A picture is worth 1,000 words

13th November 2009 at 00:00
A Fife school has transformed how it communicates with its pupils so successfully, the council wants all primaries to follow suit

Do your pupils struggle to decipher what's for lunch? Then use illustrations of the food to help them navigate the menu. Do they forget themselves in a post-lunch high and go tearing down the corridor full speed? A poster of a head with finger firmly to his lips can remind them to walk silently. Reach a door and there's someone behind them? A door symbol can be their cue to hold it open for adults.

In St Agatha's Primary in Fife, symbols reign supreme. In the classrooms, they demark different areas - a paint pot and brushes shows which part of the room is used for art - and are present on cupboards and trays. They lurk above sinks, reminding pupils to wash their hands - water gushes onto waiting palms. They are even used to help children organise themselves.

Pupils register for packed lunches or school dinners by placing their names below the relevant illustrations, and a series of symbols and text remind them to be ready for work, hang up their coats, bring in their lunch boxes, register, or put their water on their desks. Picture timetables, meanwhile, show them how the rest of their day will pan out.

Symbols even support the curriculum. In English, common words are written alongside a picture, so if children forget the spelling they can look it up. The word "you" is accompanied by a finger pointing at you Lord Kitchener-style, and the word "I" by an illustration of an eye. Common adjectives are also listed and illustrated - happy, sad, wicked.

Pictures remind children to check written work - have they remembered full stops (a picture of a full stop)?, capitals (a capital "A")?, to check their spelling (A, B, C)?

In maths, meanwhile, concepts like least and most or heavy and light are illustrated.

Using symbols in this way is common practice in special schools, but it wasn't until two pupils at St Agatha's, located just outside Leven, required symbols to help them communicate, that the school started its transformation. That was around five years ago and now Fife Council, having tested the use of symbols and the benefits in 11 schools, wants all its primaries on board. So far 85 have signed up, out of 141.

The council isn't looking for all schools to use the same symbols for the same things, but they do want each establishment to be consistent.

Sandra Miller, a teacher within the Fife Assessment Centre for Communication through Technology, who delivers the two-day training for schools, says: "You want children to move from P1 all the way through the school, using the same symbols for the same things."

Ms Miller insists the addition of symbols makes schools more accessible for children on the autistic spectrum, with dyslexia, with communication problems or with English as a second language. However, they are useful for every child, she maintains.

Symbols make schools more inclusive, says St Agatha's headteacher, Louise Smith, because all the children use symbols and no one child is made to feel different.

They also help children to be more independent, adds learning support teacher Elaine Philp: "They help children organise themselves in the classroom. They can put back work, pick up work and they know from the visual time-tables what's happening next. Of course that could be written down, but it's far quicker for them to be able to glance up and see a symbol."

We use symbols on our road signs, points out Ms Miller, because they are a quick way to get information across. However, in Fife schools, symbols are always accompanied by text.

St Agatha's "symbolised" environment has earned it a gold award from the local authority. Pulling together all the resources on the software package Boardmaker was labour-intensive, staff admit - Ms Phelps has several dozen bulging folders to prove it. But now they are there for good.

The school has even illustrated the four capacities of A Curriculum for Excellence, and demonstrated that staff can also benefit from a symbolised environment - symbols remind them how to work the school's technical equipment.

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