Tactile Symbols

 What are Tactile Symbols?
An experience story using tactile symbols.
An experience story using tactile symbols.

Tactile symbols are a static communication form that can be recognized by touch. This makes them a very valuable communication form for students who are blind or deafblind and who  don’t have another practical static form with which they can access to record or retrieve recorded information.  For many students, tactile symbols are an alternative to braille.  If the students who do not yet read  or who cannot easily recognize braille letters by touch for some reason such as lack of sensitivity in the fingertips, tactile symbols can be a great option.

Secondly, tactile symbols are a communication form that can be used like pictures for someone who has trouble seeing and recognizing pictures. Many people are familiar with the use of picture symbols for students who haven’t been able to successfully learn to read. Tactile symbols are an alternative for a student who  might benefit from picture symbols, but who cannot see pictures well enough to make them practical to use.

When using tactile symbols with an individual who is congenitally deafblind or blind, we need to understand a few things first. Is the individual able to symbolize activities, objects, or people currently? Is the individual able to use both static and dynamic forms of communication? Is the individual able to use touch effectively and efficiently to explore things in their environment and these symbols?


Children need to have the concept of object permanence before they can become symbolic. Most children are about 18 months old before they begin to  use one thing to represent another thing, for example, a wooden block becomes a telephone during play.  For children who are congenitally deafblind and who use touch as a primary means of making sense of the world around them, development of symbolism may take much longer.  Children who are not yet symbolic, are not ready to use tactile symbols.

When helping an individual who is congenitally deafblind to become symbolic we start with whole, real objects. For example, a spoon may represent eating, a cup drinking, a bottle milk, a diaper toileting. We take these objects from activities the individual is familiar with and use them to represent the entire activity.  These “concrete” symbols. 

Concrete to Abstract

As the child becomes familiar with a concrete symbol’s meaning, we can start to use only part of the object. For example, the scoop of the spoon, the lid for a sippy cup, the nipple of the bottle, a piece of the diaper.  This makes these symbols easy to carry or place in a book. At the same time we have made them a bit more abstract than the whole object.

Communication Hierarchy showing the progression from concrete to abstract symbols.
Spoon. Object. Photograph of Object. Picture, Mayer-Johnson. Written Word. Concrete Abstract.

A tactile symbol is much more abstract than either of these in the same way print is much more abstract than the object or activity it represents. In the same way, there is nothing about a particular tactile symbol that is obvious in terms of what it represents. For example, an s-hook on a piece of heart-shaped poster board, the symbol for “anxious” would probably not be obvious to anyone. Its meaning is learned by associating it with the feeling.

In teaching children to use tactile symbols, we must first determine if they are able to use whole objects or parts of objects to symbolize something. We do not start with tactile symbols if the child is not already symbolic. We progress steadily from concrete to more abstract symbols.

Static and Dynamic Forms

We all use many forms of communication to share messages to and receive messages from other people. Some examples of communication forms that you may use include speech, sign language, printed words, braille, pictures, gestures, maps, and objects.

Tactile symbols are just another form. We  use various communication forms in different ways, and they have different strengths and weaknesses. We choose what form or combination of forms works best for what we need to communicate in any situation.

It may help if we break down forms of communication into two broad categories: dynamic, and static. For example, if we are trying to find our way to a friend’s new home, we might have him tell us his address (speech/ sign – dynamic), ask him to text his address (print – static), or look at a map on Google maps (picture – static).  In fact, we may utilize all three forms to help us get to our friends home.

Dynamic forms are easily changeable, flexible, and immediately available. Examples of dynamic forms are speech, sign language, and gestures. We use them all the time. We can change their meaning slightly by changing our voices, the size and energy of our movements, even by combining them with  facial or bodily expression.

Magazines, flyers, and brochures are examples of static forms of communication that incorporates images and print words.
Magazines, flyers, and brochures are examples of static forms of communication that incorporates images and print words.

The other broad category is static communication forms. They are called static because they don’t change and they stay put so you can study them. You can frequently take them with you. You can use them now and also in the future. Some examples of static forms include print, braille, pictures, objects, emoji, maps, and tactile symbols.

There are several strengths to dynamic forms:

    • Dynamic forms are immediately available.
    • You can use them wherever you are, whenever you need to.
    • There is typically no need for equipment or preparation. If you have something to say, you just say it!
    • Topics are only limited by what you know or experience.
    • They are very flexible; you can change topics easily.

There are also weaknesses to these forms.

    • First of all, communication using dynamic forms is temporary. As soon as I stop signing or talking, my words are gone forever and can only be retrieved from memory unless I have made an audio recording of them – then they become more of a static form if I can replay them again and again.
    • Dynamic forms hard to review, easy to miss, misinterpret, or simply forget.

Static communication forms, like print, braille, pictures, maps, have their own different set of strengths.

    • These are tangible forms of communication that you can hold in your hand or tape to the wall.
    • Static forms can be checked for gaps and accuracy. You can reread something if you didn’t get it.
    • Messages using static forms can for studied for more complete understanding.
    • They can be kept for future reference. You don’t have to rely on your memory. For example, grocery lists, maps, notes, and books.
    • The message is still available, even if the person who created it isn’t present.

So static communication form are extremely important for us.  But they also have weaknesses.

    • Static communication forms are harder to produce than dynamic forms. Creating a document takes more preparation time than just saying what’s on your mind.
    • Static forms are limited in topics. They can’t be changed readily. If I write a book about baby birds and publish it, the book will always be a book about baby birds. I may edit and make changes and print a new edition, but the book remains fixed.

Typically people use both dynamic and static communication forms daily. For any student to be a complete communicator, we want them to be able to use both dynamic and static communication forms.

Use of the tactile sense

Individuals who are congenitally blind or deafblind vary in their ability to use their sense of touch. Some of the things that cause them to be deafblind or blind, may also impact their ability to identify things through touch. They may also have physical challenges that limit the use of hands or fingers, which means that exploring things tactually may have to be done with other parts of the body. 

Before we use tactile symbols, which require a great deal of tactile ability, we need to understand how the child child uses their sense of touch. Do they use their hands to explore objects? What about their fingertips? Can they tell the differences tactually between two similar objects? For example, matching three identical sized circles with different textured surfaces to the identical textured circle. Do they discern very fine differences in the tactile characteristics of objects?

Using Tactile Symbols

Emerging communicators who are familiar with using objects as basic representative symbols have a need to have a form that is more portable. Tactile symbols are used the same way, but are smaller, so they are a more flexible and portable.

Tactile symbols may also serve as a literacy form for emerging communicators. Combining a series of symbols can create a sort of sentence in an experience story book to allow the student to “read” to others or his/herself. It can also facilitate valuable interactions between the student and others to serve as a topical focus point for conversations using a dynamic form such as signs and gestures.

You may also want to visit an in-depth article from Linda Hagood on Tactile Symbols that can be found on Paths to Literacy at https://www.pathstoliteracy.org/question-symbol-standardization-invitation-discussion/  .

Jarvis and Tish Reading an Experience Story

In the following video we are again with Jarvis as he shares his experience of a visit to the drum store with his speech therapist, Tish. This time we will focus on his conversation with Tish. We watch as they co-create language that will be used to add color and emotion to the events of the day. In the serve and return of the conversation, we see Jarvis’ bodily trace as he moves his arms in the same pattern and rhythm that he and Matt had used the day before to beat on the big drum in the store. Tish immediately notices this trace and names it; “You played a BIG DRUM with Matt”. He later responds with understanding when Tish mentions the xylophone. Tish uses tactile sign, big bold gestures, and spoken words as she helps to create language that is both accessible and mutually understood. Tish is also supporting the story’s narrative through the use of tactile symbols. These symbols are Jarvis’ words on the page. They are his literacy.

So tactile symbols are not “instead of” other communication forms, they are “in addition to” other forms. Does using multiple communication forms help learners? Evidence shows it does.

The potential benefits of using presentation graphics include:

    • engaging multiple learning styles,
    • increasing visual impact,
    • improving audience focus,
    • providing annotations and highlights,
    • analyzing and synthesizing complexities.

If typical learner benefits from learning through more than one channel, wouldn’t blind or deafblind students, who can’t read or see pictures also benefit? One way we can provide this benefit is tactile symbols. It will help the students find their individual learning style and increase the impact of the message. The symbols may help the student focus, and provide additional information, or highlight what is important about what is being said. And finally, it can help simplify complex interactions, by helping the student reflect on the message and have a fuller understanding.

Tactile Symbols

Carol Bittinger, Teacher of the Visually Impaired (TVI) discusses the use of Tactile Symbols in calendar, augmented communication, environmental awareness, Reading & Writing, Math, Science and games. Tactile Symbols give students structure and predictability by helping them to organize and document their thoughts and experiences.

Play video.

Tactile Symbols presented by Carol Bittinger
Tactile Symbols presented by Carol Bittinger.

Using Tactile Symbols to Enhance Communication

David Wiley, Deafblind Consultant with Outreach Programs, shares basic information about static and dynamic forms of communication and how tactile symbols can enhance receptive and expressive communication for individuals who are blind, deafblind or have additional disabilities.
David Wiley presents Using Tactile Symbols to Enhance Communication.
David Wiley presents Using Tactile Symbols to Enhance Communication.