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Tangible Symbols

By Elizabeth Torrey — Read full transcript

Elizabeth Torrey, Speech and Language Pathologist in the Early Learning Center at Perkins School for the Blind, talks about the use of tangible symbols in helping children with multiple disabilities, including blindness and deafblindness, to develop and achieve communication skills.

Chapters: 1 — The Use of Tangible Symbols to Support the Development of Communication; 2 — What Are Tangible Symbols?; 3 — How Tangible Symbols Should Be Presented; 4 — The Benefits of Using Tangible Symbols; 5 — Considerations When Developing Tangible Symbols; 6 — Behavioral Benefits. For more information, visit Perkins Scout.

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Webcast Transcript:

CHAPTER 1: The Use of Tangible Symbols to Support the Development of Communication

TORREY: Children who have multiple disabilities including blindness and deafblindness have special challenges in developing communication skills.

Elizabeth Torrey, Speech and Language Pathologist, talks about the use of tangible symbols.

And to support that, we need to find other ways, multisensory ways, to help them achieve those goals of relating to their peers, establishing communication with families, expressing their needs, being able to say, "Hey, I'm thirsty, I need a drink."

How about, "I need to use the bathroom," or to make a choice about what games and things that they want to play with? What's their favorite activity? And the way that we'll get to know that is by offering these children choices. Let's make another choice, Jen.

NARRATOR: In a video clip, a teacher presents a young girl who is blind two tangible symbol cards.

TORREY: Robby the rabbit, or we do the hokey pokey?

NARRATOR: One has a small stuffed rabbit attached, the other, a wooden block with a hole in the middle. The girl chooses the rabbit, and is shown playing with the large rabbit toy.

TORREY: The difficulty arises when so many of the students that we're working with here can't just say what they want. They don't have verbal language. So in order to give them a means to express themself, we have to find other routes, and something that we found really, really works is using tangible symbols with these students.

CHAPTER 2: What Are Tangible Symbols?

TORREY: Tangible symbols grew out of the work by Dr. Van Dijk back in the 1960s, and he did a lot of work with students who were deaf and blind, and he found that several things really can help these children achieve communication and establish links with others, and that's using movement and using objects, real objects, and then some tangible symbols. And from this, people started working with students using, specifically, objects and tangible symbol systems.

NARRATOR: In a video clip, we see two tangible symbol cards. One is labeled "health services" and has part of a stethoscope and tubing attached. The other, with a small stuffed bear, is labeled "social play."

TORREY: They're basically manipulable—that means you can hold them, you can actually grasp them in your hands. They're static in that way that they're permanent; that you can affix them to something, but that the child can hold them for a long time until that understanding comes through.

NARRATOR: A small plastic dosing cup has been attached to a large white card labeled "meds." Glued to a different card labeled "tooth brushing," we see a small tube of toothpaste.

TORREY: You can discriminate what's on them through your tactile sense. So they might have different textures on them, some can be made with different objects attached to them. And another important aspect about tangible symbols is that they represent something else, so that they're symbolic, and yet they don't put a lot of demands on a child's memory.

So their recall memory, which can be very difficult to access, doesn't have to go into overdrive. They put very little demands on a child's visual system, so a child with low vision might want to use the symbols too, but they're using their hands to explore them. For example, a piece of a slinky toy might be embedded into a card, and that would represent the slinky. So it's actually taking a piece of the slinky and using it to represent the slinky.

NARRATOR: A large white tangible symbol card with a few coils of a plastic slinky toy attached is displayed on a blue felt slant board. A full size slinky is draped over the board.

TORREY: One of the symbols that I use a lot with the students, a lot of the kids, they love to get in those big therapy balls, and they're that funny feeling rubbery stuff with the ridges in them, so I had one that had popped, so I cut a piece of it. So the ball that I have on my card is not a ball, per se, but it's a piece of that same material that's embedded on the card, so when the child touches that, it'll feel the same.

NARRATOR: In a video clip, we see a tangible symbol card with a small piece of a therapy ball attached. As the shot widens out, we can see a large orange therapy ball just to the right of the card.

TORREY: And then it ranges from something that's so iconic to something that's quite abstract, because we can't cut a piece of the day to become a "days of the week" symbol, and yet, we've developed "days of the week" symbols for the children to learn about as they're singing the song, their hands are moving left to right as if they're reading those as the days... Sunday, Monday, all the way through the days of the week.

A student explores tangible symbols representing days of the week.

NARRATOR: In a video clip, a young girl who is blind and her teacher sit at a small table and examine a tangible symbol calendar while singing a song about the days of the week.

TORREY: ( singing ) Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday...

NARRATOR: Distinct shapes or textures differentiate the days.

TORREY: I think one of the other benefits for a child using symbol systems that we've found in our work with young preschoolers is really getting those hands ready to learn and take in more sophisticated information in the world of Braille. So we're getting those kids developing that understanding and how to "read" with their hands, so that all of that pre-Braille literacy work begins very early and a lot of it begins with the symbols.

Ideally, a symbol would have part of the object attached to it along with a Braille label and then a print label so that somebody who's a print reader would be able to understand what this symbol is representing, but then the Braille label too, so that the child who's initially just touching it is going to have that experience of, oh, finding the Braille. "What's this at the bottom?"

NARRATOR: A spoon with a yellow plastic handle is glued to a tangible symbol card labeled "snack/lunch." Below the spoon, a Braille label is clearly visible.

TORREY: Each time the child is touching that same symbol, they're getting all of that information through their hands, so that's all supporting the literacy that will hopefully come for the children.

CHAPTER 3: How Tangible Symbols Should Be Presented

TORREY: When I start teaching a student how to use tangible symbols for communication purposes, I like to begin, actually, with real objects. And I develop a song or game routine, something the child's really going to like, and we find that they often like to play with something like a slinky. And I'll offer that child a choice.

"Would you want to play with the slinky, or do you want a different toy?"

And if the child keeps choosing the slinky, I know that that's something the child will really like and will want to play with a lot. What I'll then do is I start pairing a symbol with the slinky, and I start with a piece of the slinky embedded in a card that I then present at the same time. So I offer the object—"Do you want to play with the slinky?" And then I'll guide the child's hand over to tap the symbol. "Oh, that's right. You want to play with the slinky."

I'll do that a few times, and then maybe the next time, I'll come out and I'll offer just the slinky symbol. And as soon as the child touches that symbol, I have the slinky right there. It's important to be able to really pair those two things together for that child to develop the meaning and the understanding.

NARRATOR: In a video clip, a young girl who is blind and her teacher are assembling the girl's daily calendar using tangible symbol cards.

TEACHER: And then you have a meeting.

NARRATOR: The teacher uses speech and tactile signing to prompt the girl to find the appropriate card.

A teacher uses speech and tactile signing to prompt a student to find the appropriate tangible symbol card.

TORREY: When we're using tangible symbols as a teaching tool, there are some really important things to keep in mind. One is consistency of use. That's really critical.

A child who comes in contact with a symbol a lot will learn it more often. It's important for us to use the same language so that we don't have one teacher saying, "Well, it's time for story time," and another saying, "It's time for book group learning time," when they're using the same symbol for both and using different labels. So it's important to keep the labels consistent, and that's why I think it's important to have a print label on there as well, so different teachers will know what that symbol is representing.

NARRATOR: Outside a classroom doorway, we see a large sign reading, "Story and Game Room." The tangible symbol card for "Story and Game Room" is just to the right. It has a small book attached and is identified with text and Braille.

TORREY: In my case, when I have a child come into my space, it's called "Story and Games Time," so they touch the "Story and Games" symbol on their schedule box in the hallway. There's the identical symbol on my doorway, so it's a landmark also. So when they come into my room, they know that's the Story and Games room.

NARRATOR: In a video clip, a boy who is blind and his teacher touch a "Story and Games" symbol card that is displayed on his calendar box. We then see them proceed into the Story and Game Room, stopping to touch the identical symbol card displayed outside the doorway.

TORREY: I'm using the consistent language, and that child has that opportunity then to feel the symbol multiple times coming in, and then on the way out, we take the symbol and we're putting it in the "Finish" box so that child knows that that class is done.

CHAPTER 4: The Benefits of Using Tangible Symbols

TORREY: There are many, many benefits to using tangible symbols with students and young children. Children who have blindness and other disabilities really have to have their world brought in close. When children are developing and have vision and they're very young, what they do is they point to things that they want.

They see things out in their world and they point to them, and when they do that, their parent will say, "Oh, yeah, that's a truck, that's a dog, that's a ball; you want the ball," and will bring it over. One of the most important things to understand is that the child has a choice.

Do you want... ( singing ) I'm bringing home a baby bumble bee, or... ( singing ) the wheels on the bus go 'round and 'round?

CHILD: ( humming )

NARRATOR: In a video clip, a young girl who is blind vocalizes after choosing between two symbol cards representing songs she would like the teacher to sing. She chooses "Wheels on the Bus," and the teacher presents a large plastic bus which they play with while they sing.

TORREY: I can use my hands to reach out into the world and people will understand me, when I'm touching this symbol, that that's what I'm getting. So it's really important that we're using the symbols in a way that's very meaningful for the child so that child knows, "As soon as I touch that, I can receive that." And we've often found, and there's research to show, that children with multiple disabilities often aren't offered choices at the same rate as children who don't have disabilities.

NARRATOR: In a video clip, a young girl who is blind is offered a choice of songs represented by two symbol cards. One has a small fuzzy bumble bee attached, the other, a plastic spider.

TORREY: We find that, for many children, it's their bridge to actual verbal language. I've had students that come in that weren't talking at age three, four, and five, but slowly started making choices and using a "yes/no" symbol and "more" and "finished" symbols, and they developed the understanding then, they've heard this spoken to them, they start using those actual words, and that's very exciting.

Tangible symbols representing gardening tools.

So we're always pairing the symbols with the words. We're often pairing them with signs, as well, with manual signs, so that we're giving a child a multimodal, a multisensory approach to language learning that we find really effective. Tangible symbols can be used to help a child access the curriculum, again, thinking of the multisensory piece that it helps provide. But what we'll do is we're working on a theme of gardening, say, and we want to help the child understand that we're going to be going out in the garden and planting seeds and here's some of the tools that we use.

NARRATOR: In a video clip, we see displayed several items, including a tangible symbol card with half of a small plastic plant pot attached and labeled "greenhouse" in both text and Braille.

We see a Zip-Loc bag full of potting soil and a small trowel. There is also a card with a small plastic shovel attached. This card is labeled "Garden Story" in text and Braille. A book titled "The Surprise Garden" is displayed nearby.

TORREY: So we'll develop symbols then to use with the gardening unit to help that child, again, understand what's going to happen next in the day, what the expectations are, and then how we actually use these tools. So the child will then handle the symbol and then maybe the little rake and the hoe and then actually go out and do a gardening activity with those things, come back in, read a story box, read a book that might have some of the actual objects in it, and again, then have access to that symbol. So it's linking the real activity with the literature activity with the whole theme that the whole school, the whole class, is doing together.

CHAPTER 5: Considerations When Developing Tangible Symbols

TORREY: In developing tangible symbols, the learner needs to be taken into consideration, and that would mean, what is that child's experience in using his hands? Are there textures that that child loves and are there textures that that child pulls away from? How much is a child using his hands?

NARRATOR: In a video clip, a black felt board hangs on a wall with more than a dozen tangible symbol cards attached. The cards represent a variety of objects depicted with different shapes and textures, such as a plastic egg, a rubber figurine, and a leather baby shoe.

TORREY: If a child is only wanting to touch things with the palm of the hands versus the fingertips, how will that affect the symbol that we make? How will that child then be able to take in that information? Then the texture that's used might have to be quite different than something that needs more fine discrimination. So it's all those kinds of things. Does a child have low vision? In that case, maybe you want to be thinking about putting dark outlines on the backs of symbols to really make the symbol pop out for that child.

NARRATOR: A cassette has been colored with a black permanent marker and glued to a white symbol card labeled "music tape." The contrast provides a visual clue to those students with low vision.

TORREY: Or you might want to use the brighter colors and maybe the red or the yellow for a child with cortical visual impairment. So those are things that really need to be thought about in developing symbols too.

CHAPTER 6: Behavioral Benefits

TORREY: We find that children with challenging behaviors, we see a decrease in those behaviors as they start to gain some understanding of their day and understanding of how to use these symbols to tell us what their needs are, and then they also know when they're touching their symbol, "Someone's listening to me," and that's a big piece of this too.

We're not just giving the child information, we're also expecting the child to give us some information back again, and that's where that exchange comes from that's so important for building language.

NARRATOR: In a video clip, a teacher and a girl who is blind sing songs together.

TORREY: ( singing ) Here a tweet, there a... tweet. Everywhere...

GIRL: Tweet, tweet.

TORREY: ( singing ) Old McDonald had a farm...

GIRL: ( singing ) Ee-i-ee-i-o.

NARRATOR: Part of their interaction involves a song about putting a hat on and taking it off. We see the girl taking a straw hat off her head and placing it on the table.

TORREY: We find that the benefits are that the children start to... well, I call it "happy up." I have kids who come in and they're upset and angry, they don't understand what's happening in their day, because they don't have a way to express themselves verbally or in more symbolic ways, they express themselves through hurting themselves or hurting others.

Once a child starts to learn that he has control over what he wants and how he can express it, we find that those children then develop a sense of autonomy and they become much more a part of the group; that they're much more willing to engage with different communication partners. They feel like they have something to say and that there's somebody willing to listen to them.