Guideline 2: Provide options for language and symbols

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Students vary in their facility with different forms of representation – both linguistic and non-linguistic. Vocabulary that may sharpen and clarify concepts for one student may be opaque and foreign to another. A graph that illustrates the relationship between two variables may be informative to one student and inaccessible or puzzling to another. A picture or image that carries meaning for some students may carry very different meanings for students from differing cultural or familial backgrounds. As a result, inequalities arise when information is presented to all students through a single form of representation. An important instructional strategy is to ensure that alternative representations are provided not only for accessibility, but for clarity and comprehensibility across all students.

2.1 Options that define vocabulary and symbols

The semantic elements through which information is presented – the words, symbols, and icons – are differentially accessible to students with varying backgrounds, languages, lexical knowledge, and disabilities. To ensure accessibility for all, key vocabulary, labels, icons, and symbols should be linked to, or associated with, alternate representations of their meaning (e.g. an embedded glossary or definition, a graphic equivalent). Idioms, archaic expressions, culturally exclusive phrases, and slang, are translated. Examples:

  • Pre-teach vocabulary and symbols, especially in ways that promote connection to the students’ lived experiences and prior knowledge
  • Highlight how complex expressions are composed of simpler words or symbols (e.g. “power – less – ness”)
  • Embed support for vocabulary and symbols within the text (e.g. hyperlinks or footnotes to definitions, explanations, illustrations, previous coverage)
  • Embed support for unfamiliar references (e.g. domain specific notation, idioms, figurative language, jargon, archaic language, colloquialism, and dialect) within the text

2.2 Options that clarify syntax and structure

Single elements of meaning (like words or numbers) can be combined to make new meanings. Those new meanings, however, depend upon understanding the rules or structures (like syntax in a sentence, or the conventions of a formula) with which those elements are combined. When the syntax of a sentence or the structure of a graphical presentation is not obvious or familiar to students, intelligibility suffers. To ensure that all students have equal access to information, provide alternative representations that clarify, or make more explicit, the syntactic or structural relationships between elements of meaning.


  • Complex syntax (in language or in math formulas) or underlying structure (in diagrams, graphs, illustrations, extended expositions or narratives) is clarified through alternatives that:
    • highlight structural relations or make them more explicit
    • offer less complex alternatives
    • make relationships between elements explicit (e.g. highlighting the transition words in an essay, antecedents for anaphoric references, links between ideas in a concept map, etc.)

2.3 Options for decoding text or mathematical notation

The ability to fluently decode words, numbers or symbols that have been presented in an encoded format (e.g. visual symbols for text, haptic symbols for Braille, algebraic numbers for quantity) takes years of practice for any student, and some students never reach automaticity. That lack of fluency or automaticity greatly increases the cognitive load of decoding, thereby reducing the capacity for information processing and comprehension. To ensure that all students have equal access to knowledge, at least when the ability to decode is not the focus of instruction, it is important to provide options that reduce the barriers that decoding raises for students who are unfamiliar or dysfluent with the symbols.


  • Digital text used with automatic text-to-speech programs
  • Digital mathematical notation (Math ML) with automatic voicing
  • Digital text with accompanying human voice recording (e.g. Daisy Talking Books)

2.4 Options that promote cross-linguistic understanding 

The language of curricular materials is usually monolingual, but the students in the classroom often are not. For non-native speakers of the language that dominates instruction, accessibility is often reduced.  That accessibility can be increased when there are options in the curriculum that explicitly link the language of instruction with other spoken languages. These multiple languages in the classroom often share links with one another that can be drawn upon to help make meaning in the language of classroom instruction.  This is particularly salient if children are literate in those languages, rather than just orally proficient.  Providing clear links between the relationships among different languages allows children to think flexibly and strategically about how they might use their strengths in one language to promote understanding in another.


  • When possible, all key information in the dominant language (e.g. English) is also available in prevalent first languages (e.g. Spanish) for second-language learners and in ASL for students who are deaf
  • Key vocabulary words have links to definitions and pronunciations in both the language of instruction and the native language
  • Domain-specific vocabulary is translated for both special and common meanings (e.g., in science: “matter”[English], “materia” [Spanish], “物质” [Chinese]) 
  • For languages that share alphabetic and etymological roots (e.g., Spanish and English), promote academic text comprehension by supporting cognate awareness (e.g., ‘rapid’ and ‘rápido’) 
  • Vocabulary is broken down into its morphological parts (e.g., tooth + brush, em + power, auto + mobile), which links to languages that share etymological roots such as Spanish and English, and to languages that are morphologically based (e.g., Chinese) 
  • Make explicit links between syntax and grammar among comparable languages, as well as highlighting areas of syntactic and grammatical difference 

2.5 Options that illustrate key concepts non-linguistically

Classroom materials are often dominated by information in text. But text is a weak format for presenting many concepts and for explicating most processes. Furthermore, text is a particularly weak form of presentation for students who have text- or language-related disabilities. Providing alternatives – especially illustrations, simulations, images or interactive graphics – can make the information in text more comprehensible for any student and accessible for some who would find it completely inaccessible in text.


  • Key concepts presented in one form of symbolic representation (e.g. an expository text or a math equation) are complemented with an alternative form (e.g. an illustration, diagram, model, video, comic strip, storyboard, photograph, animation, physical or virtual manipulative)
  • Key concepts presented in illustrations or diagrams are complemented with verbal equivalents, explanations, or enhancements
  • Explicit links are made between information provided in texts and any accompanying representation of that information in illustrations, charts, or diagrams

7 Responses to Guideline 2: Provide options for language and symbols

  1. I have been browsing online more than three hours today, yet I never found any interesting
    article like yours. It is pretty worth enough for me.
    In my view, if all website owners and bloggers made good content as you did, the internet will be much more useful than ever before.

  2. Jennie Cantrell says:

    I agree while all this is wonderful in concept what is the practicality that we will receive the system support and most importantly resources to implement. I work with language disabled students that soooo need this but with no instructional money, staff cuts while increasing workloads, and a Department of Ed that thinks kids are widgets with a data in, data out mentality, how will anyone be able to accomplish it?

  3. These are wonderful ideas, but most teachers, at least in the US, are not provided with these software programs. How can we provide multiple methods of instruction synchronistically if they are not available?

  4. Emily says:

    Nice suggestions Cam.

    For the Center: Pardon the critique, but where are the visuals, pop-ups, sound-bites, and examples you site for teachers to learn from?

    Page after page of text, decontextualized from my own lesson-planning concerns (how to pre-assess the students, call parents with homework or behavioral concerns, then plan a unit of lessons after my own children go to bed, when I have to leave for school before the youngest even wakes up!)

    A suggestion…create a simple modification that allows us to check for understanding along the way.

  5. […] 2. Provide options for language and symbols (examples) […]

  6. Cam Caldwell says:

    I teach a special Sunday Study Session for my international students, and I am now conducting a special Sunday Night Writing Session to coach my students in completing their writing assignments.

    I use guest speakers, videos, and learning games to involve my students. I try hard to be available one-on-one to coach students with questions. I give them the right to have input on assignments, the weighting of course work, and due dates.

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