that is being presented in a lesson can be the difference between passively disengaging and actively engaging.

Using symbols in practice

Should I symbolise everything?

No, because:

  1. Too many symbols are likely to add to the confusion – too much to process and not giving any clues to the children as to what is important.
  2. You are probably not thinking enough about tailoring the complexity of the information you are getting over to those who struggle.

An advantage of symbolising is that it allows you to present your lesson at more than one level to the children. You have all the text for the able children, plus you have highlighted key information for children who may struggle. The symbolised key information can help as a summary and a memory-aid for all children. The symbols can also help to remind you of the information you might want to stress when talking to the class.

What to symbolise and what not to symbolise

Think about:

  • What is the key information you are trying to get over to children that they might not otherwise get
  • The cognitive load on the children you are hoping to support
  • What could be symbolised, what might be best left unsymbolised?
  • Where you put the symbols
  • How the symbols might be used whilst teaching
  • Supporting  differentiation of teaching materials for those who are more and less able

Some ideas

  • Limit the number of symbols you use to highlighting the most important points in your lesson: try to limit to four symbols per block of text
  • Draw children’s attention to specific symbols as you introduce key ideas
  • You might explain why a symbol is as it is
  • Get more able children to decide what information is most important and therefore what should be symbolised – give them a limit – say no more than four symbols per sentence
  • Have children working in mixed ability pairs to present information to each other using the symbols to structure their summary
  • Use symbols instead of words as scaffolding for children’s written work.

Note: symbols are designed to support access to text and make it easier for children with difficulties reading or processing text to get the information. They are not usually recommended as a support for developing reading skills.

Where to put the symbols

Symbols could be located:

  • Above a block of text to show key information from the text.
  • Above paragraphs – to draw out the information contained in each paragraph.
  • Above individual words.

Symbols could also be located above or below the text. You might want to place symbols below text in cases where children are communicating by pointing at symbols so that their hand does not cover the text related to the symbol they are indicating.

Why you should put symbols above a block of text or above paragraphs rather than individual words

The symbols should make sense on their own (once they are familiar to a child). If you symbolise above individual words, it’s harder for you to check for yourself if the symbols will be useful – you will be influenced very much by the word underneath it. Additionally, if you are symbolising individual words, the symbols are going to be more spaced out and quite possibly spill over onto separate lines: this makes it harder for the child to scan them and find the meaning.

Symbol sets

Widgit is probably the most popular commercial symbol set used in the UK, followed by PCS which are available from Tobii-Dynavox. Your school may have free access to Widgit Symbols if it uses a service such as LGfL.

Well worth a look are Arasaac symbols. This large symbol set is being actively developed and the symbols are free for non-commercial use. You can modify aspects of the symbols you download such as skin colour and hair colour.

The Noun Project has over five million icons and has extensive coverage of words in English – it will cover many of the words and concepts encountered when teaching the National Curriculum (England and Wales). A subset of these icons are being curated for use as a symbol set in the Commtap Symboliser for PowerPoint.

There are a number of other – mostly smaller – free symbol sets available – see

Software to make your life easier

Is the software/availability of the right software a barrier to using symbols? If so, how does that affect your use of symbols?

If you are finding copying and pasting symbols from websites is too time-consuming, then symbolising software may help:

Widgit In Print 3Works on PC
Allows you to add symbols to phrases and grids
Some additional layout features
Requires In Print to be able to open and edit documents made with it
Widgit OnlineSubscription – use through a browser online
Allows you to add symbols to phrases and grids
Requires a subscription to keep access to documents made with it
BoardmakerWorks on PC, Mac, and Chromebook
Allows you to add symbols to phrases and grids
Some additional layout features
Requires Boardmaker to open and edit documents made with it
Commtap Symboliser for PowerPointWorks on PC – PowerPoint for Windows
Allows you to add symbols to phrases and grids
Multiple options for where symbols appear
Automatically create pages containing all the symbols used in a document
All the flexibility of PowerPoint
Requires PowerPoint or free software (such as Libre Office) to open and edit documents made with it

Further support

We offer school-based coaching for teachers wanting to use symbols with their classes. Please contact us to find out more.


Note 1 – symbols with the sentence written in the Kannada language

You can probably guess the meanings of the second two symbols. The first symbol might be harder to guess unless you are familiar with a symbol system using a similar symbol. It represents “today”, a more abstract meaning that is a little harder to represent with a symbol. Today we are learning about transport.

Note 2

Means “I understand chemistry”.

Note that the order of words in Kannada is different from English, so this sentence would be more accurately symbolised (for Kannada speakers) as:

Note 3

So this means “I gave him the book” .

References and copyrights

Symbols used in this document are from Arasaac.

Arasaac symbols copyright

Pictograms author: Sergio Palao Origin: ARASAAC ( License: CC (BY-NC-SA) Owner: Government of Aragon (Spain)

Google Translate has been used to create the translations.

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