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What is Makaton?

Olivia Sheppard
9 Feb 2021
5 min read
What is Makaton?

Who uses Makaton, how can you learn it, and how can you introduce it in your next teaching role?

In the words of Lisa Rees-Renshaw, Assistive Technology Teacher at the UK’s largest Special Needs School, “Communication is every child’s right. No matter what level they’re at, they've got every right to be able to communicate something (…) and it’s our responsibility in school to make sure they have the tools to do that.” Some children communicate verbally, others may use an array of different languages, technologies or sign/visual languages to communicate with us.

Makaton, devised in the 1970’s, is one of the most popular language programs used in schools to help with total communication. Makaton uses a combination of signs, symbols and speech to enable people to communicate and it also supports vital language skills such as attention, listening, comprehension, memory, and expression. It is also incredibly beneficial to supporting a child’s self confidence as they can now use Makaton to make successful communications with others.

Makaton uses signs, symbols and speech in spoken word order and this combination helps provide extra support to decipher what someone is saying or asking. The use of signs helps people who do not have any speech or whose speech is unclear, and using symbols supports those whose speech is limited or those who prefer not to sign.

Who uses Makaton

People with learning or communication difficulties

Makaton can be used by anyone who struggles with verbal communication, but is most commonly used by people who have learning difficulties such as Autism, Profound and Multiple Learning Disabilities (PMLD) and moderate/specific learning disabilities (MLD/SLD). It is used by many important people in people’s lives including their parents/carers, teachers and support staff to help them communicate their needs and wants effectively.

People developing language skills

Makaton is used to help people who are at an early stage of language development and helps teach communication, literacy and language skills. This is particularly useful for people who have English as an Additional Language as the structure of Makaton can help them communicate straight away whilst building on spoken language skills.

Babies and young children

Some of you with babies or young children may have attended Baby Sign classes or Sing and Sign classes - these often use Makaton! Signing whilst speaking has been shown to promote the development of language and communication, and when babies and young children are able to sign their needs and wants, it often leads to less frustration and challenging behaviour.

What is the difference between Makaton and British Sign Language (BSL)?

British Sign Language (BSL) is the signed language used amongst the Deaf and Hearing Impaired community in the UK. It is its own language with grammatical rules and uses signs, body language, facial expressions and lip movements to communicate.

Makaton is designed to support spoken language and whilst some of the signs are the same as BSL, only key words are signed vs the entire sentence. It is common for children to eventually drop signing as speech develops.

How can I introduce Makaton in my classroom?

Introducing Makaton into your classroom, whether it be an SEN classroom or mainstream, will help children communicate with you and with each other. Here are 5 top tips as to how you can introduce Makaton;

  1. Start with songs and rhymes. “Old McDonald” is a great one to introduce animals, and “I Can Sign a Rainbow” is a good one for colours.
  2. Have 1-2 signs of the week. Introduce them on Monday with both the symbol and sign and try to use as much as possible throughout the week.
  3. Always speak and sign. Ensure you are facing the child/children when demonstrating a sign and, if possible, you may want to help the child sign themselves by taking their hands and helping them. 4.__ Use simple language.__ Keep your sentences short and use the signs and symbols of the most important words.
  4. Reward and praise successful signing. This is really important in a 1:1 role where you are teaching Makaton to aid communication and will encourage further communication.

Most of all - have fun! There are lots of fun activities and resources out there to help you use Makaton with children and young people. Making it exciting and engaging whilst still education will really help with language development and successful communication.

How can I learn Makaton?

There are plenty of Youtube videos which go through the basic signs of Makaton for a variety of different categories such as school, emotions, home etc.

I highly recommend watching ‘Something Special’ which is a cBeebies show that uses rhymes, songs and Makaton signing to promote language development. ‘Singing Hands UK’ also have a great YouTube channel which signs along to popular songs.

You can also sign up for an accredited Level 1-4 course via The Makaton Charity. Twitter also has a number of accounts which I recommend following to help you learn new signs.



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