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What is Makaton?

Being able to communicate is one of the most important skills we need in life. Almost everything we do involves communication. For example, everyday tasks such as learning at school, asking for food and drink, sorting out problems, making friends and having fun, all rely on our ability to communicate with each other. However, for some people their ability to verbally communicate is impeded, so signing can help with a range of communication difficulties.

Most people know of British Sign Language (BSL) the language of the deaf community in the UK. There are around 151,000 BSL users in the UK, and of these about 87,000 users are deaf.

Perhaps less familiar to the general public is the sign language Makaton; however, Makaton has over 1 million users in the UK.

To help raise awareness of Makaton, popular soaps such as Emmerdale and EastEnders have both featured storylines where characters have used Makaton as a means of aiding communication.

Young girl using british sign language

What is Makaton?

Makaton, or “keyword signing”, is a simple and easy form of signed communication. The keyword refers to the sentence’s most essential information-carrying word. Unlike BSL, Makaton is not a formal sign language; it is a language system.

This means that it is still based on standard English although it does have some basis in British Sign Language (BSL), but signs are used alongside speech at all times.

Makaton was first developed in the 1970s by Margaret Walker MBE, Kathy Johnston and Tony Cornforth, speech and language therapists who all worked together at the Royal Association for Deaf People.

What makes it special is that it is designed to help hearing people with learning or communication difficulties by adding hand signs and illustrated symbols on top of spoken English, to give a visual component to communication to support the development of spoken language.

Makaton is flexible and can be used at any level appropriate to the individual’s needs. It is a really effective method of communication for anyone who has difficulties with understanding the spoken word, as it provides people with extra clues as to what is being said by using signs or gestures.

Makaton can support individuals with no speech, unclear speech or those who are reluctant to communicate. Some individuals will eventually no longer need to use the signs, whereas others may use them as a lifelong communication system. It can reduce frustration, create choice and facilitate communication.

Makaton may be seen as a bridge to talking and to other language skills. It is designed to back up speech, and research has shown that using signs and symbols can help with speech and language development. Increasingly, Makaton is being used in an inclusive way with all children, not just for those with communication difficulties.

How does Makaton work?

We naturally use gestures as part of our daily communication without even realising it. Our brains easily identify universal gestures that we have seen all our life. Makaton uses signs and symbols, in spoken word order, along with speech.

The signs used in Makaton are usually very simplified hand gestures. Makaton’s main feature is its vocabulary of hand signs, which you do while you are talking – it is almost like subtitles for real life. Unlike British Sign Language, which has its own sentence structure and grammar rules, Makaton’s gestures are simpler to do, and follow standard English sentence structure.

This is part of what makes Makaton useful for language learning, as the signs you learn transfer directly over to spoken English. For example, to show eating, involves the hand moving towards the mouth and at the same time saying food, hungry or eat. Makaton has a core vocabulary of over 450 concepts – this is growing all of the time as technology evolves – and has a resource vocabulary of 11000+ concepts.

The Makaton system also includes simple line drawings to illustrate the words in our vocabulary.

Typically, we don’t use the symbols so much in a conversation – you would use them as you learn new words, to understand how some object, feeling or action might look out in the real world. However, some Makaton users might carry a booklet or sheet of symbols with them, which they can point to in order to help give a reference point for what they are saying. For example, at the same time as saying food, you might point to a symbol of a plate, knife and fork.

Makaton symbols can be used at a variety of levels:

  • Functional meaning, where one symbol represents a whole sentence.
  • Key words in a sentence, where two or three symbols are used.
  • For every word in a sentence including the grammatical words and word endings.

As far as possible, all Makaton symbols reflect three essential design criteria:

  • They should be as pictographic as possible in order to convey the meaning of the concept represented.
  • They should be uncomplicated so that they can be drawn by hand and used in a functional manner similar to writing.
  • They should attempt to reflect language themes to support and encourage the development of language structure.

Makaton symbols offer:

  • Permanence. Unlike a sign and words which fade, the symbol is permanent.
  • Concrete reference. Often the symbol is more like the object it represents, for example toilet, television.

Makaton isn’t meant to replace standard spoken English, and it doesn’t slow down the rate at which someone learns it. Rather, Makaton provides some helpful stepping stones on that language learning journey, and gives everybody the tools to join in the conversation.

Using Makaton to communicate

Who uses Makaton?

Teachers, health professionals, family, friends, carers and others use Makaton to support adults and children with communication and learning needs.

Those adults and children might include those with:

  • Autism – A developmental disability caused by differences in the brain.
  • Cleft lip and palate – Birth defects that occur when a baby’s lip or mouth do not form properly during pregnancy.
  • Developmental language disorder – Having significant, ongoing difficulties understanding and/or using spoken language, in all the languages used.
  • Down’s syndrome – A condition in which a person has an extra chromosome.
  • Global developmental delay – Is when a child takes longer to reach certain development milestones than other children their age.
  • Multi-sensory impairment – Are impairments of both sight and hearing. MSI can also be known as deaf-blindness or dual-sensory impairment.
  • Verbal dyspraxia – Is a speech disorder. A person with verbal dyspraxia has difficulty placing muscles in the correct position to produce speech. The muscles have not been damaged. The messages from the brain that tell the muscles what to do have been affected.
  • English as an Additional Language (EAL) – English society is multilingual, with an estimated 360 languages spoken across the country.
  • It can also be helpful for people such as stroke patients who are experiencing problems with their speech.

Makaton is regularly used in mainstream schools, as a part of inclusive practice, to support all children to develop communication, language and literacy skills. It supports integration as children with and without language difficulties can communicate, learn and play together more easily.

Other public institutions such as hospitals, courts and libraries also use Makaton to aid communication, so you might not even realise that you may have experienced using Makaton in your daily life. Makaton is also used and recommended by charities such as Sense, Mencap and Sing-up.

Makaton is a trademarked UK term that is used extensively all over the UK.

It has also been adapted for use in many other countries where it is sometimes known as Key Word Signing, in countries such as:

  • Australia.
  • Bahrain.
  • Bangladesh.
  • Canada.
  • Cyprus.
  • Czech Republic.
  • Egypt.
  • France.
  • Germany.
  • Gibraltar.
  • Greece.
  • Guyana.
  • Holland.
  • Hong Kong.
  • India.
  • Israel.
  • Italy.
  • Japan.
  • Jordan.
  • Kuwait.
  • Luxembourg.
  • Malaysia.
  • Malta.
  • Namibia.
  • Norway.
  • Pakistan.
  • Poland.
  • Portugal.
  • Qatar.
  • Romania.
  • Russia.
  • Saudi Arabia.
  • South Africa.
  • Spain.
  • Sri Lanka.
  • Switzerland.
  • Turkey.
  • UAE.
  • Uganda.
  • USA.
  • Zimbabwe.
Using Makaton in schools

What are the benefits of Makaton?

Evidence suggests that using Makaton encourages more vocalisations, speech sounds and, eventually, words amongst users.

The benefits of utilising Makaton are that it:

  • Stimulates development of comprehension, vital for effective spoken language use. We all learn skills in different ways. Makaton provides a person with a visual way of learning language skills.
  • Provides a functional way to communicate thoughts and needs, reducing frustration levels often seen in those with communicative challenges.
  • Supports unintelligible speech in those with speech production difficulties.
  • Provides a visual aid, promoting a total communication approach.
  • Assists with vocabulary building as it really is important that vocabulary growth is promoted.
  • Facilitates processing time as we sign and speak, we naturally slow down our communications, allowing extra time to process.

It can be very frustrating for children, and especially babies, who are unable to communicate their needs. Simple tasks can become very difficult and leave children frustrated and isolated. Using Makaton with a child can allow them to get their needs across effectively and help them to interact with the world around them.

Children who are able to use Makaton to communicate their thoughts and feelings will often have fewer tantrums or less aggressive behaviour. This is because they are able to have conversations using Makaton and can be understood fully by others. It is suggested that by using the signs to accompany speech, children will have a deeper understanding of the words they are learning; it is not a replacement for speech but rather an enhancement.

Having sound attention and listening skills can be difficult for young children, especially babies. They may find it difficult to pay attention for a period of time or to focus on an individual when they are talking. Makaton can support this development, giving children a visual focus whilst also using their listening skills.

Teaching a child Makaton can support the bond between an adult and child as it requires you to be down at the child’s level and focus your attention on the signs. Verbal communication can easily lose this aspect, with language being used in passing without the need for eye contact and good attention. Using Makaton can support children to feel valued and understand that their thoughts and feelings are important.

When using Makaton, the children are practising and developing a range of fine and motor skills. Some hand signs may be similar to others and will require the child to position their fingers or hands in a particular way to differentiate the signs. This can be tricky at first but with plenty of practice, children are able to sign very well.

Children love to use the signs and share these with others during activities, especially singing. Learn Makaton signs to go with your favourite nursery rhymes. This helps children see how they can fit Makaton into concepts they already know, also having a little singalong makes everything more fun.

A 2012 study from the University of Bedfordshire also found that for children learning English as an additional language, using Makaton appeared to speed up the rate at which children pick up speaking skills.

How can you learn Makaton?

To learn to sign Makaton, you need to learn the symbols and their associated signs. The Makaton Charity licenses over 1,200 tutors across the UK who train roughly 20,000 people yearly. The charity offers training levels 1–4 and the best way to start learning Makaton is with level 1 training. Once you have completed level 1, you can go on to level 2, and then on to levels 3 and 4.

The BBC children’s service CBeebies utilise Makaton in programmes such as Justin and Mr Tumble on Something Special and have published a “getting started with Makaton” on their webpage.

Many schools, NHS Trusts, or local SEND offices run Makaton “taster” sessions or produce YouTube sessions or resources for parents and carers to become familiar with the language, and Local Authorities may include Makaton courses as part of their local offer.

For example:

Parents and carers learning Makaton

Final thoughts

Makaton is a fantastic unique language programme that is a hugely valuable method of communication. It gives children and adults the tools to communicate easily with those around them, regardless of their language, ability and literacy levels. It is an intuitive signing language that is increasingly being adopted by the general public.

As you can see, Makaton draws on the more physical elements of communication and gives you different ways to communicate. To give you an idea of how Makaton looks in action watch a clip of comedian Rob Delaney reading the children’s book Ten in the Bed using Makaton on BBC’s CBeebies.

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About the author

Evie Lee

Evie Lee

Evie has worked at CPD Online College since August 2021. She is currently doing an apprenticeship in Level 3 Business Administration. Evie's main roles are to upload blog articles and courses to the website. Outside of work, Evie loves horse riding and spending time with her family.

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