How you can use Makaton to support communication

I’m Ellie and I’m a Speech and Language therapist at Henshaws College. My role involves assessing students’ speech, language and communication needs and working with them to develop their social and communication skills.
We have many different ways of communicating with students and empowering them to make their own choices and become more independent. For this blog post, I’m going to focus on Makaton, a language programme that uses signs and symbols to support people who have difficulties with communication.

What is Makaton?

Makaton is a really effective method of communication for any student who has difficulties with understanding. Makaton provides people with extra clues as to what is being said by using signs or gestures.

The Makaton core vocabulary contains 450 words, signs and symbols, like the examples below:


There are also an additional 7000 concepts based around topics such as people, vehicles and animals which are always being developed further.

A student being shown a Makaton symbol by an instructor.

Makaton can support individuals with no speech, unclear speech or those who are reluctant to communicate. Some individuals will eventually no longer need to use the signs whereas others use it as a lifelong communication system. It can reduce frustration, create choice and facilitate communication.

Why use Makaton?

Signs and gestures are easier to use than spoken language. They provide a clear association between the way they look and what they represent. People with no speech naturally use their hands to gesture- working on their communication strength so they can be successful. When using Makaton, we give extra clues using our tone of voice, facial expression, eye contact and body language.

Sometimes there can be a fear around using signs to support communication if you’re not familiar with them. For example British Sign Language can appear quite complex, which is why Makaton is great as it’s a simplified version which is easier to sign and easier to understand. It’s based on natural gestures which you already associate with certain words, for example ‘hello’ is a waving gesture. It means anyone can learn the gestures and start using them to communicate. I think of it as a specific way of doing gestures to support spoken language.

Top tips when using Makaton signing:

  • Familiarise yourself with key vocabulary so you feel confident to use it
  • Only sign key words, but maintain the normal grammar of the sentence or phrase (e.g.Give me the apple).
  • Gain the person’s attention- use their name & ask them to look
  • Be consistent and clear with the signs you use
  • Use repetition and modelling of signs (e.g. sign ‘toilet’ every time you support someone with this)
  • Use your dominant hand as your main signing hand- this helps keep the signs the same
  • Always model the correct sign to an individual even if they have their own unique way of signing something
  • Use your facial expression to show them what you mean (e.g. tired- tired face)
  • Use a tone of voice that matches the word (e.g. tired- sound tired)
  • When an individual has difficulty understanding spoken language, but cannot sign themselves or chooses not to, you should still use sign to support them
  • Where appropriate give hand-over-hand support to individuals to develop their signing skills
  • Always offer lots of encouragement and praise

How does Makaton make a difference to our students?

I love my job because of the variety of students I get to work with, and the different communication strategies I’m able to use to support them. Communication is such a fundamental part of life and I feel very privileged to be able to have some impact in this area. It’s brilliant to see our students gaining in confidence, engaging more in their sessions and beginning to take more control and make choices about their lives.

Find out more

  • You can download our Makaton factsheet here
  • For more information please look at the Makaton Charity website which also offers many free resources
  • If you’re interested in finding out more about our programmes of therapy, learning and support for young people with disabilities, please visit our College pages.
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