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The benefits of Key Word Sign

Published 16th February, 2016

Nat Elias blogWritten by Therapy Focus Speech Pathologist Natalie Elias

We live in a digital age, where communication is just a mere swipe away. Advances in technology have allowed us to be more connected than ever before, with a variety of gadgets at our disposal. This has been hugely beneficial in providing a voice to people with communication difficulties. The possibilities can seem endless with so many voice output devices and apps on the market. So where does this leave our other communication tools? And what happens when technology fails?

When we adopt a total communication approach, we use different communication systems depending on the situation. Just as we might choose to text or to call, to write a letter or an email, we need multiple tools in our ‘communication toolbox’ to suit our communication partner and the message we want to share. It remains as important as ever that people with communication difficulties continue to have access to a rich and varied range of tools. It is not a case of which tool is best, but rather what is the most powerful and effective method for every unique situation.

Key Word Sign, formerly referred to as Makaton, is a simplified form of manual sign and a highly effective form of communication. It extends on natural gesture and body language, which forms so much of what we communicate day to day. In Australia we borrow from the signs of Auslan, the language of the Australian deaf community. Key Word Sign may be used with both children and adults.  Key Word Sign may benefit communicators who have difficulties with attention, comprehension and/or developing speech.

The main principles of Key Word Sign are: :

  • sign and speech go together 
  • speak in regular, complete sentences
  • sign only the key words in your sentence e.g. “Do you want to play?”
  • use facial expression and body language to add meaning 
  • teach signs that are relevant and interactive to allow the communicator to  comment, question, request, protest and share their feelings and opinions

Key Word Sign has benefits for both expression and understanding. Some of the benefits include:

  • providing visual information alongside speech, which can assist visual learners
  • lasting longer than speech, which can assist communicators who need more time to process information
  • encouraging a good language model where we slow our speech rate, simplify what we say and stress the most important words
  • more opportunities for communicators to have successful interactions as signs are easier to produce than speech
  • promotes the extension of language skills while speech is still developing
  • reduces frustration as communicators have a tool for expressing their needs

It only takes one sign and a willing communication partner to get started with Key Word Sign, though it’s important to create a signing environment. You can do this by:

  • choosing to model signs which are going to be powerful, motivating and allow the communicator to interact in different settings 
  • modelling sign in all parts of your day. Communicators will not use sign if they don’t see it being used in real life
  • creating opportunities to sign. Try to offer choices, make some deliberate mistakes and keep items of interest in sight, but out of reach. Most importantly, make sure you pause to allow the communicator to have a turn
  • accept any attempts to sign, keep the communication positive and rewarding

For more information about Basic Key Word Sign workshops in Perth, contact Key Word Sign WA on

Helpful resources:

Key Word Sign

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