Drawing the reader on to the page

Symbol processing - essentially writing with pictures - has been around for centuries and has been possible on computers for some years. Recent advances in memory and picture-handling have really improved what is possible, and a product like The Writing Set, can offer accessible information to people who might otherwise be isolated.

When typing a word, it is also possible for the user to hear the word spoken. What makes this software special is the picture that appears above the word. Typing "dog" produces a graphic as well, and the program contains pictures for a surprisingly large number of words. There are some sophisticated touches too; typing "bus" produces the expected picture, but if you follow this up with the word "stop" the bus disappears and a bus stop replaces it.

For many people with learning disabilities, interpreting pictures is an achievable skill where reading words might never be. Such learners can read symbol documents, follow instructions and record their own thoughts and actions, perhaps using an overlaykeyboard.

The Ashwood Unit at Woodlands School in Surrey caters for 16- to 19-year-old students with severe learning difficulties. Gill Lloyd, who teaches at Woodlands, doesn't know how she managed before she had this software. "Symbols are used right through the school, so our students are used to the program when they come to us. We use symbols in many ways, from helping students to recall what we have been talking about to Records of Achievement, where their portfolios are supported by symbols."

Gill uses The Writing Set to help involve students in their annual review as part of the special needs code of practice: "They present their own report, and having it in symbol form gives themconfidence."

One student at Ashwood was a contributor to a recent BBC Life Skills programme, and she needed to travel to the studios with Gill to dub the soundtrack. In a few minutes she produced a symbol script enabling the student to complete her task in an appropriate way.

Shiela Beecroft teaches at Claremont School in Bristol. Her students, who all have a physical disability, use the program in a variety of ways. Everything in the school is labelled with symbols, since most of the students are Rebus symbol readers. Others are making the transition from photographs to Rebus symbols by using materials made using the program.

As usual when talking to special schools, inventive uses of resources are high on the agenda. "We reprinted the school reading books in symbols using the program," explains Shiela, "and we use it a lot with other programs like Switch Clicker so that our students can write with symbols." Shiela has seen at first hand the effect that the program can have. "It often unlocks the door when nothing else has worked; some of the parents are over the moon at the progress that has been made."

Claremont School plans a sex education course for its older students. The school will soon have extra resources in the form of books that can be taken home to support what has been learnt.

Widgit Software has just opened a Web site. It includes samples of writing with symbols, user instructions, downloadable documents to use on in-service training sessions and working demonstrations for potential customers. The forum area will also form a focus for teachers to share ideas and show examples of work with symbols by their students.

Shiela Beecroft speaks for many teachers when she points out one of the program's most important aspects. "It's so quick and easy to use," she says.


Widgit Software stand SN8. 102 Radford Road, Leamington Spa CV31 1LF.Tel 01926 885303; e-mail: widgit@widgitsw.demon.co.uk; http:www.widgit.com (The Writing Set, Pounds 75 + VAT)

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