The power of symbols – supporting comprehension in the classroom

Text from this article was published in Head Teacher Update, November 2023.

Around 1.4 million children in the UK have a long-term speech, language, and communication need (SLCN) that they won’t grow out of, translating to 10% of children, or 2-3 in every mainstream classroom.

SLCN is the most common need for pupils on SEN support, with 278,600 being identified in this category during the 2022/23 academic year. This means at numerous points in your teaching career you will be called on to provide support for pupils who experience difficulties with verbal comprehension in your day-to-day lessons.

Some pupils with SLCN may have already been identified, and others’ needs will come to light when you start teaching them. Either way, giving them the support they require to succeed is vital.

Understanding is key

Being able to understand the language that we hear is important for every aspect of our life – everything we do involves some level of understanding, linking information to previous learning we have stored in our brain.

Not fully understanding what is being said will make a child unsure as to how they should respond. They may well have experienced repeated failures in communication making them more reluctant to engage in communication, especially in class.

Over time the effects of these difficulties are compounded: losing the thread in one lesson can result in a lower starting point in the next. As children move up through the key stages, demands on their comprehension skills become greater as the teaching becomes more verbally based and complex, and technical vocabulary is used.

So, what can be done to support all pupils and how can we embrace symbols to support comprehension in the classroom?

Exploring the use of symbols and images

We often use images to make lessons come alive. However, these images can offer so much more, especially for children with comprehension difficulties.

You will already be using them to give background to what you are talking about and to illustrate key ideas you want to get across. Maybe it’s the interior image of a factory to prompt discussion, a diagram to illustrate a geological process, or perhaps a piece of clipart showing an activity.

We can use symbols and icon images to represent specific concepts and words. Icons are everywhere – for example, the buttons on your phone, labels on packaging, public signage, etc.

In teaching, we can also use them to pick out key concepts and words, giving children with comprehension difficulties something to ‘hang onto’ when they get lost, and helping all children in the class to retain the information being shared.

Practising how you present information

Look at some text you have on a slide – or however you present information to children in your class. It could be a sentence or two, or a whole block of text.

Pick out the key words or concepts from the text which represent what you most want to convey to the children. Try to limit this to four or five words/concepts – less is more here!

Find picture symbols/icons which represent these concepts and carry the sense of the key idea on their own.

Don’t worry if some of the symbols look a bit abstract – a lot of language is abstract and symbols will still help. You are not trying to express all of the meaning on your slide with the symbols, it’s just providing a key idea.

Also remember, don’t change the way you teach your lessons. Consistency is key, just make sure you draw attention to relevant symbols as you teach – for example, clicking on one and expanding it to support your explanations.

Improving confidence

With very little effort, you now have a lesson which you can deliver simultaneously at two different levels.

At one level, the symbols and images support your explanations for children who are struggling with comprehension. At another level, the rest of the class are being empowered to access all your content more easily.

Even the more able children will benefit from the support symbols and images give in helping recall learning.

You should notice improvements in confidence too. From my experience coaching teachers in using symbols and images, the most common benefit reported is the increase in confidence for children who often struggle or find it difficult to stay engaged.

For example, a Year 4 teacher was delivering a lesson about irrigation in ancient Egypt using symbols to support key information. During the plenary, one child who would usually never say anything in class gave an answer to a question at length.

The teacher attributed this to the use of symbols and images. These gave her the confidence to speak as she was more sure of what the lesson was about and what information was being asked for.

Reducing teacher time

To help with time efficiencies, you can take all the symbols you’ve used in a lesson and print them out. You now have a classroom resource that children can use as prompts on their table for written work or discussions.

This is also really useful during the individual or group work parts of a lesson, where you might be helping children who have not yet grasped a concept.

To save you from scouring the internet to make your own symbol set, there are many dedicated communication symbol sets available that have been carefully designed to represent words and concepts.

Sourcing free sets of images and icons will save you precious time and ensure consistency, making them more effective for your teaching support. Explore Arasaac – – and The Noun Project – – to see how they can help you.

Alternatively, you can use a piece of software such as the Commtap Symboliser – – which is designed as an add-on for PowerPoint, to help simplify the process of adding symbols to text in your content. This also gives you the option to create pages of symbols you’ve used in a lesson along with their associated words.

Symbols – making a difference for children

Symbols can make a huge difference for children who are struggling to remember, process and understand verbal information, whilst at the same time being beneficial for everyone else.

Adding them to a lesson isn’t onerous, and you can use them with your existing material – there is no need to rewrite your lessons!

The symbols can be reproduced for the students to use during their work increasing their independent learning skills.

Using symbols is an easy way to change verbal learning to be multi-sensory by encouraging the information to be processed in at least two different ways (spoken and written words, symbols, and images).

[1] Speech and language UK (2023). Scale of the issue. Available at:

[2] GOV.UK (2022). Special Educational Needs in England. Available at: