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24 June 2020
Specialist teacher Sarah Billingham shares her tips on supporting children to use signing to develop communication skills.
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) and Makaton. BSL is largely used by those with hearing impairments whereas Makaton is 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 hugely beneficial for children with difficulties understanding or using language.
Signs are a wonderfully visual way to catch and hold a child’s attention. They provide extra information which supports understanding and often look like the object or action they represent.
For most adults the speed of our signing is usually slower and our vocabulary more limited than in conversational language – this is hugely beneficial. When signing whilst we talk, we automatically slow down and choose our words carefully so that our message is clear and easy to understand. This is ideal for supporting young children to understand of language.
Using signing is helpful for children with limited spoken language or those who have difficulty making themselves understood. By having an extra tool to express their needs, thoughts and wants, they can access communication and begin to take part in learning and social activities from which they may otherwise feel excluded. This ability to express is vital! Not only does signing give children a ‘voice’ but it is an important part of being able to build relationships with others.
Signing is often used with children and adults with developmental delays and communication difficulties, however there are added benefits to its use with all children in the early years. I have seen Makaton used beautifully in mainstream nursery and primary settings to support singing and music making, assemblies, performances, storytelling, reading and the learning of new curriculum vocabulary. Learning new songs and words supported by signing provides all children with a visual prompt to reinforce what they have learnt. Plus signing supports memory and recall too. There is an added benefit for practitioners who can use signs to quietly reinforce classroom expectations such as good sitting/listening or a prompt to wait to take a turn in a group activity. (Very handy to be able to sign your drink order to a colleague across a busy staffroom too!)
When signing is incorporated more broadly in an early years setting - - this allows for a far more inclusive approach. Signing becomes a ‘normal’ part of the communication toolkit 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.
There are a few myths which are sometimes associated with using sign to support communication – let’s address those now.
The evidence tells us that the opposite is true! Makaton is designed to be used alongside spoken language rather than as a replacement for it. Signing supports the development of language skills, such as effectively learning, storing and retrieving words. Additionally, a child’s confidence as a communicator is positively impacted when they feel they can understand what is said to them and they can express themselves. As their language skills and confidence develop, this can encourage more spoken language rather than less.
Often when people first learn to sign they learn a limited or core vocabulary of signs that will be used to get by in most day to day situations. However, this is not the full extent of the signing vocabulary available. Makaton has over 11 000 signs and further signs are being developed all the time. Additional signs can be found in BSL too. There are signs to support the full English language structure including grammatical markers (signs for tenses, pronouns etc).
When children are learning to sign it is important that they have a good model to learn from. Children learn from what they see, hear and experience. If adults within the environment are signing, the children are more likely to sign too. I hear people report that a child is signing at home but not at preschool. This is often because at home the child is confident that they will be understood. They may be less sure that preschool staff and peers will understand their signs, particularly if they do not see others signing in the environment. When adults use signs themselves, children learn new signs and their ability to join signs into phrases and sentences also improves.
When choosing signs to teach to children it is imperative to select words which will be the most useful in helping the child’s day to day communication first. Consider what they may need to ask for (toilet/ food/ drink/ favourite toy) as well as important people in their lives. It is easy to fall into the trap of choosing words which are important to us as adults for example words which encourage politeness (please/thank you) or a word which links to an aspect of the curriculum being covered in class (addition/ measure). Keep the child at the centre and consider what is most important to them then work outwards to build on that foundation.
Praise all attempts at communication, whilst providing a good language model of signs and spoken language. Keeping signing fun in games, songs and rhymes helps with motivation and makes learning to sign a positive experience.
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