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Pitfalls of Using Symbolated Text For Literacy Instruction

From the desk of Maureen Donnelly, M.Ed

Previously In special education, providing students with text supported by symbols was a default practice for helping learners access a curriculum and learn to read. While the intention was good, an established body of evidence confirms that this approach is inconsistent with literacy instruction best practices and the science of reading.

The pitfalls of using symbolated text is gaining traction in many school districts. One administrator recently shared, “Anytime a symbol is added next to a word, the learner’s opportunity to decode that word is removed, therefore they are no longer receiving  instruction aligned with the science of reading.”

A graphic with one have showing examples of symbols often used with symbolated text and the other half showing letters of the alphabet with a yellow circle in the middle with text - versus

How Symbol-Supported Text Developed

In the 1940s, Charles Bliss devised a symbol set called Blissymbols. He intended to create an easy-to-learn international language so that people speaking different languages could quickly and seamlessly communicate in written form.
Then, beginning in the 1970s, Shirley McNaughton at the Ontario Crippled Children’s Centre–now named the Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital–began to introduce Blissymbols as a learning aid for children with physical disabilities. McNaughton’s theory was that pairing symbols with text would give her learners an important entry point and, later, a path to conventional literacy. Since then, the practice has continued in classrooms and is still incorporated in some literacy instruction curriculums.

Symbol-Supported Text:
Helpful for Communication but not for Literacy Instruction

The use of symbols as a visual support in the classroom, at home, and in the community through the use of a communication board or device continues to be an effective method to support expressive communication for those who benefit from augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) as shown in these examples.

A class schedule board with symbols to enhance communication
A communication board for Readtopia users showing the name of Readtopia books and related symbols
A boy seated at a classroom table with a communication board in front of him

However, it’s important to distinguish between using symbols for communication and using symbols for literacy instruction. This example of a sentence written with symbols illustrates how confusion can occur especially for students learning the difference between the words to and two, and the word back which is discussed further in this article.

An example of how symbolated text can be confusing
At first glance, McNaughton’s approach for symbol use for reading instruction has appeal. It appears helpful and pairs core words with symbols in the context of communication. However, just because something may feel right, it doesn’t make it right. So, let’s look at the research.

The Research: Four Ways Symbol-Supported Text Impedes Learning Progress

For more than six decades, researchers across various related fields, including literacy, linguistics, and neuroscience, have been telling us that pairing symbols with connected text will not help and will likely even hamper the literacy progress of emergent learners. Why? Let us count the ways…
An infographic depicting four ways symbolated text can impede literacy learning
1. It’s All About the Alphabet

The first answer has to do with the role that the alphabet plays in becoming an independent reader. Knowledge of these 26 letters–and the sounds they represent–is ultimately the only route to anyone’s ability to read, write, and communicate independently and conventionally. As my mentor, Dr. Karen Erickson, the Director of the Center for Literacy and Disability Studies at Chapel Hill, points out, the alphabet is, on its own, a symbol set. So, why not invest our students’ energy in learning to use the symbol set that gives them maximum power and independence in life?

There is more. Let’s keep digging.

In her seminal text, Beginning to Read, Marilyn Jager Adams discusses how critical it is for emergent learners to look at andthrough text. Here is how I understand her claim:

There are patterns in written language, and our brains seek patterns and predictability. Think of how an infant will gravitate toward the image of a human face when presented with a series of images. This is because the pattern of two eyes, a nose, and a mouth is familiar. The ability to look at a string of letters and predict patterns is foundational to developing the ability to read independently.

2. Symbols Slow You Down

Yet another reason to avoid symbol-supported text is the cognitive load that comes with splitting our focus between pictures/symbols and text. If it’s a competition (which it is), our eyes gravitate toward pictures. Visually, they are more compelling than letters. Consider this example from Lauren Fuhr:

A few years ago, during a talk I gave about this topic, a workshop participant approached me and told me an interesting story. As a child, she’d moved from Greece, where she was a fluent speaker and reader, to the UK, where she was not. She received special services and was provided with symbol-adapted materials to give her access to the curriculum. “You know,” she said at the end of the talk, “I struggled in my early years in English-speaking classrooms. And I’ve always wondered why. I now think I was spending too much time figuring out what my teachers were trying to tell me with those little pictures and not looking at the words.”

3. Symbols Can Cause Confusion

In the article “Literacy, Assistive Technology, and Students with Significant Disabilities,” Dr. Karen Erickson and her team point out that pictures, paired with text, have the potential to increase confusion when the pictures/symbols represent abstract concepts, have multiple meanings, or serve more than one grammatical function.

The word back is a good example. It’s a noun (a part of the body), a verb (to back a cause), an adjective (the back door), and an adverb (back then). Tools symbolizing text today are not smart enough to incorporate context in their analysis. As a result, learners are left to puzzle meaning out on their own. Similarly, most of our high-frequency words are not easily represented by pictures. How can we meaningfully represent words like, of, and to, with symbols? We can’t. 

4. Symbolated Text Doesn’t Exist in the Real World

The last consideration, and perhaps the most important, is this: if we invest our energy in creating symbol-supported materials and then invest our kids’ energy in learning to memorize these symbols, what happens when our learners leave school? There is no symbol-supported Starbucks menu, voting ballot, or job application. As parents and educators, the entirety of our effort is to help our kids be as free as possible to function without us. I’m afraid the rationale for providing symbol-supported text doesn’t lend itself to this goal.

Teach the Alphabet

It’s been sixty years since Shirley McNaughton introduced symbol-supported text to her students. We can safely imagine that her intentions were pure–she was a teacher doing her best to maximize the potential of her students. But a sneaky assumption lives at the heart of her strategy: pairing symbols with text presumes that not everyone can learn to read. And times have changed. It’s been almost ten years since ESSA, the Every Student Succeeds Act requires (by law) all students to receive comprehensive literacy instruction. We now know that ALL learners can learn to read and write using strategies based on the science of reading, and learners with complex learning profiles can learn to read and write using a research-based comprehensive literacy approach.
For typically developing children, the journey to conventional literacy takes almost a decade (birth to age eight). Rest assured that it will take longer for students facing language and learning challenges. But independent, conventional literacy, for all of us, is freedom. So, let’s focus on teaching the alphabet because, as Maya Angelou famously and compassionately said, “When we know better, we do better.”

Maureen Donnelly, M.Ed.,  a Curriculum Development Manager at Building Wings,  is an early childhood educator by training who has worked with students of diverse ages and abilities, from preschool through college. Throughout her 25-year career, Maureen has developed numerous products and written hundreds of books that support the literacy learning needs of beginners. 


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Karen A. Erickson, Ph.D.​

Karen A. Erickson, Ph.D. is Director of the Center for Literacy and Disability Studies at University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill. Her focus is on understanding the best ways to assess and teach reading and writing to children with the most severe disabilities. As a special education teacher, Dr. Erickson has worked to support students with a range of disabilities in a variety of classroom settings, particularly students who do not use speech as their primary means of communication.


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