Sign language and Makaton in primary schools

Children learning sign language
Signing can give children an educational boost, regardless of whether they have special needs. We take a look at its growth in schools.

While some kids start school with an extensive vocabulary and have no difficulty expressing themselves, a growing number of children join Reception lacking the communication skills they need to get by.

According to the Early Intervention Foundation, a quarter of new starters are unable to communicate at the level expected for their age, and in areas of poverty, as many as 50 per cent start school with communication delays.

Signing can help these children access the curriculum and communicate with their teachers and peers, and it also has benefits for those who don’t have any additional needs.

The two main forms of signing used in primary schools are sign language and Makaton.

What is sign language?

Sign language is a means of communicating using gestures, facial expressions and body language.

The most common form of sign language is British Sign Language, or BSL. It’s the main language of around 145,000 people in the UK and has been recognised as an official language since 2003.

BSL has its own grammar and structure, and is only loosely connected to spoken English.

Another form of sign language is Sign Supported English (SSE). This is more closely linked to the English language, and is most commonly used in schools where children with hearing impairments mix with hearing people and are learning English grammar alongside signing.

Fingerspelling is an alphabet of hand signals used to spell out words that don’t have their own sign, such as the names of people and places.

What is Makaton?

Makaton is a language programme that uses signs and symbols to help people communicate. It’s used by people with a range of learning difficulties and communication problems, such as Down’s Syndrome and autistic spectrum disorders.

Makaton is designed to support spoken language. The signs are used alongside speech, in the same order as the spoken words.

Makaton can help people who have limited speech, or whose speech is unclear. Many children who learn Makaton drop the signs as their speech improves, but some continue to use it throughout their lives.

Why is signing being taught in mainstream primary schools?

There are many reasons why primary schools are choosing to teach sign language or Makaton. ‘Sign language promotes inclusivity with those within the school who rely on sign language, as well as with the wider community,’ says Simon Harvey of www.british-sign.co.uk. ‘It’s also a great way to learn about non-verbal communication methods in general.’

Mandy Grist, speech and language adviser at the children’s communication charity I CAN, says that learning Makaton helps all children communicate when they start school. ‘Using signs together with talking helps children to concentrate and listen to what is being said,’ she says. ‘It gives them something to look at as well as hear, and helps them make the connection between spoken words and their meaning.’

It also helps children with special needs feel more accepted: ‘It can help all children to feel included, as no one is singled out as requiring signing support,’ Mandy adds. ‘Some schools teach signing as part of their disability awareness work.’

How does signing benefit children with and without special educational needs?

Signing can help children of all abilities develop communication skills when they start school.

‘It can support young children coming into the new setting by slowing down teachers’ rate of speech and reducing the amount of language they use, as they’re signing at the same time,’ Mandy explains. ‘Young children benefit from this slow rate of speech, as they need lots of processing time: as much as seven to 10 seconds.’

The visual nature of signing means children tend to enjoy it, which can encourage reluctant communicators as well as those with special educational needs (SEN). This makes communication more inclusive.

‘Signs give children whose speech is difficult to understand a way of getting their message across,’ Mandy says. ‘It lets them make a contribution that others will understand, and so take part in class activities.’

Elizabeth Knight of The Makaton Charity adds that Makaton can help children understand more sophisticated concepts as they progress.

‘It can be used to help children develop literacy skills and grammatical understanding,’ she explains. ‘We even have a resource that is designed to help with understanding the language of maths, which has been shown to help children access the curriculum.’

At what stage is it usually taught?

Where signing is taught, it tends to be in the Foundation Stage (Nursery and Reception) and Year 1.

BSL is also becoming more popular as an extra-curricular option in secondary schools.

How do schools teach signing?

‘BSL can be taught either by teachers who are able to sign themselves, or by an external expert who comes in to provide sessions,’ says Simon.

‘Usually, schools begin with the fingerspelling alphabet; this can be picked up very quickly, and from there, there are lots of games that can be used to reinforce signs in a fun way.’

In the case of Makaton, schools usually bring in a tutor to teach staff how to sign; they then pass their skills on to pupils.

‘Children will typically start using one sign or symbol to represent a whole phrase, then put concepts together to make two- and three-word phrases, and so on,’ says Elizabeth.

Mandy adds that the emphasis is on making signing fun. ‘Teachers use a range of activities, including singing, relating signing to real life objects, and linking with parents so they can reinforce the skills at home,’ she explains.

Practising signing at home

If you fancy learning BSL alongside your child, there are many resources available online. ‘It’s a good idea to begin by learning the fingerspelling alphabet; there are lots of free resources at www.british-sign.co.uk, including fingerspelling games,’ says Simon.

If you want to try Makaton, Mandy offers the following tips:

  • Get down to your child’s level and gain their attention.
  • Only use signs for the keywords in a sentence, e.g. ‘Do you want milk or juice?’
  • Always use the same sign for the same action, object or idea.
  • Always say the word at the same time.
  • Leave lots of time for your child to look at the sign and respond.

‘Parents can access Makaton training through workshops, and there are resources available to purchase online,’ adds Mandy. ‘Mr Tumble on CBeebies is also very popular.’