Encouraging conversations with images and symbols

Encouraging conversations with images and symbols

When we watch people having conversations, we soon see that more is happening than just talking. For carers it is even more obvious that patience, pausing, and many other interactions are needed, in order to become successful communication partners for people who may have difficulties with speech and language.

A tablet screen with symbols displayed on it
“For people with difficulties with speech and language it can help to introduce images and symbols." - E.A. Draffan, Fellow

There are many resources and training manuals about learning to communicate successfully in different settings, but not many mention alternatives to spoken dialogue or offer different ways to encourage conversations in challenging situations. Making the most of alternatives to spoken conversations tends to be a specialist subject. For example, over the past year when discussing speech and language difficulties with carers, I discovered that it was rare for training to have been made available about how to make or use images or symbols to support successful communication. As a result, it seemed that some service users sadly failed to understand information or express themselves in ways that led to successful outcomes. This meant that both carer and those being cared for were left frustrated and unhappy.

We all use several ways of communicating messages, including gestures, facial expressions, the use of our bodies, speech and language. Sometimes these extras are not enough to explain something. For instance, over the last two years, people have had to use personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks, which makes communication difficult. In addition, those who have cognitive and physical difficulties or do not speak the language being used at the time, may find it doubly hard to understand conversations and take part in essential exchanges of information.

Sometimes it can help to introduce images and symbols that work with all the other forms of communication. They can be as simple as a single picture or drawing that is pointed to when talking about a subject, or a group of symbols that help to explain a sentence or more complex concept. The symbols can be used on a communication board or chart, with rows and columns covering a single topic or a series of words for a conversation. They can be used for instructions and information sheets, menus and key rings of single cards.

My co-director David Banes and I, with the help of colleagues, have tried to help people find images and symbols that are simple to use by developing Global Symbols. This is a growing multilingual repository of free symbols that can be used for any form of visual aid to support spoken language and to make conversations more easily understood. In addition, there are feature board sets, several related to Covid-19, that can be copied, adapted and freely used with Board Builder along with the Symbol Creator web app to create personalised images or symbols. Board Builder has grown into a simple way to create symbol charts for communication or information sheets that can be printed out, thanks to my Covid-19 Action Fund grant.

Recently we have provided a freely available online e-Learning course called Communication using Symbols - A Carer's Training Pack. Its five mini topics are also available as a set of PowerPoint slides or a PDF printout for face to face training. All these resources have been developed with a Creative Commons licence, so they can be copied and adapted, but they need to be tested out in as many different settings as possible, so that we can keep improving them. Please help us with this challenge. In order to exchange ideas about our work, we have set up a Global Symbols Facebook page and a blog as well as a Global Symbols email. We hope you find something in our resources that will help you communicate more easily with those having difficulties in challenging times.


The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.


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