Monthly Archives: August 2014

A participatory approach to symbol choices – Voting outcomes.

At the outset of this Arabic Symbol Dictionary research there was a determination to ensure that the approach would be participatory in nature as mentioned in our blog dated December 13th, 2013 ‘A Participatory Approach to Research’. In that blog we outlined the type of participatory approach being taken where those supporting the project would be involved with all the planning and take part in the decision making. Voting on symbols

To this end a voting system was set up to allow AAC experts, users and those supporting users to provide feedback about the two freely available symbol sets compared to the PCS or Widgit ones already in use.


Members of the Advisory Group had separately mentioned that they did not want to see the development of yet another set of symbols and this seemed to be an eminently sensible plan if we were to also keep to the request in the early days of the AAC Forum meetings that the dictionary should be available in English and Arabic as many of those working with AAC users and caring for them spoke better English than Arabic.

The voting system allowed users to login in with an email address to not only vote positively or negatively for a symbol but to also select a series of check boxes to say why they liked or did not like it when shown a lexicon entry on one side of the screen and  a selection of symbols on the right.  The symbols they voted on where only from ARASAAC and Sclera symbols in order to compare to the ones they already knew – PCS or Widgit.

symbol manager voting

The statements that were provided were positive or negative based on the initial vote so a positive up vote would result in the following phrases being presented:

Would you like to tell us the reason?

Select any number of checkboxes


The negative vote would result with the same check boxes but each phrase had the addition of the word ‘not’.

There were 562 symbols that could take a vote each with the check boxes and free text comment. 33 individuals took part from the various centres in Doha.   The outcome was interesting as both sets of freely available symbol sets presented issues for those voting with a wide variation in additional comments besides those offered with the check boxes.

voting resultsBoth symbol sets had their compliments for clarity, meaningfulness and cultural sensitivity but when combined with the free textual comments it was the negative sentiments that were quite stark in their numbers.  777 check box comments were related to a lack of clarity in representing the word or multiword in English – the word lists used were based on those collected from English speaking therapists in Doha – the Arabic core vocabularies are to follow.  499 were related to the way the symbol was drawn, colour and contrast levels, 197 comments were checked as being culturally insensitive and 172 were not similar to PCS or Widgit.  The ranking of this list follows the way voters wrote in the free text field.  There were 130 additional comments about the meaning of the symbol and its representation of a word or phrase.   There were comments about the way arrows and question marks represented actions or words, poor representations of important words such as ‘want’ with individuals varying in their views about text appearing in a speech bubble or near a symbol. Plurals also caused comments but it was the way the abstract items may be drawn that also caused concern. Overall there were 97 additional comments about the look of some symbols and some questioned how children would learn a shape or object.  Distractable and busy drawings were described in 9 comments with facial expressions also being considered important.

Additional cultural issues were raised in 41 free text comments with ‘thumbs up and down’ being noted as an issue along with dress, female/male requirements, language and using the pointed finger plus the use of a ‘halo’ for being good. Colour is an item that will really need discussion especially for those with visual impairments.  The 28 additional mentions were usually around contrast levels.  There were only 8 additional points that seemed to be related to the image not suiting the environment such as “In Qatar a rainy day is a good day”!  The use of text with symbols is also a debatable subject and some pictograms were just deemed to be totally unsuitable whether in English or Arabic.

Overall the ARASAAC symbols appeared to be the ones that were most similar to those already in use and the most acceptable as a collection for the symbol dictionary.  A small video has been made to show how we can check the suitability of every image against future and previous votes to begin the process of making sure adaptations can be made to enhance the chances of the pictogram/symbol becoming more acceptable whilst adding the Arabic core vocabularies to the symbol manager.

Micrsoft Excel 2013 PowerView allows us to analyse entries that were made via the voting system.  The latter was built using MongoDB and offers a flexible way of uploading images and lexicons with parts of speech, definitions and in the future phonemic segmentation for the Arabic Symbol Dictionary.

Thanks go to Russell Newman and Nawar Halabi from ECS University of Southampton,  for their work on this part of the research project and also to Amatullah Kadous who has arranged all the voting parties to conclude this part of the research.

Phonemic awareness for literacy skills – Possible additional feature for each lexical entry

Whilst we analyse the voting for the symbols and check the results against the core English vocabulary lists provided by Tullah from the various Doha groups of AAC users we have been investigating how we could tag and store the symbols and their matching lexicons in English and Arabic.

Meetings with Professor Annalu Waller in Dundee and Simon Judge in Sheffield confirmed suspicions that if we wanted to ensure that the dictionary not only coped with the communication side of symbol use and also encouraged literacy skills there needed to be links to the way words were made up of phonemes. Research has shown that phonemic awareness can be used as a predictor for reading ability (Gillon, 2004)

Teaching phonics has become a hot topic in UK Primary schools to the extent that even the newspapers have come up with lists of resources to aid teachers and parents.  An example is the Guardian article in 2013 “How to teach … phonics”

But the dilemma is how we make a dictionary of words / multiwords linking to symbols that can also be searched by phonemes in English and Arabic for those who can often only listen to the sounds or may find it hard to say them or recognise their significance.  Clearly this aspect of the dictionary is only for certain groups of symbol users who may have the ability to learn to read and write.

Synthetic phonics

‘geck’ and ‘chom’ from Year 1 Phonics Screening (Five things about phonics By Kathryn Westcott BBC News, Magazine, 2012)

Synthetic phonics‘ is often used with ‘made-up’ words to encourage grapheme / phoneme recognition.  However, as can be seen from the example, even those words introduced at primary school level may have letter combinations that can be pronounced in different ways, for instance in ‘geck’ the letter ‘g’ can be said with a hard sound or a soft sound in front of an ‘e’ (/dz/ or /g/).  Children tend to be taught around


According to teaching documents provided by the Education Department at Oxford Brookes University: “In English, much more than in other languages,

  • many letters or letter-combinations can commonly represent more than one sound – for example ea as in heat and head;
  • most sounds can be spelt in more than one way – for example the vowel sound in heat is also commonly spelt as in he, see, chief and complete;
  • Some very common words contain grapheme-phoneme correspondences that occur in few if any other words – for example one, two, are, said, great, people, laugh.” (TDA, 2011)

Children tend to learn the basic 44 phonemes in English which are represented below.

44 phonemes

The Phoneme Table below lists the 44 phonemes of the English Language, from the National Strategies Standards’ phonics sounds. (DFES 2007)

The good news is that in Arabic every letter combination has a set rule and although there may be many sounds that cannot be replicated in English the grapheme/phoneme representation is stable.  The image below shows where there are overlaps between Arabic and English phonemes.


Research carried out by Amor and Maad (2013) working with Arabic speaking Tunisian children has shown that: (direct quote from their article)

The best performances of Good Readers confirm the idea supported by many researchers (e.g. Byrne et al., 1992; Gombert, 1992) that reading failure may manifest itself through a lack of phonemic awareness. The lowest results of the Preliterate children suggest that phonemic awareness does not develop spontaneously, but only in the specific context of learning to read an alphabetic script at school. This phenomenon was observed in many alphabetically written languages, such as  English, French (Gillon, 2004; Morais et al., 1987), and Hebrew (Bentin et al., 1991; Oren, 2001).

The researchers found there were specific difficulties with phonemic segmentation for Arabic words across the cohort of “110 Tunisian children enrolled in primary education schools and kindergartens”.   All their participants scored less well than expected in comparison to research results carried out in other languages.  This was felt to be due to the diglossia nature of Arabic with colloquial Arabic often being spoken at home whereas Modern Standard Arabic is used in schools.   Nevertheless, the children coped better with consonants in deletion tasks, for example /k/t/b/ that make up many words around reading and writing e,g /kataba/ (he wrote), /kutiba/ (it was written), /kutubun/ (books), etc.

Those learning to read in English tend to find it easier to mark initial and final phonemes as individual sounds with the medial one proving harder to work out.  Amor and Maad (2013)  found that their participants had difficulties across all three positions.  “Divergence between the performances of Arabic-speaking and English-speaking children confirms that the representations about the consonantal segments were not the same. “


It appears that the ability to gain phoneme / grapheme awareness is harder in Arabic than some other languages and that the total number of consonant segments in Arabic are higher than most languages but the number of vowel based segments are lower (Newman, 2002)

One idea when creating the lexical entry in the symbol dictionary is to include the representative phonemes with their diacritics,  their change in shape (depending on the position in the word) and the sound they make using text to speech or recorded speech. 


Abu-Rabia, S. (2001). The role of vowels in reading Semitic scripts: Data from Arabic and Hebrew. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 14, 39-59.

Amaryeh, M. M., Dyson, A.T. (1998). The Acquisition of Arabic Consonants. Journal of Speech, Language and Hearing Research, 41, 642

Amor P. D. M., & Maad, R. Ben. (2013). The Role of Arabic Orthographic Literacy in the Phonological Awareness of Tunisian Children (April). Retrieved from 

Bentin, S., Hammer, R. & Cahan, C. (1991). The effects of ageing and first grade schooling on the development of phonological awareness. Psychological science, 2(4) 271-274.

Byrne, B., Freebody, P. & Gates, A. (1992). Longitudinal data on the relation of word-reading strategies to comprehension, reading time and phonemic awareness. Reading, Research Quarterly, 27, 141-151.

Department of Education and Skills (2007) Letters and Sounds: Principles and Practice of High Quality Phonics – Primary National Strategy ( PDF Downloaded July 30th, 2014)

Gombert, J.E. (1992). Metalinguistic development. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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Saiegh-Haddad, E. (2005). Correlates of reading fluency in Arabic: Diglossic and orthographic factors. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 18, 559-582. International Journal on New Trends in Education and Their Implications  April 2013 Volume: 4 Issue: 2 Article: 02 ISSN 1309-6249

The Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA) (2011) Systematic synthetic phonics in initial teaching training: Guidance and support materials. (Word document downloaded July 30th, 2014)

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