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Supporting non-verbal learners

Working with learners described as non-verbal (those who have minimal speech or none at all) is challenging and often time consuming. It can also be a fascinating and incredibly rewarding job. There are many ways of supporting young people who cannot speak and part of the time consuming element is finding out what works for each individual. In order to do this, it is crucial to get to know the learner and build a relationship with them. In this blog entry, I’m going to share some of the resources and strategies used for communication in my current job role – supporting young people aged 19-25 who have a range of complex learning needs and physical disabilities.


We use switches a lot in our class and they are very versatile and adaptable pieces of equipment. They come in different sizes and can be customised to suit the purpose they are being used for. Switches look like big buttons and they have a word or phrase recorded on them, so that when they are activated, the learner is given a voice. The big switches pictured (below left) are used for morning greeting, symbols have been added to identify which is which. One of our learners is blind and therefore relies on other senses, so we have customised a dual switch (middle photo) using different textured fabrics to aid identification and enable choice making. We also have a switch that can be attached to a wheelchair (below right), which is proving to be quite successful with another of our learners who has limited hand use. The recordable switch is connected to the fully flexible arm by a cable and the arm can then be clamped to a bar on the chair, which allows the switch to be positioned exactly within reach. It’s also worth noting that switches aren’t just activated with hands – feet, chin and side of the head are all used in our class!

Symbols, pictures and visual timetables

Symbols and pictures are key in helping non-verbal learners to communicate and be understood. These can be made in varying sizes according to individual needs and can be used in many different ways. A visual timetable (example pictured below left) is useful to help learners understand what is going to happen during their day and can be as straightforward or detailed as is necessary. Now and next boards (middle photo) are great for those learners who may find waiting difficult or need motivation to complete a task; for example having a visual representation that now we are going to say good morning to everyone and next it will be snack time. For some learners, compiling a book of frequently used symbols that they recognise can open up a whole world of communication. We have recently introduced a book of symbols to one of our learners who has shown us repeatedly that they know exactly what they want; they just need a method of telling us! It is early days with the communication book for this particular learner, however they are responding very well and we are hopeful that eventually they will be able to independently use the symbols to communicate their needs. An example page is pictured below right – having access to food symbols is allowing this learner to choose what they would like for lunch.

E-Tran frame

E-Tran stands for Eye Transfer and an E-Tran frame is a clear board that pictures or symbols can be attached to with Velcro. The board looks like an empty picture frame and is a ‘no tech’ communication system used by people who have good eye-pointing skills. We are currently using an E-Tran frame with one of our students who is able to make very good eye contact and can use this skill to communicate. The frame can be used with 2 or more symbols attached to offer choices, or to ask a question as seen in the photo below. The key when using an E-Tran is to observe, as you need to be aware of which symbol the learner is looking at to understand and acknowledge their choice.

Eye Gaze

I’m going to be straight to the point here – Eye Gaze technology is amazing. In basic terms, Eye Gaze is a computer programme that a person can use by looking and holding their gaze on what they want. The software we use in my workplace uses symbols that are very similar to the ones we can print out and use in the classroom. Eye Gaze tends to be used by people who have very limited movement or use of their limbs but good eye contact skills. It can take a while to get used to using Eye Gaze and it involves a lot of concentration so can be tiring to use for a length of time. However, just like a book of symbols, understanding and skills will build up over time and for those that have access to it, Eye Gaze is an invaluable resource.

Things to remember

Imagine not being able to speak, but understanding what is being said around you. How would you feel if someone asked you a question but you couldn’t answer it? It is frustrating and challenging – both for the person who is non-verbal and for the person who wants to help them communicate. A key thing to remember is that behaviour is communication and if you have a non-verbal learner who is escalating, it may well be anger about being unable to express themselves. Talk to your learner; acknowledge that you know they want to tell you something or that you understand their irritation and this will help them build trust in you. Developing a communication strategy with a learner is a slow process and there will be plenty of frustrations along the way but persevere, because breaking through that barrier is one of the most rewarding things you will ever do.

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