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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) / Fully-funded


NTU's Fully-funded PhD Studentship Scheme 2023

Project ID: S3 3

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 (Bondy & Frost, 2011).

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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.

Supervisory Team:

Director of Studies: Dr. Lauran Doak

Second supervisor: Prof. Clare Wood

Entry qualifications

For the eligibility criteria, visit our studentship application page.

How to apply

To make an application, please visit our studentship application page.

Fees and funding

This is part of NTU's 2023 fully-funded PhD Studentship Scheme.

Guidance and support

Application guidance can be found on our studentship application page.

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