How to use Signing to Support Communication

Makaton How are you

Language can be difficult for many different reasons and that is why using visual aids for young children and those with communication challenges is really important.  Visual information is much easier for most to understand.  One form of visual aid is signing.

Baby signing has become popular with lots of baby sign classes now available such as Sing & Sign and Singing Hands.  This is a great thing to do with small children, we used to have a video of a class that I would sit and do with the boys when they were tiny.  Lots of baby groups will use signing particularly with nursery rhymes and songs.  The signs provide a visual clue to what the words mean and all helps with language development.

The two main forms of signing in the UK are Makaton and British Sign Language (BSL).

What is Makaton?

Makaton is a system of signs (using your hands) and visual symbols combined with speech to assist hearing people with communication or learning difficulties.

Makaton sign hello
Makaton hello is similar to a wave

What is the difference between Makaton and Sign Language?

Makaton and British Sign Language (BSL) do use some of the same signs but they are different.  BSL is a language in its own right, it is for the deaf community and is naturally evolving with its own grammar and word order. Makaton is designed for those that can hear but have communication difficulties, it is simpler focusing on key words using obvious gestures.

Signing makaton

Helping your child to communicate

To help develop speech and language we need to communicate with children on a level they understand.  This means adapting our speech, slowing down and using 1-2 words at first and increasing at the rate of comprehension for the individual child. 

Using signs and symbols helps to clarify the meaning of words.  At first we will be using the signs to show our children and hopefully over time they will start to use the signs themselves.  Many children will be able to sign before they are able to speak and so signs can help to reduce frustration and introduce functional communication.

Signs can also reduce the pressure to speak for children who find it more challenging.   Some children may not use the signs themselves this does not mean they don’t understand them when others use them with them.

Many autistic children will have communication difficulties, with my eldest we focused more on the Picture Exchange Communication System because as a young child he didn’t look at people so it was hard to get him to follow signs.  However we have still used signing with both boys and will continue to do so.

Start simple

When you start to use signing keep it simple and focus on key vocabulary like –

  • Yes
  • No
  • Eat
  • Drink
  • More
  • Finished
  • Hello
  • Stop
  • Sit down
  • Help

You will also find you already know lots of signs and already use them as gestures.

OK gesture sign

A great fun way to get started with Makaton is watching Something Special on CBeebies.  Justin and Mr Tumble both use Makaton throughout the show. Another CBeebies show with lots of signing is Magic Hands which uses British Sign Language.

Early years settings usually use Makaton now so you can ask your child’s nursery or school what signs they use to try and be consistent between home and their setting.  Children’s centres and health visitors will also be able to advise on Makaton and direct you to any local training that may be available to parents.

Makaton How are you

Where to learn more about Makaton

The Makaton website has lots of helpful information including some free resources –

They also produce vocabulary downloads for children’s books this has been helpful for me to learn signs that come up in  my kids favourite books like The Tiger Who Came to Tea and The Gruffalo. 

On social media follow the hashtags –

#signoftheweek #wetalkmakaton #themakatoncharity

The CBeebies website has lots of useful information about signing –

As signing is so visual a great place to see more is on YouTube, the Makaton channel and Sign with Us are two great places to start.

The Makaton Charity are also encouraging and supporting organisations to become Makaton friendly.

Do you sign with your children? What are your favourite signs to use?

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