To some degree we all use natural gesture to support our spoken communication. Signing builds on this by providing a tool which supports communication and interaction. The most commonly used sign languages within the UK are British Sign Language (BSL), Makaton and Signalong. BSL is largely used by those with hearing impairments whereas Makaton and Signalong are used to support those with other types of communication difficulties. Makaton has become increasingly popular and has enjoyed wider public awareness partly due to its use in the BBC programme, 'Something Special', and signing champions like 'Singing Hands', with over 100 000 children and adults using Makaton across the country.

Signing is often used with children with developmental delays and communication difficulties, however there are added benefits to its use with all children.

Learning new vocabulary

The National Curriculum is packed with long lists of vocabulary needed to access topics within each subject. The rate at which children are needing to learn new words is staggering! This is particularly demanding when the vocabulary is more abstract. When we are introduced to new words in a multisensory way, this helps us to better understand the word, accurately store, remember and retrieve it when we need to. Signing combines visual and kinaesthethic learning and supports the process of acquiring new vocabulary beautifully.

When we fully grasp the language needed in a particular subject we are much more likely to access the learning opportunities within the lessons .

Developing communication skills

When learning to sign, so much more is also learnt about how we communicate. We gain a better understanding of how non-verbal aspects of communication support the spoken language we use (eye contact, facial expression, body language, gesture). In fact, the words we speak are only a small fraction of our communication. Signing also helps children to begin to focus on the main message they want to convey, and they learn how to be concise and specific in the information they give. This is a vital skill for adapting the language we use for different audiences.

10% of children have a speech, language or communication need, and for over 75% of these children their communication needs will be long-term and persistent and may well carry through into adulthood. All of the children we teach will find themselves in situations where they need to be able to interact with someone that has communication needs, when they are at school, outside of school and into their adult lives. Being skilled at adapting their language and being able to use signs when they need to will be a great benefit.

Great communication skills are so important! They are sought after by employers but also help us so much as we build relationships or become parents.


Using signing is hugely beneficial for children with either limited spoken language or those who have difficulty making themselves understood. By having an extra tool to express their needs, thoughts and desires, they are able to access communication and begin to take part in learning and social activities from which they might otherwise feel excluded. This ability to express themselves is vital!

Not only does signing give children a 'voice', but it is a really important part of being able to make friends and feel part of the group.

When signing is used more broadly in a setting - where all children are taught to sign and adults use sign regularly - this allows for a far more inclusive approach. Signing is seen as a 'normal' part of the school day and a child who requires signing to communicate has a greater opportunity to successfully interact with a range of children and adults rather than with only one or two identified individuals who they feel will understand them. Therefore they will sign more.

The full value of signing is often overlooked. It can be seen as something 'extra' which is bolted onto school provision in an attempt to support the needs of a few students. To truly support those with language difficulties with signing, they need access to a lot of communication partners that are modelling signing well. Doing this in an ad hoc or inconsistent way really limits their opportunity for expressive language development.

To realise the full benefits for the whole school community, signing needs to be fully embedded into school practise. It isn't always easy to do. But when this is carefully planned and implemented the impact is huge!

Can I challenge you to get signing effectively used in your school?

Sarah Billingham is a specialist speech, language and communication needs teacher and a regional Makaton tutor. She trains practitioners and parents in using signs and symbols to support communication as well as how to embed the use of these tools across whole settings.

To find out more visit or join her Confident Kids Makaton group on Facebook