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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. 

Special Consideration: Workflow

OS Compatibility
Internet Reliance
Optimized Use

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 

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