Symbols for communication: the choice is yours!

If you have attended one of our Communicate in Print seminars, worked with students who benefit from using symbols to aid communication and literacy, or just had a look at our online article on Using Images to Create Inclusive Learning Resources, you will perhaps be aware that there is a range of different types of symbols, or ‘symbol sets’ available.

Deciding which set to use, whether to mix symbols from different sets, or to include digital photos should always be guided by your students’ needs. Introducing a brand new symbol system when a student is used to another will be confusing and potentially counter-productive. Having access to more than one symbol set (plus digital photos) when producing materials gives you valuable flexibility.

Two of the most widely-used symbol sets – Widgit Literacy Symbols and Picture Communication Symbols – are now both available to users of key programmes from Widgit and Mayer-Johnson. These two experienced companies are now working together to provide users with maximum choice when customising resources to the needs of students. All that is needed is an inexpensive add-on which gives you full access to an alternative symbol set.

If you’ve been along to one of our hands-on Communicate in Print seminars, you will have seen the Widgit Literacy Symbols (previously called Widgit Rebus Symbols). This system has been developed over 20 years to provide over 8000 images, covering a vocabulary of over 30,000 words. Careful design, consistency and structure are used to illustrate a single concept. The Widgit system’s strength lies in supporting the development of literacy skills and the use of text by students whose experience of text is limited. The symbols are constantly updated and can be customised and integrated with digital photos. The ‘stick figures’ are particularly appropriate for adults and suitable in a wide range of learning situations.

While Widgit Literacy Symbols are a valuable resource, if your students have previously used Picture Communication Symbols (often referred to as ‘Boardmaker’ symbols) then it makes sense to stick with these. You may also find that you prefer some PCS symbol for certain words or concepts.

There are 10,000 Picture Communication Symbols. These were developed in the USA and subsequently used worldwide by Speech and Language Therapists, in supported education environments and on technology to aid communication. PCS symbols are used to produce expressive and receptive communication resources including communication books, timetables and prompts.

Historically, to produce symbol-based resources for students, college staff often chose between either Communicate in Print (containing Widgit Literacy Symbols only) or Boardmaker (with PCS symbols only). The great news is that the makers of these programmes, Widgit and Mayer-Johnson, are now working together and inexpensive add-ons are now available for Communicate in Print 2 and Boardmaker 6 that will give you complete choice of symbol sets!

Want to find out more? Widgit will be at the Communication Matters Roadshows in Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh towards the end of May 2007. But did you know that BRITE is a Widgit Regional Contact Centre? We can provide access to a range of Widgit software in our training centre and can deliver training on the following products (there are more details about all the software mentioned below on the Widgit website):

  • Communicate: in Print – symbol desk top publisher
  • Communicate: by Choice – using and creating interactive activities
  • Communicate: Webwide – a symbol and speech-enabled web browser
  • First Keys to Literacy – a basic typing tutor which promotes literacy skills

If you work in a Scottish college and are interested in familiarising yourself with any of the above programmes, or would like to request training on other symbol software such as Communicate: SymWriter, Boardmaker, or Thinking With Pictures just drop me a line at

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