Symbols and visual timetables

Symbols and visual timetables can be used to support communication


Symbols take the form of words, sounds, gestures, ideas and visual images to convey ideas, beliefs and meaning. Symbols may be anywhere on a scale form a concrete representation of an object to something abstract.

Objects of reference

Objects of reference are a concrete representation of a word. They are any object which is used to represent an item, activity, place or person and can be used with individuals who find it difficult to understand spoken words, signs or other more abstract symbols. They can be touched, held, smelt.

Objects of reference can be a real object (cup for a drink), part of a real object (car keys for a car), a miniature object (toy boat for a boat) or something abstract (a scarf to represent a particular person).

Real objects are easiest to show and support meaning and thought is needed on the objects you choose. For example, car keys have more meaning for the person who drives, rather than the passenger.

Pictures and photos

Pictures and photos are easier to implement in a variety of visual communication aids. A picture of the actual object you are representing may be easier to process than a line drawing, which in turn may be easier to process than the written word.

Photos or pictures of the actual buoyancy aids in use may be better than a photo or picture of a generic lifejacket – some people may struggle with the difference between the two.

Colour Symbols

Some words can be difficult to illustrate in photos – for example, weather, emotions and verbs. A picture of a man smiling could represent ‘happy’ or ‘man’. Colour symbols enable you to emphasize the attribute you are trying to illustrate. Using the same colour symbols repetitively and in the same context help people share meaning.

Making your own symbol resources

Software is available to enable you to use a wide variety of symbols and pictures to make your own resources. Boardmaker and Widget are two examples.

Further reading / learning

Visual Timetables

Visual timetables can be used to support communication of what is going to happen in particular timeframe or session, or to breakdown the stages on how to complete a task.

There are a variety of different visual timetables and you will need to have a conversation with the individuals concerned and those who work with them regularly to find out what works best.

Now / Then

A simple form of timetable used to show what activity or task is taking place now, and what is coming up next.

To do / Done

Used to break down the stages that need to be achieved to complete an activity. Once each stage is finished it can be moved to the done section. These timetables can provide a sense of achievement and help with focus.


A breakdown of tasks to be completed in order to get a reward. Provides motivation and a means of ticking off each stage.

Daily / Session

Daily timetables break down the main activities for the day or session and can be useful when welcoming a group and briefing them about the activity they will be doing.

If you are splitting a group, you can have two versions of the timetable colour coded for each group or using a picture of the instructor / group leader they will be with. Use pictures of instructors or group leaders to indicate what activities they will be leading.

Some people may want to know the length of time each activity is going to last, when they will be on the water and when they will be back ashore, so introducing clocks can be useful. Find out whether the group you are working with find digital time easier than analogue, or combine both.

Micro activity 

Micro activity timetables break down the stages of each activity – for example, how to get dressed for sailing, how to put on a buoyancy aid, how to rig a boat. A series of micro activity timetables could be built to support the Sailability and Powerability logbook and syllabus.

Micro activity timetable can provide structure to an activity and create a routine supporting the way a person processes information. They can reduce anxiety and clarify expectations.

Further reading


Next - supporting people to make choices is vital

Choice boards

Get to access lots of templates for you to use by downloading the word document