Friday, 23 September 2011

Symbols 101 Part 3

"What symbol do I use for 'pursuant'?"
I recently delivered symbol training for an organisation that provided sheltered housing for people with learning difficulties. Like many organisations working in this sector they wanted to ensure that their written communications with their tenants were accessible. They purchased symbol processing software and asked me to help them. The training went the usual way. We looked at symbols and how / if they added meaning to the words they were representing.  We talked about what the needs of their tenants might be and how we might need to differentiate the text for them.


After lunch, I set them a task. Identify something you might send to a tenant and produce an accessible version. That’s when I was asked the question, “what symbol do I use for pursuant?” The delegate explained that she often received notes from tenants asking if they were able to keep a pet. She even showed me one she had just received. It was handwritten and much as you would expect from someone with a severe learning difficulty. The text was barely readable and the tenant had drawn a picture of themselves with a dog. The delegate explained that the normal way to respond to requests to keep dogs was to write a letter refusing the request and quoting the relevant section from the tenancy agreement which began. “Pursuant to your rights as a tenant …”

The note from the tenant provided a perfect example of what the organisation needed to do. The sentence that the tenant had written was almost incomprehensible to most of us yet we all understood what it was she wanted. Why? Because the tenant had, in the picture she’d drawn provided ‘symbol’ support to help us decode the text. It was a powerful example of how we need to think about whom we are writing for, differentiate the sentences to meet their needs and use symbols only where they convey information and add meaning. The tenant hadn’t drawn pictures for the rest of the words she had written, “would like to have a “, just a picture of herself and the dog she wanted. We spent the afternoon working on responses to the note and by our last session of the day they had made significant progress in writing more appropriate sentences and using symbols only for those words that aided meaning.

It’s a popular misconception that simply adding symbols to text will make it easier for someone with learning difficulties to read and understand in much in the same way that converting complex sentences to speech is unlikely to make them any more accessible to someone with dyslexia. If we are to use symbols effectively, we need to be sure about our target audience. What are their reading levels? How many information carrying words can they cope with? Are they able to ‘hold’ enough information to be able to process a long sentence?


Throughout the training I emphasise this over and over again. Know who you are writing for and write sentences (and use symbols) which are appropriate to their needs. I always finish the day by asking delegates to write two sentences for me about what they have learned and how they will use it in their work. It’s a trick question. I want to see if they listened. The sentences are for ME. I can read and write. I don’t need simple sentences or symbols.

They always write simple sentences and use symbols.       

Monday, 12 September 2011

The trouble with lists ...

Like many colleagues, I am very interested in how new technologies are being used to classrooms to support learners with communication, cognitive and other difficulties. Right now I’m researching the use of ipads.  Like many of you I see these in schools and I’m constantly being asked for recommendations of the best apps to use. My research has led me to some great sites and interesting blogs however they all seem to have one thing in common… a list!

Now lists are great… I’d never remember the milk if I didn’t make a shopping list and I’d surely forget my underwear if I didn’t make that ‘holiday’ list. These lists are different. They list interesting and useful apps that one might use with students. Nothing wrong so far except I’ve yet to see a list that doesn’t detail at least one hundred apps, some list thousands. I’ve looked at three lists this morning, a total of 862 apps. 


While it’s fantastic to have so much choice to research, download and evaluate that lot would cost me a fortune and take me a month. Like you I don’t have that amount of free time to spare or the resources to pay for them all. Blog posts that support these list are very helpful.  They provide the detail we need to make more informed choices. My favourites are by far the Spectronics blog …

 … and the posts by Jane Farrall and Greg o’Connor

 and the TeachingALL blog …

… and the posts by Jeremy brown.

In an effort to save both my sanity and my marriage, I’d like to make a (much) shorter list, showing just the top three apps in a particular category that you would recommend to schools and parents. Here’s where you can help. I've shared a Google doc


… please click the link and add your #1 app to any of the categories. If it’s there already, just add it again. I collate it into something more user friendly and post it on the web.

Thanks for your help.