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Read the signs of the times

Software that combines words and symbols can help develop the language and vocabulary of pupils of all abilities. John Galloway reports

If I mention golden arches you might know just what I mean and, depending on your age and sensibilities, it will provoke a reaction - perhaps making you salivate. The omnipresent symbol of that fast-food empire carries a meaning and you don't have to see the name McDonald's spelt out or even to read a menu to know what's in store.

Symbols are part of the fabric of our lives - think of toilet doors or emoticons in text messages. They help us understand and make sense of the world, rather like teachers, which is why a project in Warwickshire is making more of them in mainstream classrooms.

For many years symbols have been used to develop the literacy of children with a wide range of special needs. Usually, the symbols are presented alongside text to help pupils understand it. Unlike straightforward graphics or pictures, symbols can be used to present abstract concepts, such as "behind", "finish" and "friend".

Imagine you are using a storyboard to narrate Goldilocks and the Three Bears to a class of five-year-olds, but you are not yet able to read. Some words, such as "bear" or "bed", are easy to present as images, but what about "just right" or "too hard"?

In the version Jayne Locke used at Chilvers Coton Infant School in Nuneaton, Tess and Hassan, both in Reception, used the symbols on the storyboard to help them, pointing with their fingers to keep track of where they were in the story.

The school is one of several in Warwickshire that is using symbols to develop the language and vocabulary of all their children, not just those with special needs.

Jayne Locke and specialist teacher Linda Tatham, spend six days a week spreading the message to schools in the Symbols Inclusion Project, which has brought together Widgit Software, the producers of Writing with Symbols (which does just that), and the county's Disability, Illness, Sensory and Communication Service (DISCS).

They are producing symbol-based resources - even drawing new ones based on the infant curriculum - to create "communication-friendly environments".

What this means in schools is information provided in lots of different formats to reduce barriers to communication. This approach is evident as soon as you enter Camp Hill School, where the welcome sign is in both words and symbols. Here they have linked it in to accelerated learning techniques so there are mind maps around the school with combined text and images to help children understand.

Deputy headteacher Dawn Hemmings is clear on the effect of the project: "It has made people more aware, more communicative, making things more visual, repeating things, using puppets and becoming more touchy-feely."

The approach is evident in one class, where the symbol storyboard for Little Red Riding Hood is supplemented by pupils with knitted finger puppets. The patterns for these will soon be available, along with storyboards, games, worksheets and lesson plans, on the website Widgit has created to support the project.

The value of symbols has long been recognised by Gwyneth Evans, headteacher at Stockingford Infant School, which hosts a DISCS speech and language base. "I had used it as a tool for individual children, but it is not as effective unless it stands in a whole-school ethos," she says.

Symbols are evident in every classroom, reminding children about "good sitting", or promoting the use of capital letters and full stops when writing.

One individual who is benefiting is Ian who is working with Dena Marshall, a specialist teacher for pupils with speech and language disorders. In their studies of Goldilocks he not only uses the symbols to pick out "just right", but confirms that the sentence he has written on screen using a word grid says, "Goldilocks went into the cottage".

As Ian explains, symbols "help you with the hard words". He is justifiably pleased with his reading and asks: "Can I have a sticker?"

Ian is not the only one who has grasped the theory behind the approach.

Back at Chilvers Coton, Asher, aged five, has been taking his turn at presenting part of the story. He arrived from India about 18 months ago and appreciates how useful symbols are: "If you've done it once and you've forgotten it a long time you can come back and the symbols help you remember." Someone else who deserves a sticker. A gold star perhaps. We all know what that means.

A CD of the materials from the project, including a PowerPoint presentation for training, is available from Widgit for pound;25.

Materials from the Symbols Inclusion Project can be downloaded free from the Widgit website.


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