Symbol Library


        Symbol libraries (or symbol processors) are word processing programs that assist in comprehension and communication when vocabulary or printed text is a barrier. They can be used for both reading and writing, and provide the same functionality of a normal word processor, except with the addition of symbols. The reading function accompanies most words with a representative graphic, and the writing function allows the user to choose their word-symbol pairs from a word bank. Symbols have been found to be most effective in increasing the reading comprehension of those with a lower baseline reading capability (Jones, Long, & Findlay, 2007). However, while the use of symbol libraries with students showed an initial increase in writing competency (both in quality and productivity), there was found to be a decrease in quality after the first year of use (Prest, Mirenda, & Mercier, 2010). There is conflicting evidence over the efficacy of word and symbol pairings to increase literacy, as there is some evidence that graphics can cause a “blocking effect” when building a visual vocabulary (Sheehy & Howe, 2001). It has been suggested that symbol libraries could be a great tool for accessibility and motivation towards literacy, and could help students build confidence when reading and writing (Pampoulou & Detheridge, 2007).


Research Rating: There is limited research on this topic, though the research that has been completed is experimental in nature.



  • Helps students to write independently. 

  • Some evidence of increased word comprehension with accompanying symbols. 

  • Students can compose written documents without phonics, spelling or alphabet. 


  • In order to gain maximum benefit from the use of symbol libraries, a third party must develop individualized grids, templates, word banks or topic dictionaries that will support context changes in the curriculum (Prest, Mirenda, & Mercier, 2010).

  • There is some evidence of a “blocking effect”, where associations are made between the symbol and the meaning, but not the text itself.

  • There is no universally agreed upon set of symbols. 

  • It is difficult to graphically represent complex or abstract words (ie. democracy). 

  • Some words have no graphic attached to meaning (ie. if, so, but, the), so a certain baseline vocabulary would be required.


To Consider

  • Due to the third party involvement needed to create word banks for writing, this software may be used most effectively in individualized instructional settings.

  • May be more effective for general literacy development rather than being applicable to other areas of academia.

  • Some evidence suggests that graphic libraries may be more applicable to reading comprehension rather than writing. 

Exact prices change frequently, which is why only approximate ranges are listed. 

$ - Under $5

$$ - Between $6 and $50

$$$ - Between $51 and $250

$$$$ - Over $250


Jones, F. W., Long, K., & Finlay, W. M. L. (2007). Symbols can improve the reading comprehension of adults with learning disabilities. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 51, 545–550. 

Pampoulou, E., & Detheridge, C. (2007). The role of symbols in the mainstream to access literacy. Journal of Assistive Technologies, 1, 15-21. 

Prest, J. M., Mirenda, P., & Mercier, D. (2010). Using Symbol-Supported Writing Software with Students with Down Syndrome: An Exploratory Study. Journal of Special Education Technology, 25, 1-12. 

Sheehy, K., & Howe, M. J. A. (2001). Teaching non-readers with severe learning difficulties to recognise words: The effective use of symbols in a new technique. Westminster Studies in Education, 24, 61–71.

Written by Bronwyn Lamond, Last Revision May 2018 

Academic Intervention Lab

Department of Applied Psychology and Human Development

Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Toronto, ON M5S 1V6, Canada

  • Facebook Social Icon
  • Twitter Social Icon