Make training materials accessible with symbols

Who this guide is for

Anyone wanting to make their training materials or information accessible to a wide audience including people with communication or learning disabilities.

What you will learn

  • How to effectively support people with communication difficulties using picture symbols
  • How adding picture symbols to text will increase your awareness of when language is easier/harder to understand for those who struggle

The benefits for trainees

  • Trainees know what to focus on most because it is highlighted with communication symbols
  • Improved memory for key information
  • Symbols are less abstract and easier to associate with meaning than text
  • Increased engagement and interaction in training sessions including those with speech, language, and communication needs (SLCN) and/or learning disabilities (LD)
  • Reduction in confusion/frustration for those with SLCN/LD

Benefits for you and your training

  • Easier to use the same set of materials to include more trainees
  • Easier to adapt your training to trainees with a wide 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 of your trainees

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 the following 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 a concept is abstract (“understand”) you will probably have been able to work out what the second sentence means with the help of your prior encounter with that symbol. See note 2.

Using symbols

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

Prior knowledge

What someone already knows will affect what they are able to understand.

Contextual knowledge

The meaning of a piece of text depends on what has already gone before. You may have introduced Harriet Smith, the director of the Northingham NHS Trust, two or three sentences ago, and you are now referring to her as “she”. If you need to symbolise “she” how might you do it? Would you use a generic symbol for “she”, or might a picture of Harriet Smith be preferable?

Word order

In English, the order of words is usually important in order to know who has done what to whom.

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 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”.

Why symbols help

  • 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 trainees to find the key information (if symbols are added selectively to text)
  • Helps trainers to focus on key messages for those who struggle (where symbols are used selectively)
  • Can help with providing a differentiated message to trainees – more complex text for those without difficulties, and key information highlighted with symbols – giving access to those with difficulties and a summary for everyone else.

For some trainees, symbols will make the difference between following a training session and not following a training session. Particularly those with:

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

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

Using symbols in practice

How much to symbolise?

Think about:

  • What is the key information you are trying to get over to trainees that they might not otherwise get
  • The cognitive load on the trainees you are hoping to support

Why not symbolise everything?

  1. Too many symbols are likely to add to the confusion – too much to process and not giving any clues to your trainees 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 training at more than one level to the trainees. You have all the text available for everyone, plus you have highlighted key information for those who may struggle. The symbolised key information can help as a summary and memory-aid for all trainees. The symbols can also help to remind you of the information you might want to stress when delivering training.

What to symbolise and what not to symbolise

Think about:

  • What is the key information you are trying to get over to trainees that they might not otherwise get
  • What could be symbolised, what might be best left unsymbolised?
  • Where you put the symbols
  • How the symbols might be used whilst training
  • Supporting  differentiation of training 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 training: try to limit to four symbols per block of text
  • Draw trainees’ attention to specific symbols as you introduce key ideas
  • You might explain why a symbol is as it is

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

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 your audience). 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 making it harder for people to scan them and find the meaning.

Symbols and Software

Symbol sets

Widgit is currently the most popular commercial symbol set used in the UK, followed by PCS which are available from Tobii-Dynavox.

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 and hair colour.

The Noun Project has over five million icons and has extensive coverage of words in English – 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 small – free symbol sets available – see https://globalsymbols.com/.

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

Please contact us if you have any questions about using symbols to support your training.

Notes

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 studying 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:

References and copyrights

Symbols used in this document are from Arasaac.

Arasaac symbols copyright

Pictograms author: Sergio Palao Origin: ARASAAC (http://www.arasaac.org) License: CC BY-NC-SA (Creative Commons, non-commercial use, share-alike) Owner: Government of Aragon (Spain)

Google Translate has been used to create the translations.

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 https://globalsymbols.com/.

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.

Notes

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 (http://www.arasaac.org) License: CC (BY-NC-SA) Owner: Government of Aragon (Spain)

Google Translate has been used to create the translations.

How to do Speech and Language Therapy: What’s the problem?

What is the problem?

It might seem obvious, but when a referral comes in, or at the first meeting, the speech and language therapist needs to find out what the problem is. By problem we mean how any speech or language difficulty is affecting an individual’s life negatively, or, how it might predictably affect the individual’s life.

Too often a cursory exploration of concerns is made, which is then followed by a few of the therapist’s favourite assessments, after which the therapist chooses something to work on – most probably an area or two which those assessments just happened to assess. These work areas may be written down as targets.

This is all wrong. The affect of the communication difficulty should be central, assessments should be relevant to those negative affects, there should be clear justification of those work areas and how they are going to make life better for the individual.

So, how do we do it?

In this first post, we are going to look at exploring the concerns to get to the root of a problem.

Explore the concerns

What is your client concerned/anxious about?

This is fundamental to any speech and language therapist’s work. If you neglect this, you might as well not bother. You will never know if you are working on something useful or not.

This is a conversation. You might have it with the individual seeking help, or with a carer, a teacher, a parent, or all of these. You need to find out what difficulty – in life – there is as a result of the communication, or could be avoided with changes in communication. Is it a concern for the individual? Or, is it just a concern of others around them? – in which case, is it valid for the individual? You are not making things up, it’s concerns for this particular individual – are *they* themselves at risk?

Here are some examples:

Correct (concerns which are concerns).
  • Failing to get needs met
  • Distressed when an activity changes
  • Feeling left out
  • Feeling isolated – not understanding what people are saying
  • Frustration
  • No longer able to enjoy a night out with friends

Note, there is no menu of worries to choose from, the worry will vary from individual to individual. You *cannot* find a risk by doing an off-the-shelf assessment!

If the concerns you came up with look anything like these, then you need to dig deeper:

Incorrect - things that aren't of themselves concerns (they don't describe the affect of the problems).
  • Unintelligible speech
  • Difficulty using adjectives
  • Problems with prepositions on, in, under
  • Difficulties with inferencing
  • Difficulties understanding complex sentences
  • Unable to use a subordinate clause

These are all about the mechanics of communication, but say nothing about the actual consequences of these skills (if any) on an individual. Jump into one of these without getting a proper handle on any concerns at your peril!

Suggestions for getting to the concern/worry

Have a discussion.
  • Start with how they are being affected – the person you are talking to or the person with the communication difficulty.
  • How might life look if the communication difficulty was less/went away? How would it be better?
  • What is the communication difficulty stopping you or them from doing?
  • Do not suggest solutions at this time. Suggesting a solution (perhaps because you think you have seen something similar before) will derail the conversation, and will make it more difficult to get to the concern.

Going further

Read more about why getting at the route of someone’s concerns is so important, and how not doing so constitutes a significant risk to services and the recipients of those services.

Next

In my next post, I will talk about assessment of skills, and how you will use that to drive your therapy.

Translating face-to-face courses to online

Summary

In this post I describe my experiences of translating a face-to-face course I run to an online course.

I have been running courses to teach people to support children using key word signs for a number of years (Signalong). These signs are used with normal spoken English to support people who have communication or learning difficulties. The course typically has around 12 participants. There is a mix of teaching to the whole class as well as lots of participation and activities which can also take place in small groups.

The idea of taking the course online was a little daunting at first because the face-to-face course is so interactive. However, with a bit of thought, I found that I could translate every activity I would usually do in the face-to-face version to the online version.

Here I tell you how I did it – starting with the software I used.

Choosing a platform

For this course, I used the Zoom platform. There are other platforms which may perform equally well. I use the terminology relating to Zoom in this post – if you are planning to use a different platform there should be equivalent features and controls in that.

The features that I needed a platform to have (and Zoom has) are:

  • A mode where one person (for example the trainer) is taking up most of the screen no matter who is talking – in my case for when I was presenting new signs.
  • A mode where you can have all of the participants on the screen at the same time (called “Gallery mode” in Zoom) – so you can see what everyone is doing (signing in my case), and don’t risk forgetting that someone is there.
  • The ability to highlight individual students so that they take up the main part of the screen.
  • A way of splitting students into small groups and for you as the trainer to move from one group to another to see what students are doing. Zoom calls these “breakout rooms”.
  • A message window (chat) for sending messages to the whole class or to individual students – this is good for putting links to resources required for the class, uploading a resource for students to use, putting in information from a document which a student cannot open.
  • Security features appropriate for your situation (discussion below).

Document sharing

For handouts and documents, you can upload these via the chat, however I find it more convenient to use a service like Dropbox. You can give people a link to a folder in your Dropbox (or OneDrive, or Google Drive or whatever) – so they can download documents from there. Make sure it is a “read only” or “view only” link so that people can’t edit your originals! It is then very simple to add documents in there as you go along, and people can also download the handouts after the class. You can usually set these links to “expire” – so you could have it expiring shortly after a course finishes.

I have a main folder where students will find the documents for the current class, and a sub-folder called “previous classes” where students can find the documents from previous classes.

Preparing the course

I strongly recommend trying everything out thoroughly before running a session. Try it out with friends or colleagues, or you can experiment by setting up a meeting between whatever devices you have and check out what it looks like from the point of view of the student and the trainer. In Zoom, you can switch who is in control of the meeting (the host) – so if you say have a phone and a laptop, you can experiment switching the host between each one so that you can see what it will look like for the respective roles on each device.

What device should I use?

I needed to see clearly what students were doing (their signs) – so if you need to see all your participants clearly you need to use something with a decent sized screen. In my case I needed to see people signing properly – that is from the waist to the top of the head: for a typical laptop, this means sitting around two metres or so away from the screen. I plugged a large monitor into my laptop when I ran the course so that I could get a really good picture of each person. I find with my set up with up to 12 people on a screen I get a good view of what people are doing (signs) and can correct them in the way I usually would. In fact one benefit is that as you don’t need to scan around as much as you would with a face-to-face course you can pick up more on what people are doing. If you don’t think you are going to get a good enough view of everyone in a class you might want to reduce the number of students.

As a trainer, I wouldn’t recommend using a phone or a tablet (unless it’s a very large tablet) as you won’t be able to see your students properly.

What device should your students use?

A laptop is definitely preferable, if not, a tablet should work reasonably well. Even phones with good screens can work – as long as they can get a good view of you. They are not ideal if you want your students to have a clear view of what you are doing.

Further comments about viewing students

You may need to ask students to move themselves or their device so that you get a better view of them – but mostly I didn’t need to remind students to do this.

In general lighting wasn’t an issue, however you should make sure you are lit clearly enough – and properly in view – so check your image in the gallery as well as the students.

If you are running an interactive course like mine, and for a good screen – that is a large screen or screen with good resolution, I would suggest having up to 11 students in your class at one time (you will have 4 x 3 people on your screen). If you don’t have a large screen, I would suggest limiting it to 8 students (you will have 3 x 3 people on your screen including the tutor). I was typically getting 9 students on my course and that was fine – I also have a large screen which I plugged into my laptop. This of course depends on the type of course you are running and how much you need to be able to see your students properly – so you might be able to accommodate many more students in your class.

Instructions for joining the course

These are instructions I gave to students coming along to my course. You may of course want to vary it for yours. Some instructions are specific to Zoom, so modify to whatever platform you are using. I have added some comments in italics.


It would be good if everyone could have a go at using Zoom before the course starts – so we can get going as quickly as we can.

Use this link to join the class – it will be the same link each week:

https://example.com/link-to-your-meeting

Please do not share this link with anyone else.

You *could* use a different meeting link each week, but that will almost certainly lead to confusion.

On a laptop, it should walk you through downloading and installing the Zoom app.

I highly recommend that you use a laptop, however, if you are on a phone (a tablet may be similar), it will probably ask you to open the URL with a browser (e.g. “Samsung Internet”). On the web page it takes you to, it will probably have a box at the top of the page for getting the app. If you are given a choice, Zoom meetings is the one you want. When you have got the app, it will probably ask you if you want to join a meeting – the meeting number to enter is 123456789.

Test out joining the class in advance as a student to see what happens and create these instructions.

Test it out!

You can click to join the class at any time to see if it works. You can try it out with someone else who is also on the course so you can get a feel of what it’s like. If you want to test it out with me, message me and I will join at the same time.

I gave the students the opportunity to try it out with me before the course. No-one needed to take me up on the offer however, and they all managed to join the course for real.

If everyone is using the Wi-Fi at the same time at your place

If there are a lot of people on the Wi-Fi at the same time where you are then the video may slow down. If you can, plug your device directly into the internet.

Particularly during the lock-down, there is a lot of demand on Wi-Fi – especially in more densely populated areas. Lots of neighbours also on their Wi-Fi will also limit bandwidth. I recommend to all students to plug their device directly into the internet. For a laptop, this will require a LAN cable to connect to the router and LAN to USB adapter to plug into the laptop (if there is no LAN connector on the laptop). These are widely available.

Position your device

This might not be applicable to your course.

I need to be able to see all of your signs – so make sure your device is just far enough away so that I can see all of your sign. (You will need both hands too).

Any problems

If something goes wrong, you can ring/text me on 01234 567890 (during the class as well).

It’s always a good idea to give students another way of contacting you if things go wrong.


Ensuring your students can get to the course

This discussion applies to Zoom, but it will probably be similar for other platforms.

You can set up a link for your class, email it around to your students, and they click on the link to join. The process is simple and it will step you through setting up any software – which takes no longer than a minute or two.

Security

There are different levels of security that you can apply – you should apply the appropriate level of security for your situation. Remember that the more security you apply, the more difficult it may be for some people to join – particularly for those who find IT challenging.

At its simplest, the link you send round enables anyone with the link to join the course. If you are inviting specific people and you are only giving them the link, that should generally be fine. I have not needed to go past this level, but Zoom does have a lot more options:

  • You can add a separate passcode for the meeting – so they have to type that in when joining. For those who cannot manage that, you could send them a different link which has the passcode encrypted into it.
  • You can require that users register before the meeting. This is highly recommended.
  • You can “enable a waiting room”, meaning that when people come through to the meeting they are only let in if you click to let them in. For this feature to be really effective, you need to know who will be coming to your course, and let participants know that they should use the same display name for the meeting as the one they used when signing up.
  • Another feature is to “lock the meeting” – so that no-one else can join the meeting from that point on.

Note: on Zoom from 19th July 2020 it is mandatory to set a passcode or enable a meeting room when setting up meetings.

You should never share a meeting link to your course publicly.

Internet connection

As mentioned in the comments in the joining instructions above, and especially during the lockdown period, if people can connect to the internet directly that will reduce the likelihood of a slow connection due to the Wi-Fi being overloaded.

So far in the course the connection has been good for most people most of the time. You should of course make sure you have a good connection – and you can’t really run the course if you don’t. On the other hand, you can’t be held responsible for someone else’s poor connection – apart from giving them the suggestions mentioned above – and making that clear in any pre-course information. That having been said, it’s probably a good idea to be prepared to offer an extra session to cover for any significant lost time due to connection problems.

Suggestions for translating various types of training activities

Presenting new information to the whole class

What usually happens

  • Students focus on the trainer.
  • Trainer demonstrates something to the students.
  • Students have a go at whatever is demonstrated, tutor observes the class.

How to do it online

  • The tutor “spotlights” themself – this means the focus always stays on them for the students – even when students are speaking. (Without being spotlighted, the focus jumps to whoever is speaking).
  • Students should use the “presenter” view in Zoom – this is where one person fills most of the screen.
  • Tutor views students in gallery mode – ideally on a larger screen – so they can see clearly what everyone is doing.

Group work – students presenting different information to each other

What usually happens

An activity in small groups, where students present something from information only they have.

In the Signalong course, there is an activity where students in small groups take it in turns to take a card with a sentence printed on it. They then sign what’s on the card without speaking and the other students in the group try and work out what was signed.

How to do it online

Prepare the information you need to give to individual students in advance. Have the documents available in a shared online folder (see above). I find using such a folder is convenient – and reduces the amount of faff for the trainer in the session. You can also share documents via the chat (takes a bit longer). Probably best to use PDF documents – people can generally open these even if they don’t have any Office software. I wanted each student in each group to have a different document (set of sentences for them to sign in this case), so I had documents labelled set1, set2, set3 …

You could share the pieces of information with individual students by pasting them into the chat – but reserve this only for the students who can’t open the documents for some reason – it takes too long to do this for every student, and it is easy to get confused about who has been given what.

In the class put students in groups using Zoom breakout rooms. You can have Zoom do this automatically – you choose how many groups you want. You can also assign people to groups manually. You can also move people from one group to another at any time.

Give students instructions to do the activity. Tell them that they should assign each person in their group to use a different set – set1, set2 and so on. I gave the students the link to the shared folder so they could get whatever set they needed from that.

After giving all the instructions and answering any questions, “open” the breakout rooms. Students are then invited to go into the “rooms”. Once in a room they only see the other students in that room, they can also only use the chat to communicate with individuals in that room – or they can send a message to everyone – so they can get the tutor’s attention in that way if they need it – but it’s not possible to send a chat message privately to an individual in a different room.

Quickly join each room in succession to make sure all the students have managed to access the documents they need. If a student can’t get the document they need, ask them which set they needed, and then copy and paste it from that set into their personal chat. Note you can only do this for text – not images.

You can then go from room to room to observe what the students are doing and give any assistance they might need just like you might do in a face-to-face class.

Paired activity in the whole class

What usually happens

In the Signalong class there is an activity where students are arranged in two lines facing each other, the tutor shows them a sentence on the screen, students sign across to their opposite number – with or without speaking.

How to do this type of activity online

  • Make sure students are in gallery mode.
  • Pair students up: do this by calling out names in the gallery.
  • Students are instructed that they must focus on the other person in their pair.
  • Each person in the pair should make sure they can see the other person on their screen. Students can stay in gallery mode, or, they could go into “presenter” mode and choose to pin the person they are paired with – they will get that person taking up most of their screen.
  • Ensure students have enabled and can see the chat box.
  • Copy and paste any information you need to give to the students in the chat box (in my case, these were sentences for the students to sign).
  • Give feedback as required.

Working on a shared document

You can do this for the whole class – and use the screen sharing option to share a document with everyone. Individuals in breakout rooms can also do this. You could for example have a document in the shared folder for people to download and use in their breakout room. Ensure that at least one student in each room is able to open and edit a copy of the document.

Small group of students presenting to the whole class

You may want your students to prepare something in small groups in the breakout rooms and then come back and present to the whole class. In my case these were short plays which they had to sign.

There are a couple of ways of doing this. You could use presenter mode and encourage the other students to use presenter mode – that way whoever is speaking will be displayed as the main person on the screen.

You might however want to see all the students from the group doing their presentation at the same time, but no-one else. To do this – and to get it showing like this for everyone (not just you):

  • Everyone go to video settings and choose “Hide participants who have their video turned off” (or similar option). Without this setting, if someone’s video is turned off it is shown as a box with their name in it.
  • When it comes to a group doing a presentation, everyone (including the tutor) but except those presenting should choose “stop video” for themselves. You will then be left with just those who are presenting on the screen.
  • Everyone’s audio can still be heard (so people can applause!). After the presentation, everyone can turn their video back on again.

Physically demonstrating something – for example on a table

You might want to physically demonstrate something to your students – perhaps it involves moving items around on a table for example. But you still want people to be able to see you, and you still want to be able to view them on your screen. You can do this by setting up another device – for example, a phone – which has a view of whatever it is you want to show. I will describe how I set this up using a phone.

  • Set up a phone as another Zoom “attendee” – and position it above a table so you have a view of the table. (Join the meeting from that phone by going to the meeting link).
  • Set the phone so that it is showing a landscape rather than portrait image – that way you are maximising the size of the picture that will show in Zoom.
  • This is how I set it up:
  • The books are sitting on the edge of the phone to stop it falling off the desk.
  • I have seen an arrangement where a phone is sandwiched between two tins of beans.
  • Best to set up your phone before the session and leave it on – as it can be hard to get to the controls. Also probably best to have it plugged into the charger as if you get to this bit an hour into the session your phone may have run out of battery (constant video uses a lot!).
  • Set the phone to join with video but without audio (otherwise you will get some weird feedback noise sounding a bit like a science fiction film): as a host you can always turn its audio off from your computer if you’ve already set the phone up and can’t get to the screen.
  • As you may not be able to easily get to your phone controls when it is set up to turn off the video when you don’t need it, I put some black card on the table covering what was there when not in use. Don’t turn off the video from the host, because if you need to turn it on again you will have to get back to the phone’s screen to do that.

Activity where students need to take it in turns in a group

What usually happens

Go round a circle with students taking it in turns to say something, present something etc.

How to do it online

Make sure everyone can see each other on the screen (gallery mode in Zoom). Typically the order of participants you see on your screen may not be the same as the order on other people’s screens. The order can also change – for example if someone temporarily drops their connection.

This is what you can do.

Ensure you have allowed participants to change their names in the session. Give each person in turn a number, and ask them to rename themselves so the number appears before their name – for example “6. Harriet Smith”. You can then carry out the activity and people can take their turns (by following the number order) without you needing to call them out.

Questions and answers, discussions

Use the normal/default mode: that is no-one is spotlighted, and the focus jumps to whoever is speaking. For the tutor, gallery mode will usually be preferred to help check if anyone is being left out of the discussion.

Good luck with your course!

Help and support

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