Teaching Literacy in SpEd- When is it ok to use picture symbols?

Teaching literacy in Special Education can be such a challenge. Some students have a real struggle with many aspects of reading. It’s hard! They have to learn the alphabet, phonemic awareness, concepts of print; onset and rime; syllables, phonics, sight words, sentence structure, grammar and hardest of all comprehension. Many of our learners also have complex communication needs. In SpEd we use picture symbols in many ways but here is my question. When it comes to literacy – when should we use picture symbols?

Teaching Literacy: What is the goal?

The first thing to determine is the goal. What are you teaching in that lesson?

  • communication?
  • comprehension?
  • to read at a word level?

Teaching Literacy: Communication

When teaching communication for most students we are using concrete representations, picture symbols (usually with words underneath the picture) or for conventional learners, we may teach utilising alphabet or words on a device or core board. So obviously, this is a goal where using picture symbols is entirely appropriate.

For emergent communicators, we will use concrete items or symbols where there is mostly a picture accompanied by a small typed word. Early conventional learners may have some symbols that are words but are also likely to have a wide range of symbols that have a picture and a word on it. On some symbols the pictures may be a little smaller with a larger word.

For confident, conventional AAC users, they may have mostly words on their AAC device but may have access to some symbol sets that contain pictures for times of high stress. Due to extreme anxiety, their ability to communicate may diminish so they may need extra support that the picture symbols bring.

Some resources we make may have one or two picture symbols on them. When picture symbols are used in this case the goal could be aimed at the adults rather than the students. In this situation the picture symbols provide a cue to model the targeted AAC core language on a core board or device.

Teaching Literacy: Comprehension

When we teach comprehension we certainly use a range of pictures. They will relate to the story characters or setting. These pictures should be available on a separate board away from the words. Some resources may contain pictures and words. The goal may be to support comprehension such as a ‘w’ question symbol. Again it is about knowing what is the goal. If the goal is to support comprehension there should only be one maybe two picture symbols to cue the student in to essential areas of the text to comprehend. It will not be one picture symbol above each word.

Teaching Literacy: reading at a word or sentence level

Here is the big one. Should we pair symbols with words when teaching students with significant intellectual impairment and complex communication needs? The answer is no. Why? Because words are abstract and so are many of the symbols that sit above words when paired. Therefore it makes learning to read even harder.

Having a picture above the words in a sentence can also make it visually overwhelming. What should the reader pay attention to? The picture? The word? Both? Neither in some cases will be the answer as it confuses the student.

Reference: Erickson, K.A., Hatch, P., Clendon, S. (2010).”Literacy, Assistive Technology, and Students with Significant Disabilities.” Focus on Exceptional Children, vol. 42, no.5, pp.3-5.

Graphic asking what are you teaching? Two headings: first heading is communication. the second is reading. under communication is and arrow running through the word 'use' to an oval with the words 'picture symbols'. Under reading is an arrow going through the word 'use' to an oval stating 'words'.

How do we teach literacy in SpEd?

Erickson in a keynote conference ‘Why is Literacy Critical in AAC (International AAC Conference 2019) pointed out that we shouldn’t still have to be talking about pairing symbols and words. The research has been around for a long time and yet as she points out, every conference she goes to she still has the discussion about symbols and reading.

She discussed in detail what she and her research team believe to be an effective way to teach literacy to students with significant intellectual disability and communication needs.Here is the link so you can head over to You Tube at your leisure to check it out.

Teaching literacy is not easy…

Teaching reading is hard. A great way to teach all students is during shared reading time. However not all students love shared reading. I have a post suggesting some ways to support those students that are particularly averse to books and shared reading. You can find it here. It offers some strategies if you find you have students like this too.

Do you wonder how or what others plan for literacy when teaching very emergent learners? I have a post on what I include in my literacy overview here. In it, I detail what I am covering this term and why. Great if you are a new teacher not sure where to begin or a seasoned pro wanting to see what others include. There is a blank template for you to download free so you can start getting your ideas together.

I hope you enjoy watching Karen’s fabulous presentation and feel free to explore my website. I would love for you to join my email list to receive all the latest happenings in my class, on the web, get freebies and keep up with my latest products in my TPT store. Simply pop your email in the subscribe box.

Subscribe to our weekly Newsletter & Get Access to ALL the FREE PRINTABLES

* indicates required

Aroha, Ann


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.