Who is Makaton for? “Everyone”, says Rachel Holt. Learn why in this introduction into the world of Makaton.

Why Makaton?

I am thrilled to be able to share this most wonderful unique language programme with you which has, over the years, brought so much light into the lives of the students I work with, giving them a voice and helping them to be heard.

Makaton signs are based on the gestures used in British Sign Language (BSL). However, unlike BSL, Makaton signs are always used in conjunction with speech and in the correct English grammatical word order.

Today, over 100,000 children and adults use Makaton symbols and signs, either as their main method of communication or to support speech.

In addition to children and adults with communication and learning difficulties and the community around them (e.g., teachers, health professionals, friends, public service bodies and so on), Makaton is increasingly used by the public to aid communication. Makaton has been shown to be useful for all sorts of people, including those who struggle with understanding concepts, those who have poor literacy skills (including grammatical knowledge) and those with English as an Additional Language. By using Makaton, children and adults can take a more active part in life, because communication and language are the key to everything we do and learn.

There is a misunderstanding though about Makaton, where people think that if we are signing to a child or adult who struggles with their speech, that this will stop them progressing and they will never talk at all. This is far from the truth; in fact, the opposite occurs. I have been privileged, in my role as Communication and Interaction Leader, to see so many children find their voice. I have worked in Special Education for 24 years and, in that time, I have seen pupils thrive, learn to communicate and speak with confidence – and, after a time, even drop their signs as they move forwards.

I think we all have a part to play with Makaton, in lifting our Makaton users’ self-esteem and helping them to shine further. If a child or adult were to sign to you on the street, in your school or in a supermarket, would you know how to sign back? The answer will most probably be no! You need to be able to read back the signs to understand what this person is saying. Perhaps what is needed, from a very young age, is for us to start learning and embedding Makaton all around us and being more inclusive in all our settings. Not just in schools, but out in the community as well. It is time we all did our bit! Perhaps now is the time to think about finding a course near you and learning the Core Vocabulary Signs (explained further down).

What is Makaton?

Makaton is a unique language programme that uses symbols, signs and speech to enable people to communicate. It supports the development of essential communication skills such as attention and listening, comprehension, memory, recall and organisation of language and expression.

Being able to communicate is one of the most important life skills. Almost everything we do involves communication. Everyday tasks such as learning at school, asking for food and drink, resolving problems, making friends and having fun – these all rely on our ability to communicate with each other.

With Makaton, signs are used with speech in spoken word order. This helps provide extra clues about what someone is saying. Using signs can help people who have no speech or whose speech is unclear. Using symbols can help people with limited speech and those who cannot or prefer not to sign.

For those who have experienced the frustration of being unable to communicate meaningfully or effectively, Makaton really can help. It takes away that frustration and enables individuals to connect with other people and the world around them. This opens all kinds of possibilities.

Example signs and symbols of Makaton.<br />
The 'to sleep' sign is a person with hands together on one side of their head and eyes closed as if sleeping. The 'to sleep' symbol is a face with eyes closed against a pillow. The 'where' sign is a person with elbows bent and palms facing up rotating. The 'where' symbol is a question mark sitting above a line.

Makaton signs and symbols for 'to sleep' and 'where'.

How Makaton works

Communication does not just involve speaking. Watch someone talking – they will not just be saying words, but they will also be using hand movements or gestures, facial expressions, eye contact and body language (posture and movement). All of this is communication.

Research has shown that signs and gestures are easier to learn than spoken words. This makes sense. Babies use gestures before they can speak to tell us what they want. For example, they might point at the biscuit tin or hold out their arms to be picked up. Children and adults can use Makaton to let others know what they want, make choices, share information and understand more easily. This helps build and develop important communication and language skills.

If a child has to rely on speech development alone, these vital skills, including eye contact, turn taking, making choices, understanding and sharing information, may not develop properly. Children and adults who have difficulty understanding and speaking often become frustrated or withdrawn. Young children may communicate this through behaviours such as screaming and kicking; older children and adults may shout or hurt themselves. By using Makaton, we are helping them to communicate in a more acceptable way.

Who uses Makaton?

People with learning or communication difficulties including:

  • Autism
  • Cleft lip and palate
  • Developmental language disorder
  • Down’s syndrome
  • Global developmental delay
  • Multi-sensory impairment (deaf blindness)
  • Verbal dyspraxia

Makaton is also used for teaching communication, language and literacy skills to children and adults who are at an early stage of communication and language development. This structured approach can also help people who are learning English as an additional language, helping them to
communicate straightaway, while also supporting their learning.

In mainstream schools, it supports pupils communication, language and literacy skills. It also supports integration, as children with or without language difficulties can communicate with each other, learn and play together more easily.

There is a special Makaton Signing For Babies training course available to parents, family members and professionals who wish to sign with the babies and children in their care.


The complete Makaton Language Programme comprises two vocabularies: core vocabulary and topic-based resource vocabulary.

  • Core vocabulary is essential words or concepts presented in stages of increasing complexity. The Core vocabulary is taught first and is the foundation of the programme.
  • Topic-based resource vocabulary is much larger and open-ended, providing an enormous bank of further signs and symbols covering broader life experiences.

Makaton symbols and signs are matched to all the concepts in the two vocabularies to be used with speech, the written word or on their own. They provide a visual representation of language which increases understanding and makes expressive communication easier.

This multi-modal approach, where one mode facilitates another, has been shown to increase opportunities for personal expression and development, participation in interaction and socialisation and increase access to education, training and public information. Most people start using Makaton as children, then naturally stop using the signs and symbols as they no longer need them. However, some people will need to use Makaton their whole lives. Makaton is extremely flexible as it can be personalised to an individual’s needs and used at a level suitable for them.

Makaton for all

Finally, Makaton is for all of us. The symbols are widely used in public buildings such as schools, hospitals, courts and libraries, to help people find their way around. So, you may be using Makaton in daily life without even knowing it! The Makaton Library contains Makaton signs, symbols, video demonstrations and research papers to support you with all of your Makaton needs.

I believe wholeheartedly that Makaton should be used in all schools, supermarkets, airports and so on.

I am trying my hardest as a Tutor to promote it as much as possible through Sing and Sign and by teaching functional everyday Core Vocabulary signs using the hashtag #Motivational Makaton on social media.


  • Rachel Holt

    Rachel is a communication and interaction leader and a Makaton tutor working at Penny Field School, Leeds (part of the Wellspring Academy Trust). She writes multi-sensory stories and productions, and music and movement sessions for pupils with special educational needs.
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