Paths to Literacy

for students who are blind or visually impaired

The Question of Symbol Standardization: An Invitation to Discussion

I have been asked to share my thoughts and experiences on some frequently-posed questions regarding standardization of tactile symbols.  I am hoping that this post will launch some online conversation about the use of both standardized and non-standardized tactile symbols with individuals who have visual and multiple impairments.  As you read this post, please consider and respond to these questions.  (Photos or videos to demonstrate use of symbols are helpful.  Please add in the comment section below or email if you need help posting anything.)

  • Have you used tactile symbols with your students or children?
  • What kind of symbols have you used (Individualized, Standardized, both)?
  • What has your experience been in using tactile symbols (calendars, communication boards, speech generating devices, labeling systems)?
  • Would a standardized system be appropriate for the students you work with now?
  • Would it be feasible to produce standardized symbols in your setting?
  • What has been your experience with the APH or other commercially-produced symbols systems?
  • Do you envision the symbols being used as a long-term communication support for your students?
  • What suggestions do you have for improving the standardized systems?

Introduction to Standard Tactile Symbols

Tactile symbols are representations, often parts of objects, attached to backgrounds, which are used by people who are blind and do not read braille.  For some, they are stepping stones to braille, for others the symbols are alternatives to braille.  Representationally, they are similar to pictures for sighted people.  I was involved in the standardization of a tactile symbol system used at Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired and previously wrote an article describing the system and its uses and limitations (Hagood, Since that time, I have witnessed the commercial production of commercially-manufactured standardized systems (APH, STACS system, Adaptive Designs Tangible Symbol Sets).  

TSBVI Standard Tactile Symbols

Tactile symbol for SundayTactile Symbol for support staff

Tactile symbol for outsideTactile symbol for washing dishes


APH Tactile Symbols

APH tactile symbols

Since the TSBVI system was developed in the 1990s, there has been considerable discussion about its use. Most proponents of tangible symbol usage for students with visual and multiple impairments suggest that symbols should be individualized, based on student interest and object use, and that the tangible symbols bear a concrete resemblance to the objects or actions which they represent (Blaha, 2001; Rowland and Schweigert, 2000;  Smith, 2012).

Individualized Symbols (“Tangible Symbols”)

Individualized tactile symbol system

Individualized symbol system

I support this perspective on individualizing symbols as a beginning step, and would like to respond to it by describing my personal journey toward accepting  (and even embracing!) standardization of the system used at TSBVI.

The Developmental Model 

In the early 1990s, I worked as a speech language pathologist in the program for students with deafblindness and visual and multiple impairments at Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired.  This was a program that had a strong developmental philosophy—we believed in taking our students through a step-by-step process toward becoming symbolic language users before introducing print and braille.   The process of developing symbolic thinking is described here:
  1. Build a meaningful activity with recognizable and consistent objects, e.g. making juice, in which the same pitcher or juicer was used every time.
  2. Begin to use the object within the activity to cue the student just before beginning the activity, and look for responses that suggest understanding (e.g. when presented with the pitcher, the student searches visually or tactually for the cup.  
  3. Present the object from a few feet away, and see if the student still recognizes it out of context (travels to snack table, or searches for basket on counter that contains other objects used in juice routine.
  4. Present the object (pitcher) at the student’s object calendar area, looking to be sure that s/he demonstrates recognition (e.g. “pours” with pitcher, travels to area, or locates basket with associated objects)
  5. Present a set of objects (pitcher, cup, big spoon used for stirring, oranges and knife) and engage the child in a pantomime type “conversation” about the upcoming activity. Watch for signs that s/he recognizes the relationship between the objects presented (e.g. initiates “cutting” with the knife and orange, “pouring” with cup and juice”)
  6. Present a different object from the “discussion box”  described in step 5 at the calendar (e.g. the orange or the cup) at the student’s calendar.  See if he recognizes it as indicated by acting on it appropriately, selecting correct sets of associated objects, or traveling to area.
  7. Use a part of an object glued on a card as a more symbolic tactile representation for the activity (e.g. orange peel, part of a paper cup that is used only in the juice activity).
Another criteria for using symbols was communicative intent.  This included the following:
  • persisting and altering  communicative behaviors. Example:  The student extends foot for help with putting on shoe.  If the adult doesn’t respond immediately, the student vocalizes, searches for the adult and extends foot again.
  • performing communication behaviors in multiple contexts. Example: The student guides adult’s hands or offers objects to request at snack time, on the playground and at bath time.  S/he does this with multiple partners.
  • orienting toward the partner.  Example: the child without vision may vocalize to initiate, and continue, changing orientation in response to adult voice; the child with usable vision orients body toward partner, or extends juice cup to partner (different from banging the cup on the table without orientation to adult).
When students have learned to show communicative intent in these ways, using objects, concrete symbols, and natural signals or gestures, symbols can be added to their repertoire of communicative forms.  

Standardization: Moving from Concrete Tangible Symbols to More Abstract Tactile Symbols

I was hesitant when a group of teachers proposed  standardizing the tactile symbols used in our program.  We had always had a highly individualized approach, as described above.  We wanted to be sure that we were building meaningful connections between symbols and activities, from the child’s perspective.  I was reluctant to modify this approach, but the teachers had some good reasons for wanting more standardization.
One teacher described her situation:
Danny goes home every weekend. Our symbol for going home is a piece of his grandmother’s tablecloth—this card means “weekend” to this student.  Well, his grandmother’s tablecloth has disappeared, and now I don’t have a way to represent the weekend for him any more.  I wish I had made a hundred weekend symbols for him….could he understand if we just gave him a more abstract symbol for the weekend?
Other teachers discussed challenges in terms of representing concepts that were not necessarily tied to specific objects—they wanted to provide concrete representations for more abstract concepts: What can we use to represent “morning,” “afternoon,” emotion vocabulary,  actions, modifiers like fast and slow, loud and quiet?
Other problems I noticed with the individualized symbols included the following:
  • The parts of objects glued on cards didn’t always fit neatly into the experience books we were introducing as a way to talk about the past and the future. The books were so unwieldy that they barely resembled a book at all.
  • The part-of-object symbols supported recognition of the activity as a whole, but not the individual object or action vocabulary I was hoping to model in the activities.  We relied on the object sets in the discussion boxes to expand our calendar conversations about objects.
  • The bulky symbols didn’t fit on communication devices which we were beginning to use with our students. 
  • Our population was changing—the parts of symbol representations were just a starting place for some of our students who had functional language, but lacked reading and writing skills. The new population of students we were serving were those with visual and multiple impairments, including cerebral/cortical visual impairment, optic nerve hypoplasia, and visual impairment and autism or other developmental disabilities. Teachers needed a “next step” for these students. It was a large developmental leap from these individual parts of object symbols to the introduction of print or braille, and we had no “in between” step.  
Given these considerations, I dove into the project of developing this symbol system with the teachers who suggested it.  Thanks to the encouragement and energy of Patty and Garner Vogt and the other teachers who piloted the system, the project was completed over the course of a summer.  We developed a language-based system, in which parts of speech were coded by background shape and texture, gluing the materials to large sheets of posterboard, and cutting the shapes with a die cutter.  
Actions were placed on felt triangle backgrounds, 
standarized symbol for danceStandarized symbol for exercise


 Objects on ovals, 

Standardized symbol for milkStandardized symbol for chocolate milk

Standardized symbol for gameStandardized symbol of keyboard

Places on needlepoint squares, 

Standardized symbol for homeStandardized restaurant symbol

Standardized symbol of taco restaurantStandardized symbol for store

People on bumpy wallpaper circles, 
Standardized symbol for school nurseStandardized symbol for support staff
Emotions on heart shaped backgrounds, 
Standardized symbol for madStandardized symbol for excited
Time Concepts were diamonds with net backgrounds used for days of the week and foil backgrounds for months.  
Standardized symbol for TuesdayStandardized symbol for FebruaryStandardized symbol for morning
We selected vocabulary based on the most common activities we had engaged in with students in the program, and on words which we wanted students to use and understand.   In selecting  items (“doo dads”) to glue on the cards for specific words, our criteria were—to use a part of a real object and make the symbols concrete in that way whenever possible (e.g. a bread tie for the word “bread”), and to use materials which could be easily and inexpensively located and replicated. Sometimes,  the “doo dads” were more abstract, such as the crossed paperclips on a green felt triangle to represent “work”, with a more concrete item paired with it to represent the type of work (e.g. a piece of towel for towel folding job, a coffee bean to represent work in the coffee shop).  A symbol for “music” might be modified by adding a symbol representing a specific song or instrument.  Teachers and other staff were asked to create their own individualized name symbols and to wear them when getting to know students.  The items we chose to glue on the backgrounds were either recyclable objects like milk bottle tops or tabs from soda cans, or they were easy to purchase in discount stores throughout the state. A directory to the symbols currently used at TSBVI is available at  Excellent video discussions of the symbol system by David Wiley and Carol Bittinger  are available on the TSBVI website at
A special room was set up for symbol construction, and the “doo dads” were organized alphabetically in small drawers and baggies.  The background shapes were created in a large scale operation, and Velcro was attached to the back of each one.  Symbol “directories” with examples of the symbols by category were posted on the walls, and a list of standardized symbols was created.  If a teacher needed a specific symbol, s/he could go to the symbol room, reference the list, and use the glue gun to glue the doo dad on the corresponding background shape.  If a new symbol was added to the set, the teacher could create a sample and add it to the list on the wall and the written directory.  The symbol directory was reviewed by committee on regular bases to determine whether there was tactile confusion between newly added symbols. 

The system is sustained…

I left TSBVI and returned after many years.  I was amazed to see that this system had remained in its original form, sustained through the efforts of the staff there, and had grown to be a source of pride for the TSBVI teachers and residential staff.  I saw the symbols used 
  • on calendars,

Calendar with standardized symbolsCalendar using standardized symbols


A beautiful example of a teacher using tactile symbols to converse at a daily calendar is shown here.  Note the organization of the symbols in a book, on a daily strip and a monthly calendar, and the excellent use of hand-under-hand signing and pacing of adult input, with responsiveness to the student’s initiations. 


  • to label locations and items in the environment,

Standardized symbol for workskills roomStandardized symbols for workskills


  • as illustrations in experience stories, 

Standardized symbols in experience stories

  • on sentence strips to expand children's single word utterances, 

Sentence strips using standardized symbols

  • as a way to help break up echolalic language patterns by moving “words” around or replacing them in a memorized phrase (e.g. “ashes ashes we all jump up/ spin around/ fall down” “ Wednesday we go swimming with Todd”  can also be said in a different way:  “Todd swims with us on Wednesday”)
  • to introduce braille, with a set of symbols from different meaning categories in the “c” box or the “c” book (cafeteria, cooking, car, can opener, cat, crazy)
  • to provide a concrete system for asking and answering questions

Questions using standardized symbols

It seemed that the system had become almost a cultural phenomenon, one which the TSBVI staff associated with their communication with students,  and a system which had the right amount of structure to grown and change with the times. The staff there were clearly proud of the system, and it pulled people together to create these “artifacts” – concrete evidence of their commitment to teaching communication skills to their hard-to-teach students.  I was puzzled and impressed.   
As a speech language pathologist who focuses primarily on teaching function over form, I had to re-evaluate my thinking.  This system had helped teachers become more aware of the language they are using and expecting from their students, had helped them organize their vocabulary and given them tangible support for moving students beyond the single word level.  Even more fascinating—it had brought the staff together to create concrete supports for language, and helped some non-language oriented teachers to appreciate the structure of the language we wanted our students to learn.  It had found a new function in supporting language growth for students with CVI and additional disabilities—students who had basic spoken or sign language skills and had difficulty reading either print or braille.  For these students, the system seemed to help organize their spoken language, and the staff began to experiment in modifying background colors and increasing visual contrast.
Conceptually and developmentally this system lies somewhere between the totally individualized concept of Tangible Symbols suggested by Rowland and Schweigert (2000) and the mass-produced systems marketed by APH and Adaptive Designs. The chart below shows the developmental progression of symbol use for students who are visual and tactual learners.

Continuum of Symbol Systems

Individualized System -> Standardized System

            BRAILLE (tactual learners)                 PRINT (visual learners)
 Objects      Objects  
 Alternate objects     Alternate objects
 Parts of objects / Individualized symbols  •    Parts of objects /
 •    Individualized symbols
 •    Clear concrete photos (of calendar  objects, people)
Standard tactile symbols •    Line drawn pictures
•    Tracings of objects
•    Photos (more complex, representing actions, alternate objects, highlighted activities)
 APH Symbols / other commercially produced symbols  Boardmaker pictures / other commercially produced picture systems
 Braille  Print


Concerns About the Use of Standardized Symbols

Now that I have worked in “the real world” of public schools for at least as many years as I spent at TSBVI,  I have a new set of concerns about the ways these and other standardized tactile symbols are being used. 
  • They should only be used with students who demonstrate symbolic capabilities and intentional communication. If they are used with students who are presymbolic and preintentional, the students may quickly reach a plateau of comprehension, using any symbol to request snack, or learning only symbols which are presented frequently in the context of a predictable daily schedule. If this is the case, a more individualized or object-based symbol system is recommended.
  • Teachers in school districts may not have the time or motivation to create and expand systems for just one or two students in a district.  The background shapes and textures take a lot of time to create, initially, although some ambitious TVIs have managed to replicate the system.
  • The symbols are often used only as cues or directions for student actions, not to support conversation or communication. If this is the function for the symbols, it is not necessary to embrace the whole system.
  • Teachers need to recognize that tactile symbols are only one of many forms for supporting communication—objects and touch cues are always available, and all of us use a variety of forms.
  • Some students might be better candidates for Braille or print instruction, and do not need teachers to invest in this labor intensive system for communication.



The most interesting benefit of this system, as I have seen it, is to help adults realize the value of expanding topics (activities) and vocabulary (objects, people, actions, feelings, places) used as contexts for teaching.  In my consultation with teachers of students with multiple disabilities, the first issue that arises is often “What does he have to talk about?”  Tactile symbols, presented in books, on wall displays and calendars, do provide teachers with a tangible reminder to increase the variety of motivating and interesting topics and vocabulary available for communication presented by responsive partners.
Though communicative form is just one component of communication, it is the most obvious one.  The commitment of the staff at TSBVI to sustaining and growing this system is remarkable. The evolving system shows the rare and valuable benefits of having a united approach to supporting alternative forms of communication and literacy. 
Bulletin board covered with standardized symbols


Blaha, R. (2001). Calendars for students with multiple impairments including deafblindness. Austin: TSBVI.
Hagood, L. (1997) A standard tactile symbol system: Graphic language for individuals who are blind and unable to learn Braille. Austin: SeeHear. Retrieved from:
Rowland, C.  and Schweigert, P. (2000)  Tangible Symbol Systems: Making the right to communicate a reality for individuals with severe disabilities.  Retrieved from:
Smith, M. (2012) Symbols and Meaning, Volumes 1 and 2.  APH: Louisville, KY. 

We hope you'll share your thoughts and comments!  Photos or videos to demonstrate use of symbols are helpful.  Please add in the comment section below or email if you need help posting anything.

Standardized tactile symbols collage



Some thoughts

Posted by Jay Hiller

Linda asked me my thoughts on this and after I told her what I thought privately, she asked me to share them here. The students I serve tend to be higher functioning and I only use tactile symbols occasionally, for example, to introduce calendar concepts to a student without a literacy medium.

The value I see in standardization is that it reduces the risk that when students switch settings, their symbol system will be inaccessible or lost. I don't think it completely eliminates the risk though because I've had the personal experience with sighted students who use alternative/augmentative communication of miscommunication between providers of services resulting in misunderstandings and inadvertent and unhelpful changes to the student's systems. However, I do think it removes some of that risk if the symbols are standardized.

However, general changes to language codes by the users of those codes are a natural and good process. The language loving geek in me resists the idea of regulation of language forms by committee. The question of who gets to decide what a good symbol is is also a tricky one.

Thanks for the opportunity to share what I think.

Tactile Symbols

Posted by Dr. Sharon Summers

Have you used tactile symbols with your students or children? Yes, I have used the TSBVI standardized symbols for my students who have visual and multiple impairments.

• What kind of symbols have you used (Individualized, Standardized, both)? Both

• What has your experience been in using tactile symbols (calendars, communication boards, speech generating devices, labeling systems)? I have used calendar systems and routines consistently over the course of my 32 yrs. Of working with students with significant disabilities and visual impairments. Some students have been provided Dynavox systems or other lower tech devices by parents who are being serviced by outside therapy agencies. Some students have been able to pick up rudimentary skills for use but rarely have gained full independent access due to their level of cognition and physical impairments.

• Would a standardized system be appropriate for the students you work with now? No, most of my students are academic based with minimal accommodations. However, I do collaborate with other TVI’s who support tactile symbols, routines, and calendar systems.

• Would it be feasible to produce standardized symbols in your setting? Yes, however, ensuring the appropriate materials to develop needed symbols might be a challenge.

• What has been your experience with the APH or other commercially-produced symbols systems? Limited, however, my department has one kit. I do not believe that it has been used to its fullest potential.

• Do you envision the symbols being used as a long-term communication support for your students? Most students who are currently using tactile symbols have done so for many years. Symbols inclusion has been added as progress has been made and additional vocabulary is needed.

What suggestions do you have for improving the standardized systems? Collaboration between speech providers, related service personnel and TVI’s.


Posted by Dr. Sharon Summers

They use the standardized symbols personalized for their day to day.

Tactile Symbols

Posted by Deedra Finch

Hi! My name is Deedra Finch and I am a classroom teacher in the Life Skills program at Tennessee School for the Blind. I work with students between the ages of 9-12 who are blind with additional disabilities including autism and complex communication needs. This is my second year in this position and I have been using tangible symbols all along. (Prior to this position I was an elementary vision resource teacher working with braille readers.)  My main accomplishment with tangible symbols in my classroom has been incorporating core vocabulary into our system. (See UNC Chapel Hill website on core vocabulary for details.)

The system we use is individualized, but a little standardized within our school. We created a set of standardized symbols to represent core vocabulary words (go, want, make, do, like, don’t like, who, what, where, happy, etc.) in my classroom which has been adopted and expanded by other Life Skills teachers in our program. Because core vocabulary words are hard to represent, we created arbitrary symbols for them. I also use fringe vocabulary words (pumpkin, book, field trip, etc.) to complete the reading and writing process.  We use our symbols to do predictable chart writing, free choice writing, reading activities, book making/publishing, calendar and schedules on a daily basis.

In a collaborative effort with the two Speech Language Pathologists at TSB, we have also added these symbols to various AAC devices. Our main “go-to” device has been the QuickTalker line of products from Ablenet.

My experience has been amazing. For the students, it has opened a world of opportunities to expand their communication and ability to self-advocate for themselves. As a teacher, it has given me a learning media to create a variety of learning activities that are engaging and meaningful.

I have not used any commercially available tangible symbol systems, such as the one from APH. Mainly, because there aren’t symbols to represent core vocabulary which is the basis of our entire system. I also think my students respond best to a variety of textures and materials that are interesting to them tactually.

I use this system with all of my students, both verbal and non-verbal, but each student uses it in a different way. For one of my students, it served as a bridge to braille reading. For another, it was a way to organize her thoughts. And for another, it reinforces her use of her authentic voice. I do see this system extending into the future for my students as a reliable way to communicate about a variety of topics and participate in learning activities.

Each child has a personal

Posted by Deedra Finch

Each child has a personal board with core vocabulary symbols and access to a shared word wall with fringe vocabulary symbols. I would love to share some pictures! I have posted several on my twitter feed. Is there a way to send you some directly? Or a way to post them here? -Deedra

Pictures of TN School for the Blind tangible symbols

Posted by Charlotte Cushman

tangible symbols

Tangible symbolsTangible symbols

Tangible symbols

Posted by Deedra Finch

  1. Does everyone in your class use the same symbol system, or do you have students who use object symbols, braille or print as their literacy media?

4 students use the same system, but one of my students is still using concrete symbols.

  1. Can you tell me about the background shapes and colors--what they represent (red, blue, square, rectangle)?

All of my students are totally blind, so the color system is more for my organization- red border is core, blue border is names/people, green border- fringe. I used a 2x2 inch square for all core words and most fringe, but sometimes the size varies depending on the symbol materials. It's not an exact science.

  1. I'm especially interested in how you're using the symbols to support writing with your students. Can you describe this?

We do a modified version of predictable chart writing during our morning literacy group. Sometimes we all share an opinion about a story we've read or an event in our schedule. Other times, they have free-choice writing and pick their own topics. My students have learned how to put words together to create sentences and are now expanding those sentences to include details and a conjunctions (and). Just this week we started to change our sentence structure from always starting with the name card, to answering a 'what' question that requires their name to be later in the sentence. (I think this is reflected in the pictures above from TSB.)

Tactile Symbols

Posted by Kim Conlin

I have worked at TSBVI with students who have visual and multiple impairments, including deafblindness, for 20 years.
Have you used tactile symbols with your students or children?
I have used tactile symbols with students ranging from early language users to students who have good basic language skills but struggle with formal literacy.

What kind of symbols have you used (Individualized, Standardized, both)?
I have mostly used TSBVI's standardized tactile symbol system, but have individualized systems for specific students when appropriate. We also use objects as symbols for many students. These systems are generally more individualized and easy for students functioning at very early stages of communication to understand. The reasons for individualizing systems have varied. A couple reasons have been:

1. a district's request to use APH's Tactile Connections backgrounds, since the student would be returning to them and they find our backgrounds too difficult to replicate when only one student is using the system.
I think this APH product is nice for this very reason! You can still individualize or standardize the parts-of-objects used to represent people, places, actions, and objects. However, it makes less work for the team, since backgrounds are already provided.

2. A student who needs a system smaller and more portable than objects, but is not ready for the abstraction of our standardized system. We have used only the most iconic symbols with several students over the years. There are several symbols that are easy to make with a student. For example, if a student understands that a spoon represents EAT, you can break the spoon and glue it onto a background with the student, as a way to bridge the gap and teach them to be more symbolic.

What has your experience been in using tactile symbols (calendars, communication boards, speech generating devices, labeling systems)?
Tactile symbols are great for labeling classrooms, on speech generating devices, and in extended calendars. We use them in the same way you would use picture symbols for kids with sight.

Do you envision the symbols being used as a long-term communication support for your students?
I work with transition-age students, so I have supported many students' transitions to adult life. I have found that many families, group homes, and agencies who serve students through medicaid waiver programs have difficulty keeping up with and using tactile symbol calendar systems. I always consider the student's adult life when deciding to move from objects to tactile symbols, since objects systems are easier to maintain post-school. However, I know of at least 5 adults who use tactile symbols in their adult life very successfully. In these cases, the symbols have become integral to their communication system and they have a family member advocating for their use.

What suggestions do you have for improving the standardized systems?
I think anybody using the system should read background information about the theory behind them (like the information LInda provided in this blog) so that they can be thoughtfully flexible in creating new symbols when needs arise for an individual student. No standardized symbol system will ever have every symbol needed for students who are fluent users. It is important that somebody is keeping track of and selecting distinctive materials for a student's system, so that they don't all start to feel the same.

Transferring symbols between places

Posted by Sandy Joint

Standardization is important so they can be transfered between places. They must be based on real objects to be effective. I am a full believer in combining real objects and tactile signs to develop "Language", not just communication. 

How I combined objects and tactile signs

Posted by Sandy Joint

Re: How I combined objects and tactile signs:
To develop language to me you have to make up not only for the deficit of hearing but also the deficit of sight. No one system by its self can do this. As such I have always combined systems of communication. They include but are not confined to:
  • speech (even if only pitch and emotion can be heard),
  • signs (always based on the manual code but presented tactile)
  • tactile objects, model and symbols/diagrams/braille with
  • hands on experiences and direct teaching.
To use only one form restricts and reduces the amount of language that can be developed as concepts cannot be deduced easily.
In the earliest stage I base everything on activities related to natural development and the presentation of language similar to how you would normally talk and respond to an infant (including same structures). Words introduced are based on sensations encountered by the child at the time of interaction including touch, taste and smell. Words perceived through residual hearing and sight are also included. As the child shows recognition, move activities and words are introduced outside of basic care and daily activities. 
Until the child utters or signs their first words I use real objects (combined with speech and tactile signs). Real objects are used until they can independently give the name of the object either as a sign or through voice. As their language develops I move to models, and tactile symbols for non-visual sensations e.g. in, on, and, etc.
Tactile models and symbols are also used to develop early reading along with braille just like picture books. Where possible visually ionic symbols are used rather than abstract symbols. E.g. A model hat for hat, leg off a doll for leg, I have found the size of clothes and object associated with 11 inch dolls fit perfectly onto card that can be braille onto. In my own work I have always made use of models to help explain tactile signs, I actually found Barbie dolls and action man combined with boxes set with furniture and objects a brilliant way to explain concepts that could not be seen. In conjunction with this I introduce concepts in conjunction with activities. I.e. trip to the beach, a day in the park, at the zoo, whatever, it is all theme based and hands on.
My classroom for junior students always had a cubby/Wendy house. This could be converted into a shop, doctor’s surgery etc. We would act everything out.  I am very much into the Montessori way of teaching. As student get older I follow the normal curriculum. I find braille and tactile diagrams invaluable.
Experience as an adviser to many schools and community setting has shown that where only one method of communication is used (especially when it does not involve signs in any form) it inevitably results in only a basic level of communication being achieved. I.e. The child/person might learn to walk, be time trained and can feed and dress themselves, but they continue to remain at that level.
Signing rich environment incorporating hands on activities with objects/models/tactile diagrams in contrast provide vastly superior results.
Hope this is helpful

Dictionary of Tactile and Augmentative Communication

Posted by Sandy Joint

You are right: children or adults who are at a concrete/sensorimotor level cannot use abstract symbols, this is the stage of real objects tied with either manual or tactile signs, depending on the level or residual sight the child or adult has. They need a lot of exposure to real objects, experiences with language to develop further.
I retired from teaching about 5 years ago. At that stage I worked for the Education Queensland first as a teacher then later as a project officer and State-wide advisor. My expertise is primarily in Deafblindness.
My main objective is to develop a "Dictionary of Tactile and Augmentative Communication". This I intend to release in parts on a website I am developing  I have also put some of these signs on Pinterest.  This dictionary is based on AUSLAN signs however many of our signs come from the BSL plus NZSL code. Some are even ASL so I am noting this next to words. As I believe in a combined or joint system of communication I have also includes ideas from activities to teach words to real objects to use.
On top of this I do some consultancy work and workshops.

Have you used tactile symbols

Posted by Anita Lewis

Have you used tactile symbols with your students or children?
I don't currently work with students who use tactile symbols, but I used them when I worked at TSBVI four years ago.

What kind of symbols have you used (Individualized, Standardized, both)?
I used the TSBVI system.

What has your experience been in using tactile symbols (calendars, communication boards, speech generating devices, labeling systems)?
We used tactile symbols for calendars, labeling systems, writing experience stories, and to support routines.

Would a standardized system be appropriate for the students you work with now?
At that time a standardized system was the unifying element for the various teams: school day, residential, overnight, weekend, and transportation staff.

Do you envision the symbols being used as a long-term communication support for your students?
I agree with what Kim Conlin about the difficulty of families replicating the system at home. In some cases even using a standard sign system was a challenge. Some families often opt to keep home signs. (I won't digress and talk about the residential versus LEA experience.)

What suggestions do you have for improving the standardized systems?
I think any "good" system evolves with the communicator. A strong team is needed to provide communication opportunities. While consistency is important, flexibility is necessary for words to be used in novel ways.
I remember using tactile symbols to tell "jokes" with a student.


Posted by Anita Lewis

One funny thing I remember is one of my students finding a huge sheet of bubble wrap in my office and him cracking up about the huge "bus" symbol I had. We had a fun time making big "bus" symbols.

Another time we filled pages and pages with "home" symbols.

Various comments

Posted by Garner Vogt

Have you used tactile symbols with your students or children?

I am currently a residential director at TSBVI and don't use tactile symbols directly with students much. I used them extensively as a teacher, teaching assistant and as a residential staff person in the past. I have spent many hours manufacturing symbols and worked very hard to transform the process from an expression of craft to a manufacturing exercise.

What kind of symbols have you used (Individualized, Standardized, both)?
I have used all manner of symbols, individualized object, more standardized object, individualized tactile symbol, standardized tactile, standardized picture(Meyer-Johnson) and picture. I worked at TSBVI prior to there being an individualized system. I have been in classrooms with three of more different tactile symbol systems functioning at once. Having to replace worn-out or damaged symbols became a huge time sink especially when the person who originated the symbol would use some obscure and often impossible to find "doo-dad" as the essential tactile element of the symbol. In many cases because the symbol was kept in circulation too long because the parts were unfindable, the student would cease to cue off of the work tactile element and key off of other aspects of the symbol, like the glue holding it on or the shape, texture and feel of the velcro on the back. Situations such as this made the design and use of a standardize system progressive more urgent.

What has your experience been in using tactile symbols (calendars, communication boards, speech generating devices, labeling systems)?

I have also transitioned students from object symbols to tactile symbols and used a mixed media approach to instruct students in a variety of functional levels and a variety of sensory modalities to share conversations and calendars with each other. Again doing so requires a little bit of effort to create materials and procedures in the activity for all of the participants to access their content. Using tactile symbols to create expanded conversations relating to the who what when where and how of the shared experience of school and using the symbols as a "hard copy" of memorable events always had such a huge impact on my students and seemed to promote a level of engagement about school and experiences with which many of my students really struggled. And of course the basis for these conversations had to be the daily and systematic use of tactile symbols in calendars and daily activities.

Would a standardized system be appropriate for the students you work with now?

There are many students at TSBVI using these symbols. It is essential to maintain a standardized system to prove symbols at the scale needed to support all of these usage and across all of the different environments for these students. This also allows us to provide some degree of support to students when they return to their local school districts.

What suggestions do you have for improving the standardized systems?

I think more training is needed to get the full measure of benefit from these systems.

I am constantly amazed at the effort needed to support these systems and how difficult the current standardized system is viewed by people not from TSBVI(parents or districts) when they are called upon to use and support a student who has learned on our system. When compared with the effort to support students who rely on Braille to meet related needs it is probably not as much but for a variety of reasons maintaining a tactile symbol system often is seen as impossible. To that end I wonder if technology is not a possible solution. At TSBVI a couple of people have discussed the possibility of using 3D printers to design and publish a standardized tactile symbol system that entirely available from a 3D printer. Unfortunately a lot of the discussion about that possibility mirror some of the discussion here. Issues of whether the saliency of a 3D produced symbol is sufficient compared to a glued on element and whether some essential quality of student understanding is lost when the end result can be produced by a machine. From the 3D printers we currently have access to here at TSBVI I don't think we could produce symbols what would provide the level of tactile difference and uniqueness needed, but that will likely change. Another issue will be whether, as some have suggested, the new 3D system will be based on the use of elements of the older hot glued "do-dads" that combines some elements of the objects used in the activities rendered in 3d by the printer or be entirely abstracrted as is Braille but not requiring Braille's level of tactile discrimination and cognition on the part of the user. I support the notion of a system that in it's final form is entirely new and abstract for those users that can not for whatever reason, use Braille but that are conversant tactile symbol users.

Tactile Symbols

Posted by Matt Schultz

Have you used tactile symbols with your students or children?

I used tactile symbols while working with students aged 10-22 as a classroom teacher and behavior specialist at TSBVI. I am currently a deafblind education consultant with the TSBVI Deafblind Outreach Project. I consult with local school districts across the state of Texas. In my brief time (1.5 yrs) as an outreach consultant, I have worked with just a few teams and students using tactile symbols.

What kind of symbols have you used (Individualized, Standardized, both)?

I mostly used TSBVI's standardized system. However, in doing so I frequently individualized a student's symbol system when appropriate. Instances that come to mind were when a student's preferred topic was not included in the TSBVI Tactile Symbol Directory or when planning an activity that involved a item, action, or location that was not in the directory. In short, we used the directory as a guide and did not let the inventory limit a student's vocabulary or topics.

I'd like to echo the statement from Kim's post about the value of using the APH kit to ease the time and labor commitment involved in making the backgrounds from scratch. I was hesitant at first, concerned about the impact of the missing tactile information resulting from uniform plastic backgrounds. However, I never noticed this hindering a students ability to identify symbols that were used in a consistent and meaningful context, particularly when paired with speech and/or sign language.

What has your experience been in using tactile symbols (calendars, communication boards, speech generating devices, labeling systems)?

I have used tactile symbols within a variety of contexts:

1. Daily calendar systems, depicting activities scheduled to occur across a school day.
2. Weekly or Monthly Calendars, depicting days of the week or month paired with a preferred, highlighted activity that happens on that day.
3. Communication boards designed to support choice making within routines and in making sequence books representing the steps within routines.
4. When creating experience stories to reflect and discuss meaningful events after they occur.
5. To label a student's personal items, classroom items and/or areas.

Would a standardized system be appropriate for the students you work with now?

I believe it can be very helpful when used as a guide.

Would it be feasible to produce standardized symbols in your setting?

I see symbol production as a challenge for many teams that don't have access to a tactile symbol room like the ones at TSBVI. I've heard about groups of itinerant TVIs that have joined forces to get a stockpile of supplies and support each other in symbol production.

Do you envision the symbols being used as a long-term communication support for your students?

That was always my hope. I realize there are many obstacles in place for this to happen. The person overseeing the system much have a great deal or knowledge and understanding to do so. They also need time and resources to produce and repair symbols. I know of a few outstanding families in the Houston area that have made this a reality for their children and siblings with deafblindness, some of whom are now adults. They get together for tactile symbol making parties with food and beverages! Everything is easier when it's fun.

Individualised vs. standardised tactile symbols

Posted by Sheela

Found the discussion above quite thought provoking. We have always believed that the definition of literacy should be modified to include the use of object symbols also in case of our children. My comments will be more from the perspective of an Asian context. We at Helen Keller Institute for Deaf & Deafblind, India have been using more concrete tactile symbols since quite some time. They are, however, mostly quite individualised made by different teachers keeping their own students' needs and cognitive levels in mind. A few agencies have come up with certain high tech standardised systems in past but they have mainly been used with children with cerebral palsy and not many people working in the field of multiple disabilities with vision impairment (MDVI) know about them.

Linda, I have given a lot of thought to this topic during last few days, since I read this chapter on Path to literacy site and have come to the following conclusion keeping our own context in mind. This includes a couple of other neighbouring countries like Bangla Desh and Sri Lanka also apart from India, where I had the chance to observe and work with this population closely: My Indian colleagues may or may not agree with me.

1. Using Individualised tangible symbols at this moment seem to be a more practical, accessible, feasible and sustainable option for helping our children develop communication and language skills or for having a meaningful conversation not only with teachers in the schools but also with parents and siblings at home. Reasons - - There is such wide disparity between the socio cultural and economic background of children coming to the same program or staying in the same city that the symbol which may be quite relevant for one child may not make any sense to the other. There may be a few like the sponge in the spoon for washing dish (given above) may be relevant in at least 80% of the children coming from an urban area but another like leaves for outside may be totally irrelevant to many even living in the same city as their may not be a single plant in the vicinity to associate outside with leaves, at least in the initial stage. It may be easier for him to associate a key or a piece of chain on the door which his mother uses every time to lock the door before taking him out may make sense to him

Secondly even if we after some research start producing standardised symbols in some parts of the country, their accessibility and availability may remain an issue for a long long time, not just due to lack of financial resources but many other factors like lack of information, transportability, lack of proper guidance for using/making it and so on. Whereas objects like a spoon/bowl or a comb or a sock (for going out), a key or a tooth brush or a bangle to represent the mother or a hair band for older sister can always be found in most of the homes and can be acquired easily in a new place also if they get lost when the student transits from one department/program to another.

So in fact the issue raised in many of the comments given above that if an individualised object symbol gets lost or the object/place it represents has changed then what, works the other way around in this part of the globe. If a standardized symbol gets lost then it may take ages to acquire that again. In fact we find that once a child associates a tangible object symbol with a place or event , it continues to function the same way even if the original object is not used the same way. For instance 6 years old Anwar, a child with deafblindness as well as intellectual issues continued to associate a key with home even when the mother stopped usin it to open the door as the sister's school timing changed and she started being at t home when they reached -

A third issue is that so far vocabulary expansion and language development is concerned, if we bring in too much of abstraction into the picture , as seems to be the case here ( using shapes or textures in the background to represent different class of words/concepts) then apart from a few - in our population at least- who are cognitively at a pretty high level, others may find the whole exercise very difficult and may get demotivated to use them. Some due to slow sensory processes take a long time to comprehend and react. Many, on the other hand have short attention span or due to their proprioceptive and vestibular needs require frequent movement, pressure etc. In such cases using objects involved or their part becomes much more feasible rather than using one after another abstract standardized symbols to describe a process or event like preparing a snack or celebrating a festival,. Using these abstract symbols may be possible in some cases for expressing a few routine needs or for reading the time table but when it comes to more pre literacy experiences like going trough read aloud story books, talking about home or school news, sharing outdoor experiences etc, we have found that a combination of object symbols or their parts, simple and clear pictures or line drawing in case of children who are low vision, have learnt to use their vision fruitfully and may become large printers at some point (even if they don't and remain at picture reading level), tactile pictures or picture with certain touch and feel elements, matt finish photographs - preferably of the actual objects used, place visited or person interacted with. some gestures or signs , vocalisation and intonation patterns, some pre Braille or Pre writing pattern,some movement and actions and whatever works in case of a particular child, gives the best result rather than focusing too much on introducing complex system of a large number of abstract standardised symbols.

Lastly I will like to raise a question that if a child has reached a stage where he can learn such a complex system for conversing about a topic (not just to express routine needs in one one word), then is he not ready and has the cognitive potential to barge on the beautiful journey of read aloud story books looking at/ feeling the meaningful pictures, participating in enacting it or sequencing the events, matching objects with pictures, finding a particular alphabet in a word (large print or Brailled with larger dots/ stickers, Participating in making an experience book after a trip to the garden or a mall with the actual souvenirs brought home from there , labelling the things stuck there in or drawing/ thumb painting pictures of the things experienced , talking about animals and the sounds they make or the food they eat - all using pictures/ tactile pictures/ photographs/ objects and their parts, sticking dots to represent Braille dots and so on.

So is there a need for continuing with those standardised symbols for these narrations he started with! Yes we will surely follow a developmental approach starting with body cues, movements etc. But we would also soon incorporate a few objects he uses, expanding his vocabulary through real objects from the world around rather than standardised symbols, few sounds he hears and even introduce a few signs like finish moving on to picture and tactile elements. All this arises from his own life and the life around so it has to be need based keeping his world in mind and hence will be more individualised .

A few interesting anecdotes- Senju loves swimming. When he was seven years old he refused to use the card for swimming beautifully and very realistically painted by his teacher. He often got frustrated when he could not tell his teacher that he wanted to go for swimming, even though it was not his swimming time and either got angry or started dragging his teacher out of the class room. Even when the teacher initiated him into using the nice picture card showing a boy swimming in the pool, he refused to use it on his own. He was then taken to the pool given a piece of paper and a few crayons. He very interestingly scribbled a few blue lines , drew a stick kind of figure and showed it to his teacher. Since that day Senju never had a problem in communicating when he wanted to go swimming. His stick figure was always with him.

4 years Shubham had just started walking. He would often go to the kitchen and get a bowl when he was hungry and gave it to his mother. The interesting thing was that he managed to pick up a small bowl when he was a little hungry and wanted small snack and bigger plate when he wanted to eat something heavier! Could it happen with a standardised symbol? Have some pictures but am not able to upload. Will try tomorrow. -

Photos of Tactile Symbols from Helen Keller Institute, India

Posted by Sheela Sinha

Here are some photographs of tactile symbols, photographs, tactile pictures and pictures used with our children in various ways - for conversation  about routine, experiences (traveling,shopping, snack preparation, celebrations , etc.), emotions, as well as choice making and expressing needs.

object schedule


tactile symbols in free choice area







Tactile symbols of clothes by closet





Posted by SHEELA

Thanks Linda for your comments as well as bringing me in this loop! It is quite fascinating to be able to discuss about something which is at the core of your professional life, with people from across the globe.
Yes , those miniatures can only be used in the context. Often it is the texture of the material used there which is identical or at least very similar to the original which it symbolises that helps the children. Personally, I have never been an advocate for mini symbols.

Reaction to the post above!

Posted by Garner Vogt

Your exposition was really interesting and I do appreciate the many nuances you interject. I would only say if it make more sense to use an individualized communication model then that is what you should use. As a teacher I was always struck when doing a group activity with learners with a variety of "hard copy " modalities how much the student using tactile systems and pictures would enjoy and attend to the object symbols used by their peers. I found that by having both objects that were individualized to a particular student and also the standardized tactile symbol tended to elicit more comment and discussion within the group conversation. I often would affix the tactile symbol to a bag that would contain a symbol to allow for a common frame of reference for all conversation participants. I do suspect that in situations where you are attempting to use a standardized system as just that to allow diverse users to have a common frame of reference for events, actions, people, not have common symbols would truly limit the use. I also wonder at the notion that a tactile symbol system needs in some way represent the activity in some small way, a spoon part or napikin for eating etc. I am much more inclined to the notion that the system(s) be a continuum of symbol abstraction to an ultimately fully abstract system that much like Braille is a complete abstraction and in the case of a student who was fully conversant in the abstraction of tactile symbols the only reason would would not use Braile would be that there was some underlaying inability to use that medium. I think to use of a variety or materials to support the students comprehension and conversation should always be used as was mention in the anecdote about swimming. I really appreciated learning about the unique opportunities and challenge faced in India and am grateful for the post!

Standardized vs. Individualised symbols/ Concrete tangible vs.

Posted by SHEELA

Thanks Garner for your thoughtful comments. Yes I totally agree that in a group a common point of reference is also required.On the other hand, a variety of topics can also be provided by bringing in different individualised symbols in order to generate more interactive conversation. This aspect is actually taken care of in our system too. An example - the symbol for shopping for all the children in a group could be a shopping bag ( again more tangible than abstract but a common one). However , what each one will buy can be different , giving scope for a lot of conversation.. Whereas one may be carrying a small communication book with packets of different flavoured biscuits and chips to be shown to the shopkeeper, another child may be simply carrying a shampoo bottle and has a conversation about shampoo getting over with his teacher and peers, a third one may be carrying a card with the wrapper of his favourite candy stuck on it. He may be going to buy candies to be distributed on his friend's birthday next day. So still scope for a lot of conversation and language expansion. Manipulating and feeling around each other's symbols will help them tactile discrimination too - an essential requirement for Braille literacy/ tactile picture reading.
The second issue of encouraging graded abstraction in order to help them develop skills to learn Braille - a highly abstract medium of literacy. Well, what we often do is to label the cards or pages in a communication book with tangible symbols in Braille - slightly bigger dots then the actual one ( to start with) made with special stickers. Along with the object symbol he will also be helped in going over those Brailled words just as a sighted child has A for Apple in his first book - the picture of an apple with Apple written below it on his A page. So he is also being exposed to more abstract form of literacy though he is not reading at this stage .
In another way we introduce Braille while continuing with the tangible objet symbols is to label his belongings and familiar objects in his environment in Braille ( with the kind of stickers I mentioned above)
One reason why we cannot afford to go into too much of abstraction is that a large number of children come from an economically/ socio culturally deprived background. It is often very hard for them to understand the relevance of these highly abstracted symbols and be motivated to use them whereas more concrete symbols make sense to them and often with support from us they do use them at home too. Only using them in school hours is not as effective.. So far Braille is concerned, it does not pose this challenge as they all know that this is how people who don't see READ and that is welcomed by everyone.

Individualised vs. Standardized object symbols

Posted by SHEELA

Sorry, I am here again just to correct one slip in my comment above. "Them" over there refers to the parents and not the children themselves. Parents, in case of children coming from deprived socio economical background are not inclined towards using the highly abstracted symbols at home while interactting with the child, as it is hard for them to understand it's relevance. Whereas if we give them more tangible symbols which relate to their lives they make an effort to help the child use it at home too.