Symbolising the environment: Using symbols to aid communication

Photo of school children looking at symbols on a whiteboard

Fife Assessment Centre for Communication through Technology (FACCT) is a Fife-wide service supporting clients for whom speech is not their main means of communication. It is jointly funded by Education, Health and Social Services and can therefore offer a lifelong service. In addition it offers a variety of in-service training courses, one of which developed into a Fife-wide project within the Education Service: ‘Symbolising the Environment: A Whole School Approach’ - colloquially known as the Symbols Project.

Symbols are images which are used to make meanings clearer and easier to understand by providing a visual representation of a single word or a concept. It is important to understand that symbols are different from pictures. A picture conveys a lot of information at once and its focus may be unclear, whereas a symbol focuses on a single concept and by grouping them together more precise information can be conveyed.

Initially, staff became aware that using symbols consistently in a mainstream class was not only supporting a child with an identified learning disability but was meeting the needs of many children who had no recognised learning or communication impairment. Symbols packs were developed and offered to classes throughout the school and were quickly taken up by other members of the teaching staff as they realised the benefits they brought to pupils’ overall development.

It was quickly realised that this was an approach that would clearly benefit all children in all schools and a proposal was put to senior education management to roll this out to other schools in Fife.

The project initially ran as a pilot study with 11 schools participating: one nursery school, two departments of additional support within secondary schools and eight primary schools. A starter pack of symbols resources was developed and made available to those schools ‘signed up’ to the project.

Training on the creation of resources and the use of the symbols was provided for all schools involved in the project. As a result there is a consistent approach to the symbols used in all the establishments involved. This ensures that pupils transferring from one environment to another are familiar with any symbols in use, no matter which establishment they are in. In addition, within the authority a facility has been established for the schools involved in the project to share the materials produced.

The chosen symbol software package used to create the resources was Mayer-Johnson's ‘Boardmaker’. It was used already in Fife by other agencies such as Speech and Language Therapy.