Making Tactile Symbols
Before beginning with tactile symbols, you need to decide what the symbols should be. If only one student is in the environment using symbols, technically, the symbols themselves are can be arbitrary. But many years ago at TSBVI we started standardizing the symbols to assist the students, staff and caregivers when the student moves from one setting to another, changes teachers or goes to a new school or classroom.
On the pages that follow we have created a sort of online dictionary of these standardized symbols. If you want, you can use that as a starting point. But even if you take advantage of a standardized system, symbols often need to be created specifically for your student. Every student’s situation — their activities, their places, people they know and so forth — is different.
What is most important is that the symbols carry meaning for the student. Consider what the student associates with the activity, the place, the person, the thing. What might be meaningful to you may not be meaningful for your student.
Visual, Tactual, or Both
If you are starting from scratch with a symbol, try to pick something that will make sense to the student. As you look at the symbols you will see that some are based on visual information and some on possible tactile information. Some include both components.
If the child has some vision considering the colors and shapes the child is likely to recognize is important. Likewise, if vision is not available or very limited, the tactual aspect of the symbol becomes more important.
Consider the student’s perspective
It is important to consider the individual’s perspective when creating the symbol. These symbols are highly abstract so it is important to note his/her visual and tactile access when designing the symbol. What does the child seem to pay attention to related to the object or activity you want to symbolize? For example, the tines of a fork may be easily identified by the student. However, a video game might be represented by part of a joy stick or (nowadays) something that feels like a cell phone. When the symbol for video game was created at TSBVI, they were played on computers so the symbol for computer plus game was used.
A part or a piece of an object often works. By necessity, however, some symbols have to be arbitrary, because there is no obvious item to place on the symbol. When that’s the case, the student will learn the meaning through repeated association.
From general to specific
You will notice as you look through this collection of symbols that some symbols have common elements. For example, most symbols for games include the use of a marble. The addition of other elements specifies the type of game. So “game” is represented by a marble, “outdoor game” is represented by a marble and a golf tee, and “table game” is represented by a marble and a domino. It is likely that the student first learned the symbol for game and then an effort was made to expand the concept by adding the type of game.
Parts of speech
At some point you can begin to use tactile symbols to teach basic parts of speech such as nouns, verbs, adverbs and adjectives. The team should consider when the individual is ready for these distinctions.
It is also important to point out that the background shape has importance. In this example, a toothbrush head on an oval represents the object, and a toothbrush head on a triangle represents the action of brushing teeth.
All symbols eventually deteriorate, so plan time for creating and repairing symbols. Often times the classroom paraprofessional can help with this task, but volunteers may also be trained to help.
You may be choose to purchase a set of cutting dies to produce a large number of shapes that are consistent in size. These are available for order online or may be found at art supply stores.
Speaking of replacement, it always helps to use materials that are easily available when replacement is needed.
When possible, give the student responsibility for his or her symbols. Get the student involved in making, storing, and caring for the symbols as much as possible. This will help increase how the student values the symbols, and help them be more independent in using them.
Some materials used by TSBVI staff in creating symbols include:
- a hot glue gun
- background textures such as poster board, foam paper, needlepoint backing
- carpet remnants
- puff paint
- contact paper
- satin acetate fabric, leather, other types of fabric with distinct textures
- bumpy vinyl wallpaper, foam paper, or other materials with distinct textures
- pipe cleaners
- popsicle sticks
- aluminum can tabs
- artificial grass like used in Easter baskets
- shredded paper strips
- tile spacers
- game pieces
- pieces of small objects – part of a toothbrush, razor, spoon
- etc., etc., etc.