Using Symbol Supports in Reading Instruction

Katherine Proudfoot, PhD

Head of Education


Symbol supports: To use or not to use?

The question “Should we use symbol supports in reading instruction?” often divides people, with some strongly in favor of using symbols and others firmly against using them. Both sides cite evidence in support of their views.

So where does that leave educators who want to provide the right support and achieve the best educational outcomes for their students?

The good news is that when you dig a little deeper, these viewpoints are not as contradictory as they first seem. Whether symbols are helpful for a particular student depends on their current level of reading development and the specific learning goals of the task being taught.

Symbols can be particularly beneficial for students who are visual learners, have word-finding difficulties, or experience difficulty attending to or recalling information. Our aim in providing symbol supports in emergent reading comprehension tasks is not to present students with symbol-supported text and expect them to independently comprehend the meaning of the text. Rather, symbols support and consolidate students’ vocabulary knowledge and their comprehension of the text. The symbols provide visual supports to help students attend to, understand, recall, and respond to the content of the text being read or discussed.

When are symbol supports most helpful in reading instruction?

Literacy develops on a continuum from emergent to conventional literacy. The research suggests that using symbols to support learning may be most beneficial for students who are working on emergent literacy goals. For students who are working on conventional literacy goals, research indicates that this is the time to phase out symbol supports so that students focus on decoding and deriving meaning using only the text.

What is emergent literacy?

The term emergent literacy encompasses all the early skills that are the building blocks for learning to read and write. This is the stage when students are learning to actively attend to and participate in reading books. Students develop early knowledge about how books work by turning pages, recognizing the correct book orientation, and understanding that books contain words and that the words can tell a story or provide information. In this stage, there is a strong focus on developing language, particularly vocabulary and listening comprehension, so students can understand the story or information in the text when it is read to them or discussed.

Students at an emergent literacy stage are also starting to develop phonological awareness skills, which is an emerging understanding that words are made up of sounds. They are also building early alphabetic knowledge about how letters correspond to sounds. For students without disabilities, these skills typically develop in the preschool years, largely through informal learning and shared book reading.

Some students with disabilities may require more structured, explicit instruction to target the development and consolidation of emergent literacy skills. Instruction at this level of literacy development may continue when students enter formal schooling.

What is conventional literacy?

The term conventional literacy encompasses the skills that help students decode and understand the meaning of written text. These skills include learning and applying letter-to-sound correspondences to sound out and decode words, developing a sight word vocabulary, comprehending the meaning of the text by reading the words, and progressively learning to read fluently with accuracy and expression. At this stage of the learning process, reading instruction is more explicit and structured. For students without disabilities, this stage typically begins when they start formal schooling.

We have the same high expectations for students with disabilities to progress from emergent to conventional literacy. However, when these students enter formal schooling, some may need more time to consolidate emergent literacy skills before they are ready to transition to conventional literacy instruction. Students need a strong foundation of emergent literacy skills to set them up for success when they start conventional reading instruction.

Emergent and conventional literacy should not be seen as discrete skill sets but rather as existing on a continuum. Students may be consolidating emergent literacy skills in some areas while participating in conventional literacy instruction in others, based on their individual strengths and instructional needs.    

A clear understanding of this continuum of literacy development can help us make sense of the evidence and different viewpoints regarding using symbol supports for reading comprehension. Most of the differences in opinion can be attributed to differences in the way the term reading comprehension is defined.

What is conventional reading comprehension?

For students without disabilities, reading comprehension is narrowly defined as the ability to read the text and understand the information contained within that text. I call this conventional reading comprehension. When the aim is for a student to derive the meaning of the text by independently reading the words, research suggests that it is best not to use symbol supports in this task. This ensures that students focus their attention on decoding and comprehending the text using only the words.

What is emergent reading comprehension?

To be truly inclusive of the needs of all students in the classroom, we need an additional definition of reading comprehension that includes the foundational emergent literacy skills that are the building blocks for conventional reading comprehension. I call this emergent reading comprehension

We know conventional reading comprehension develops from two important skill areas: word recognition (decoding words using letter-to-sound correspondences or sight words), which is a conventional literacy skill, and language comprehension, which is an emergent literacy skill that continues to grow throughout a student’s lifetime. Emergent reading comprehension is about helping students develop their language comprehension, particularly vocabulary and listening comprehension, while engaging with texts. The aim is to develop the language skills that are necessary to become successful at conventional reading comprehension tasks in the future.

What does the research suggest?

Research has demonstrated that symbol supports are an effective method of supporting and extending language skills, including language comprehension and vocabulary development.

When and how should we use symbols to support our students?

Begin by asking yourself three questions to determine if symbol supports will be beneficial for a student in an activity:

  1. What are my learning goals for my student in this task?
  2. Am I looking at supporting emergent or conventional literacy skills in this task?
  3. What are my reasons for using symbol supports for this student?

It is important to consider these questions at the student and task levels. Symbols may be appropriate in some activities and not others, or in one part of an activity and not in another.

Differentiation when using symbol supports

Here are some examples of how the use of symbol supports may be differentiated to assist in meeting the needs of individual students.

A student may not be able to independently decode text but can increase their active engagement with the text using symbol supports. This helps them track text while it is being read aloud, and the symbols support their vocabulary development.

A student may be able to decode and comprehend text containing consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) words without symbol supports but may benefit from symbol supports to access and comprehend texts of greater complexity.

A student may be able to independently read text without symbol supports but may need symbol supports to be added to the text afterward to assist in recalling, comprehending, and discussing the text they read.

A student may independently read and comprehend the text on its own and then add symbol supports afterward to check their reading accuracy and understanding of words in the text.


The goal of reading instruction in the classroom is to maximize every student’s ability to understand and engage with the information contained in the text, improve their world knowledge, and engage in learning with age-respectful texts. By having high expectations and tailoring learning supports such as symbols to individual student needs, we can improve the ability of all students to actively engage in the curriculum in a meaningful and equitable way.

About the Author

Dr. Katherine Proudfoot is the Head of Education at Aacapella, which specializes in AAC design. Previously, she was a speech pathologist in clinical settings. Dr. Proudfoot has a special interest in AAC and literacy development. Her passion is adapting AAC design to meet the communication demands of instructional tasks to increase access and improve outcomes for students who require AAC. She received her PhD from the University of Newcastle.