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Exploring the usage of pictorial symbols as a literacy support for students with learning disabilities

  • School: School of Social Sciences
  • Study mode(s): Full-time / Part-time
  • Starting: 2023
  • Funding: UK student / EU student (non-UK) / International student (non-EU) / Self-funded


There is ongoing debate around the feasibility of pursuing conventional literacy skills of reading and writing for learners with the most severe learning disabilities (Doak, 2021), and uncertainty around best practice in literacy pedagogy for these learners (Lawson et al., 2012). One popular approach is the juxtaposition of the printed word with a pictorial symbol, a practice which arguably scaffolds emergent whole-word recognition (Sheehy, 2005). Pictorial symbols are ubiquitous in many special schools, appearing on school websites, noticeboards, playground equipment, worksheets, flashcards, visual timetables and on classroom mobile technologies. Symbols are additionally used in the teaching of Augmentative & Alternative Communication (AAC): non-verbal students may carry individual folders of printed laminated symbols or Speech-Generating Devices with symbol repertoires to enable requesting and other speech functions (Hill & Flores, 2014).

Despite the popularity of symbolised text, there is a lack of clear pedagogical direction for their use and limited research exploring whether and how symbols support emergent literacy. There is uncertainty about whether symbol/text juxtaposition should function as a bridge to independent reading and writing, or whether it should be considered an alternative for those deemed unlikely to ever acquire such skills (Kliewer, 2008). It has been suggested that symbols may create confusion given the sometimes arbitrary relationship between word and symbol (Erikson et al., 2010). In the busy reality of everyday classroom life, educators may draw upon an eclectic mix of symbol-based pedagogies from literacy and/or AAC training, whilst students demonstrate confusion about symbols intended for ‘literacy’ and those for ‘communication’ (Doak, 2018). It is therefore important that we understand more about the process of symbol usage in literacy teaching.

Potential research questions:

  1. How are symbols being used in special schools? This might involve ethnographic methods including observation, photos, videos, document collection.
  2. To what extent are learners interacting with and deriving meaning from available symbols? This might involve multimodal analysis of video data and/or eye gaze technology to map visual interaction with (for example) noticeboards.
  3. How do educators and families conceptualise the role of symbols in supporting emergent literacy? This might involve interviews and/or focus groups.

We are particularly interested in hearing from candidates who can help to shape a project within this broad topic area. The ideal candidate will have an understanding of special education, Augmentative & Alternative Communication (AAC) and inclusive literacy, and a commitment to the inclusion of non-verbal participants in research.

The vision of the Institute of Education at NTU is to be a distinctive world-class provider of teacher education and the study of education, rooted in and serving communities and families and founded in partnerships which are research-based and student-centred.

The proposed project aligns with the School’s strategic research priority Health and Wellbeing.

Potential Supervisory Team:

Director of Studies: Dr Lauran Doak

Co-supervisor: Professor Clare Wood

Application deadline

Thursday 23 June 2022 at 9 am

Interview details

Interviews will take place on the following dates:

Between 9 July – 15 August 2022.

Entry qualifications

Entrants should normally hold a first or upper second class honours degree of a UK university or an equivalent qualification, or a lower second class honours degree with a master’s degree at Merit level (or equivalent) of a UK university or an equivalent qualification.

An applicant not meeting the certificated requirement may be considered on merit and in relation to the nature and scope of the proposed programme of study. Applicants are considered against evidence of ability and background knowledge in relation to the proposed research. Professional experience, publications, written reports or other appropriate evidence of accomplishment are taken into consideration.

How to apply

For a step-by-step guide to make an application, please visit our how to apply page.

Fees and funding

This is a self-funded PhD project. Applicants are welcome to contact project leaders to discuss potential funding opportunities.

Guidance and support

Further guidance and support on how to apply can be found on our apply page.

Still need help?

Dr Lauran Doak