Communication and Signing

In the late 1970s when I worked in child guidance, I was introduced to a revolutionary method of communication for children and adults with speech and learning difficulties. At the time I worked with a small group of electively mute children who, for different reasons, had opted not to use speech as a form of communication.

I applied for and gained a place on a new training course. The presenter was Margaret Walker, one of the people who had invented this new ‘language’. She was an animated, enthusiastic professional with a real zest for spreading the benefits of Makaton (See note 1). I remember at that time being so excited that I had a tool which I might be able to use to help my particular children gain a voice and be understood for the first time.

I had already become familiar with other communication methods of the time such as Paget Gorman (See note 2) and the British Signing. They could not have the same impact as Makaton because it was not dependant on any particular level of intellect or understanding of names of objects or any specific language. Makaton is very much about drawing simple pictures in the air for everyone to see. A car had a small steering wheel a bus has a bigger steering wheel. A man is likely to be able to grow a beard therefore the sign for man is a mimed beard. A boy will be unable to grow a beard so his sign is cutting off the beard. A woman has soft lips; a girl has soft skin. It is addictive and fascinating.

I studied to become a trainer in my own right. Although I have not had to practise or communicate in Makaton for a long time, I know that it would all come racing back if the opportunity arose. Its universal language and its timelessness means that anyone is able to communicate with anyone in the world.

Unsophisticated brilliance

The sheer simplicity of this method was that even where an individual had some physical problems in fine motor control, the signing could be adapted to suit their personal needs, and provided everyone involved with that person received information about the limits of their ability to form the pictures, then communication would evolve and eventually where possible, speech would follow. That method of signing was called Makaton. The prompt sheets were simplistic in their presentation – just a few line drawings with arrows to indicate any movement of hand or fingers to identify the words.  The ease of sentence structure depended on what was being said and by whom. For example, the words ‘good morning’ are signed by a thumbs-up for ‘good’ and ‘morning’ is a mime of pulling back the curtains with one hand.

Below is a sample of line drawing taken from Makaton database. A full set of symbols and words can be downloaded from a number of internet sites.

 Communication and Signing


The uniqueness of individuals

I found so many effective uses for Makaton with the uncommunicative children I worked with. The fabulous by-product of this was that most children began to speak or at least utter sounds. Even where there is existing speech, it seems to provide much needed confidence and hesitant speakers find their voices.

I remember Margaret giving an explanation for this phenomenon.  Her words are as true now as they were then. It is something I think a lot of us had forgotten because we were so focussed on coaxing our children or adults to make utterances. I paraphrase them here.

All of us develop, even where we have profound developmental hurdles to overcome. The rate of progress is what distinguishes us from each other. Some people take minutes to perform a new task; others of us will take years to partly achieve success in that same task. We never stop developing, but our rate slows as we get older.

Media and international success

I am delighted that Makaton has lost none of its power to change lives. There are a number of programmes for young children on BBC television which use Makaton as a communication tool. I would advise anyone working with younger or older children or adults who may have problems making themselves understood to watch and learn.


1        Makaton

Original research was conducted in 1972 which resulted in the design of the Makaton Core Vocabulary based on functional need. This original research was repeated in 1976 in a community-based environment with institutionalised deaf cognitively impaired adults resident at St Georges Hospital to enable them to communicate using sign language.

The name is a blend of the names of the three people who devised it: Speech and Language Therapist, Margaret Walker, and two psychiatric hospital visitors from the Royal Association for the Deaf and Non-verbal, named Kathy Johnston and Tony Cornforth.

Fourteen deaf and cognitively impaired adults participated in the pilot study, and all were able to learn to use manual signs; improved behaviour was also noted. Shortly after, this approach was modified to be used with both children and adults

with severe communication difficulties (including individuals who could hear), and was used in many schools throughout the UK in order to stimulate communication and language.

In the early stages of development, Makaton used only speech and manual signs (without symbols). The Makaton Vocabulary Development Project was founded in 1976 to provide resource materials and training courses, and it became a Charitable Trust in 1983. By 1985, work had begun to include graphic symbols in the Makaton Language Programme, and a version including graphic symbols was published in 1986. The Core Vocabulary was revised in 1996 to include cultural differences. In 2007, the Makaton Charity was established.

2        The Paget Gorman Sign System

The system, which is also known as Paget Gorman Signed Speech (PGSS) or Paget Gorman Systematic Sign Language, is a manually coded form of the English language designed to be used with children with speech or communication difficulties.

PGSS was originally developed in Britain by Sir Richard Paget in the 1930s, and later by Lady Grace Paget and Dr Pierre Gorman. The system uses 37 basic signs and 21 standard hand postures, which can be combined to represent a large vocabulary of English words, including word endings and verb tenses. The signs do not correspond to natural signs of the deaf community.

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