Monday 2 September 2019

Let's Talk About .... Key Word Signing

I have previously published a post on the various methods that L uses and has used to communicate with us. In that post I very briefly discussed Key Word Signing. In the last few months I have been brushing up on my Key Word Signing and O has been doing weekly videos on different signs so I wanted to dedicate a blog post purely to the subject. In this post I will mostly be referring to children when using Key Word Signing but keep in mind that many adults also use Key Word Signing to communicate.

So what is Key Word Signing?

Key Word Signing or Makaton (as it is also known) is one way in which people who have difficulties with spoken communication skills can develop their language skills and communicate their needs, thoughts and opinions with those around them. Key Word Signing can be used to encourage and support the verbal language development in children, and adults, who have communication difficulties as well as in those whose communication skills are still developing - babies and young children.

Key word signing or Makaton is a simplified version of Australian Sign Language (Auslan) and as the name suggests, the actual signs just represent a core vocabulary of specially selected words that have been deemed most appropriate for children who have verbal language difficulties to to learn and use.

Key Word Signing is considered a manual form of communication in that a child uses their hands and fingers to form the signs and natural gestures. Those who use and teach Key Word Signing in Australia gratefully acknowledges the Australian Deaf Community for the use of the Auslan signs. Key Word Signing is a form of Augmentative and Alternative Communication (ACC) as it is a communication method other than speech.

When signing the word, you also need to speak the word so that the child begins to make the connection between the two. Signs are used for the words in the message that holds the most important information, rather than signing the entire sentence. For example, if you were to ask a child to “wash their hands,” you would use the key word signs of “wash” and “hands.” When using Key Word Signing, you should also use other visual strategies such as body language and facial expressions to convey the message that you want.

Why use Key Word Signing?

Verbal speech is the most efficient and effective way for children to communicate but some children may not develop verbal speech due to many reasons. However they can still learn to express their needs, thoughts and opinions through the use of Key Word Signing.

Key Word Signing isn't intended to replace the need for speech, it is used to assist the development of speech. Key Word Signing can also supplement or support a child's speech if they are not able to articulate themselves clearly. For example, they may not be able to say the word “water,” but may be able to sign the gesture for “drink.”

Key Word Signing can alleviate a child's frustration at not being to express their needs, thoughts and opinions. It is important to remember that Key Word Signing alone may not be sufficient enough meet the communication needs of an individual. It may need to be used in conjunction with visual cues, visual communication boards and other communication devices.

L picked up key word signing from a very young age and it was truly wonderful to see his frustration at being unable to communicate ease a little. At first L picked up the signs for please, more, finished, eat and drink. He would never say the word but the signing action was very clear.

The hand gestures used in Key Word Signing often look like what they mean, for example the signs for eat and drink. Gestures often last longer in space and time than spoken words, so a child has more time to process the visual signs that they can see. The hand gestures used in Key Word Signing can also slow down and simplify the speech of the speaker, which again allows a longer processing time for the child. The use of Key Word Signing will also slow down the child's speech so spoken words may come out more easily and slowly.

The Key Word Signing gestures are often easier to produce than speech for a child whose verbal speech is still developing. The gestures used can aid a child in adding extra information to their speech attempts.

Who can Key word Signing be used for?

Key Word Signing can be used with and taught to anyone whose verbal communication skills are still developing. 
I have used Key Word Signing with children who have additional needs, children for whom English is their second language and for babies whose communication skills are very much still developing and have had great success with all groups. Key Word Signing is a very effective communication form and it really does alleviate a child's frustration at being unable to communicate.

It is super important to note that the use of Key Word Signing will not stop a child from talking, so long as you always talk at the same as you sign. And remember that Key Word Signing was initially developed to support the development of speech, not to replace the need for speech.

What are the important Principles when using and
learning Key Word Signing?

When using Key Word Signing there are some important principles that you, as the speaker and the teacher, need to remember....
  • First up, get the child's visual attention. You will need the child to be looking in your direction so that they can see what you are signing. Key Word Signing really does rely on the speaker and the listener to be at least looking in each others direction for it to be effective.
  • Always speak the words that you are signing so that the child begins to make the connection between the Key Word Signs and speech. And when you are speaking, ensure that you are speaking in grammatically correct sentences.
  • When a child is using Key Word Signing to communicate their needs, opinions and thoughts, acknowledge all of their attempts at the signs. Even if their attempt is not 100% correct, acknowledge their attempt. Communication can be tricky at the best of time so if the child makes an attempt to use a sign, acknowledge their attempt.
  • When you are using Key Word Signing, place your vocal emphasis on the key words that you want to convey. For example when asking a child to wash their hands, emphasis "L, wash your hands please."
  • When using Key Word Signing, use the normal facial expressions and body language that you would use when communicating verbally with a child whose verbal speech has developed. This will assist the child in developing an understanding of the non-verbal communication skills.
  • Children are most likely to learn the Key Word Signs that are meaningful or useful to them in their daily lives. They will most likely learn a key word sign a lot more quickly if they have repeated opportunities to see it being used and practice it themselves. As mentioned earlier, L picked up the key word signs for "finished, more, please, eat, drink, play, book" long before he learnt other key word signs. These were the signs that were used every day and as such were easier for him to learn.

What are the building blocks skills that are necessary
when learning Key Word Signing?

When teaching Key Word Signing to children, there are some building blocks that the child should first have, or be developing, in order to assist them in key word signing. If these skills are still developing in the child, then they may find it difficult to perform the signs. This doesn't mean that the child is unable to develop the ability to learn Key Word Sign, it may just take them a little longer to effectively communicate their needs, thoughts and opinions through key word signing. You may also need to work on these building block skills at the same time as teaching Key Word Signing.
  • Fine Motor Skills - All of the Key Word Signs are done through the use of finger and hand signs and gestures. If a child's fine motor skills and coordination are still developing they may struggle to correctly sign the signs. But as mentioned above, acknowledge their approximate attempts to use the signs. This is important in building up their confidence that they can do it and reassuring them that they are capable learners.
  • Imitation - At first a child may simply copy or imitate what someone else is signing in order to produce the signs themselves. This means that you as the teacher need to produce the signs correctly.
  • Receptive (understanding) language skills - If a child's receptive language skills are still developing, they may not fully grasp what you are asking them or talking to them about. As time goes on, a child will begin to develop and build on their receptive language skills through the use of Key Word Signing as they will need to comprehend what is being signed (and said) to them. One thing that you as the speaker can do, is remain calm. If the child is taking time to understand what you are asking, remember that it could be because they are still mentally processing what you are asking.
  • Expressive language skills - A child may struggle to express themselves through the use of Key Word Signing if their expressive language skills are still developing. This skill will develop as they practice the signs in real life experiences. Again it is important for you as the speaker to remain calm when engaging with the child.
  • Tactile sensitivities -  Initially a child may resist learning Key Word Signing especially if they have a tactile sensitivity. It can be helpful to assist a child to manipulate their fingers and hands to produce the signs. If they have tactile sensitivities, think sensory processing difficulties, they may resist you holding their hands.
  • Working Memory - A child may have difficulty in retaining Key Word Signs if their working memory is still developing. Working memory is the ability to retain and manipulate the information involved in language comprehension and learning new information, and the ability to update this information as changes occur.
  • Planning and sequencing - This is the ability to plan what signs the individual wants to use and to sequence the signs in the order needed. L struggled with this skill for a long time but the more we used Key Word Signing with him, the better he became at remembering what signs he wanted to use and in which order. Again, ensure that you acknowledge the child's attempts to use the signs.

What can you do to help a child in learning key word signing?

Looking at the building block skills mentioned above that are needed to effectively use Key Word Signing, there are many, many activities that you can do with the child to build upon the skills that they already have.

During play we would use Key word Signs that were related to the game or activity that L was engaged in. We would also use Key Word Signs and encourage L to use them too, during every day daily routines. The more we used the signs, the more receptive L was to using them. We would incorporate fine motor activities in L's play so we could assist him in developing his fine motor control. We also used visual timetables and visual communication boards with L at home. If we were unsure at what he was signing, we would use one of these visual cues to assist us and L in understanding what it was that he was attempting to communicate. We encouraged L's carers to also use Key Word Signing with him as the more practice he had in using the signs, the less frustrated he became at communicating his needs, opinions and thoughts.

When reading books, we used to sign the key concepts that were in the story. We would ask questions using Key Word Signing about the illustrations in books in regards to "where" particular objects were in the pictures. This not only assisted L in learning these signs but also assisted in developing his receptive and expressive communication skills. We would sing songs and nursery rhymes using Key Word Signing. One of L's favourite nursery rhymes was Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

And lastly, as I have mentioned several times in this post, remain calm. Communication can be incredibly difficult when you are struggling to put your thoughts together as to what you want to say, let alone if you have difficulty verbally articulating yourself. Acknowledge all attempts that your child makes in using Key Word Signing as this will boost their confidence.

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