Real talk: A response to Microsoft's Picture Dictionary

Microsoft and Boardmaker teamed up to create a new picture dictionary

Earlier this week, Microsoft’s OneNote Immersive Reader released an update to incorporate a picture dictionary. In its article on March 21, it speaks about the Microsoft Learning Tools, which allow “empower students of all abilities to work independently, efficiently, and confidently.” Within the new update, the users can access a picture dictionary using Boardmaker symbols. Additionally, users can color code words by parts of speech, such as nouns, verbs, and adjectives. What does this mean for accessibility? Well… it’s a good thing and potentially a bad thing.

On one hand… yay Microsoft for trying to be more accessible!

Overall, technological culture is moving towards universal design (UD). Without UD, accommodations and modifications are often necessary for individuals with disabilities to access their environment. UD is intended to build in multiple points of access from the beginning. With Microsoft’s new software upgrade, I believe that Microsoft and Boardmaker are teaming up to make the Microsoft Learning Tools more accessible. Many different pieces of technology, including the Kindle reader, have built-in dictionaries. I use mine on my Kindle quite frequently! By making a Picture Dictionary as one of the options, Microsoft seems to be adding another type of presentation to its dictionary.

On the other hand… let’s talk about the purpose.

As we know, speaking with pictures is very different from speaking with oral language. The same can be said about reading: reading with pictures is very different from reading with words. We know that literacy is a fundamental life skill and, as far as I’m concerned, a basic right in our educational system. Therefore, educators must critically evaluate the tools and accommodations that are being used with their students. Many of the influential researchers in the field of AAC like Jane Farrall, Dr. Karen Erickson, Dr. David Koppenhaver insist that symbol-supported text is not conducive for teaching students to read.

Reading with symbol-supported text

(Image from Jane Farrall’s site which accompanies her article about symbol-supported text)

With pictures on top of the words, it can be distracting and visually cluttered, making it difficult to concentrate on the text and to practice decoding skills. Dr. Karen Erickson stated that, “If your goal is teaching them to read the words, get rid of symbol supported texts.”

Take a look at the a example of the N2Y symbol-supported text on their website. While the intent is clearly meant to make the text more accessible, I personally find it very hard to find and track the text appropriately. My husband even compared it to trying to read hieroglyphics!

What's the point of symbol-supported text

This is when we need to consider the purpose. We know for a fact that ALL students, including users of AAC, are entitled to and require literacy instruction, including phonological awareness and decoding skills. When learning these skills are the focus of a lesson, pictures should NOT be incorporated above each of the words. That's not how we typically learn to read!

That being said, if the goal is to provide extra visual support to a dictionary for that a student can independently access, then Microsoft’s new Picture Dictionary seems like a wonderful tool to utilize.

When adding accommodations, think of the purpose

Bottom line: accessibility is great, and I love to see it being built into readily available technology. That being said, accommodations and modifications (like picture-supported text) must have a purpose. The new Picture Dictionary has the potential to be a great tool, but it’s no substitute for learning how to read!

Until next time...


Amanda ML Samperi

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