What is sign language?

We all use sign language. We nod our heads in agreement or shake them in disagreement, we wave hello and wave goodbye, sign thanks to kind drivers that let us go and refrain from signing anything to those who don’t! When we visit a country where we don’t know the spoken language, we rely on signs to communicate, remain courteous or order from a menu.

Many of us already use lots of signs with our children. We may have signs for animals, different foods and so on. Using signs, supports every day conversations and for our children it can act as an important bridge towards developing more spoken words.

All languages, whether Mandarin, English, Korean, French or British Sign Language use symbols to represent the world around us. There are different types of sign and symbol systems.  The ones you may have heard of or have seen in schools are:

  • Makaton – is a language programme that uses symbols alongside sign language to represent key words with nearly 40 years of evidence backed research on it’s effectiveness in encouraging speech and communication skills. It’s used by over 100,000 people across the UK. Many schools use this to help hearing children develop spoken language. When using Makaton, the signer speaks alongside signing. This encourages the development of spoken language. Often once spoken language develops or increases the signs naturally fade out.


  • British Sign Language – is an official language used amongst the deaf community. Unlike Makaton, it has its own grammar rules. It is not commonly used alongside the spoken word.


  • Sign Supported English (SSE) – Follows English language grammatical structures. Putting sentences together is therefore much more intuitive for English speakers as opposed to learning another set of grammatical rules. Although the grammar rules are different from BSL, SSE uses the BSL signs. Many schools use this to support language learning for deaf and hearing children.


  • Paget Gorman (PGSS) – is a signed alongside speech and used in the UK, Ireland and Australia. Like the other sign systems, it supports learning for all children and especially those who struggle with language or following directions in the classroom.

There are other types of sign language too such as American Sign, Australian sign language…every single country has a different sign language – there is no universal sign language and even from region to region it can vary in dialect.

Will using sign language impact on my child’s ability to speak words?

This is a common concern, however, for children who are going to be verbal, learning sign language does not hinder their potential. Think of a baby who has not yet developed language. Caregivers use gesture regularly from the day babies are born. We wave hello and goodbye to them before they know these words, we may even have gestures for key words in songs. Some parents teach their babies ‘baby sign’ so they can start communicating using their hands before their language develops. In normal circumstances these babies then go on to develop language, the gestures/signs merely support this journey.

Why sign?

Using sign can benefit children whether or not they have a speech and language delay.

Supports learning in the classroom
Signing or gesture helps all children in the classroom and particularly those who struggle understanding verbal language. It can aid their ability to follow directions and is instrumental in reducing anxiety and increasing participation. Think about being in the foreign country again and interacting with locals to get directions back to your hotel. By following the hand gestures of the locals, you can safely make your way.  Yay for sign!

Enriches vocabulary
When a word is heard and seen, children tend to recall the word more easily, leading to better vocabularies. Providing a sign for the word gives them another hook to hang the meaning on to.

‘Language and imagery are inseparable’ (David Mcneill 2005)
Gestures and signs are visual aids. If we understand gestures to be interlinked with speaking, then sign language is just a more structured way to elaborate on these gestures.  Creating strong images for words is immensely useful for little language learners. Using gesture or signs with speech also slows down the pace of your speech – making it easier for little ears and brains to digest and process information.

Signing supports children who are struggling to develop language
Signs can bridge the gap between having no meaningful communication and speaking. For children who are finding it hard to use words, signing can reduce frustrations, increase participation and learning and increase communication confidence. For some children, using sign successfully can lead to the development of verbal communication.

Extra facts

It is thought that learning sign language may boost cognition by as much as 50 percent! (John Medina 2010)

Vocabulary development comes on leaps and bounds when little fingers master fine motor control. Signing is a good way to support this!

From around 9 months of age, typically developing children can start to learn language using sign.  ‘Baby Sign’ has become very popular in recent years.  Parents who wish to can attend sign classes with their baby and start communicating with them before verbal language develops.

If we view sign language as an extension of verbal language rather than something separate from it, we start to see it as an integral part of the language learning process. Signing can make activities like singing songs, requesting objects and naming things in the environment much more interesting, engaging and fun!

Video copyright The Makaton Charity

Check out the Makaton sign for lamb above! To see more Makaton signs if you’ve got an iPad check out the MyChoicePad app

Visit https://singinghands.co.uk/ for fun Makaton classes, sessions and resources.

Singing Hands also have some fantastic videos of popular nursery rhymes using Makaton signs that you can watch with your child

Check out this week’s Makaton Sign of the Week! https://wetalkmakaton.org/

Written by Carolyn Fox, Children’s Speech and Language Therapist

Iris Speaks – Access the UK’s best Speech and Language Therapists from anywhere in the world 7 days a week. Online and at home. Book an initial consultation.

Related articles:

How to use rhyme and song to help with social skills and language

Check out our free Language Course and Higher Language Course

What is selective mutism?