Using signs and symbols to communicate

What are speech, language and communication needs and who is affected?

Action on Hearing Loss (formerly RNID) estimates there are 45,000 deaf children in the UK, with many more experiencing temporary hearing loss due conditions such as glue ear.  Learning Makaton and/or British Sign Language can help children with special communication and language needs to express themselves and communicate with others. 

According to research from The Communication Trust, it is estimated that 10% of all children have long term or persistent speech, language and communication difficulties. This is often known as speech, language and communication needs (SLCN):

  • 7% of children have speech, language and communication difficulties as their main difficulty. This is also referred to as specific language impairment and is often severe and complex. There is no obvious reason or cause for these difficulties with language, although non-verbal skills are often well developed.
  • 3% of children have speech, language and communication difficulties as part of another condition such as autism, hearing impairment, general learning difficulties etc.
  • Of these 3%, an estimated 1% of children have the most severe and complex speech, language and communication difficulties that prevent them from expressing their basic needs.

How can signs and symbols help young children?

Sign Language is a visual means of communicating using gestures, facial expression, and body language. 

Using signs can help children who have no speech (either because they have communication difficulties or are very young) or whose speech is unclear.

Children’s cognitive awareness often develops ahead of their speech. This may leave them feeling frustrated as they might know what they want, but are unable to express it- which can then lead to tantrums. Signing can help empower children to express themselves and alleviate frustration.

There are a few varieties of sign language:

Makaton signing

Makaton is the sign and symbol language used in Something Special. Makaton is designed to support spoken language – signs are used with speech, in spoken word order to help children and adults to communicate. 

The Makaton Charity exists to ensure that everyone living with learning or communication difficulties has the tools and resources they need to communicate.

Watch expert tips from a speech therapist about helping your child learn to sign and parents of children with special needs talking about how using Makaton has changed their lives

British Sign Language

British Sign Language (BSL) is used mainly by people who are deaf or have hearing impairments. BSL has its own grammatical structure and syntax; as a language it is not dependent nor is it strongly related to spoken English. BSL is the preferred language of between 50,000 - 70,000 people within the UK. 

BSL is a language in its own right. It is widely seen on UK television such as BBC's "Sign Zone." You can also watch and download signed versions of CBeebies programmes on BBC iPlayer.

Sign Supported English

The NHS describes Sign Supported English (SSE) as a method of communication that uses BSL signs, but the structure and grammar is based on spoken English. This means the signs follow the exact order they would be spoken in.

This variation of BSL doesn't require any knowledge of BSL grammar structure, so it is easier for hearing people to learn. It is often used in schools where deaf children are taught alongside hearing children.

Finger Spelling

Finger spelling is a method of spelling words using hand movements. Finger spelling is used in sign language to spell out names of people and places for which there is not a sign. Finger spelling can also be used to spell words for signs that the signer does not know the sign for, or to clarify a sign that is not known by the person reading the signer.

Finger spelling signs are often also incorporated into other signs. Finger spelling is a method of communicating with the hands which is closely linked to sign language. However unlike sign language, it is not a language in its own right and does not have grammatical structures and syntaxes. Rather, it is a way of spelling out words instead of interpreting them as a gesture. This means that anyone who knows the finger spelling alphabet can communicate – though, it can be a lengthy process as every letter has to be spelt and is therefore not widely used for general conversations. Download the Fingerspelling alphabet.

What are the differences between Makaton and BSL?

  • The aim of Makaton is to help people communicate through speech, so when the user is able to say the correct words they are then encouraged to speak rather than sign.
  • Makaton uses action signs that look like what they represent (i.e. the sign for 'book' looks like a book opening).
  • Makaton uses a common vocabulary and words that are used in everyday language.
  • Makaton is simpler to use and learn than BSL.
  • Makaton is widely used for very young children who aren't yet speaking and children with speech, language and learning difficulties.
British Sign Language (BSL)
  • BSL is a language just like English or French, and has grammar and syntax rules like any other language.
  • BSL is widely used by people with moderate to severe hearing impairments such as deafness.
  • BSL is widely seen on many UK television channels and is available on-demand services such as BBC iPlayer. 
  • Incorporates Sign Supported English and Finger Spelling.

The Looking Game

Getting started with signing

There are many baby and toddler classes that give an introduction to how to sign with your baby or child. Baby/toddler signing classes are usually music and rhyme based, with a focus on getting babies and children used to signing in response to known and repeated words and phrases.

On the Something Special page of the CBeebies website, you can join in with Justin singing songs and signing along, watch clips of Makaton signs for many words, and print off some Makaton symbols.

Encouraging your child to embrace the idea of alternative communication skills can help develop their general confidence and self-esteem - and also prepare them for signing and symbols used in the pre-school and Early Years environment.

Where next?

Find out how you can help your child if they have speech language and communication needs:

The Makaton Charity

British Sign Language


I CAN- children's communication charity

The National Deaf Children's Society

All Something Special
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