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Using signing to communicate

Language uses words to represent meanings so people can communicate their thoughts to each other. As well as words, we also use body language and gestures to communicate.

  • Body language means the way we stand, or position our arms, and so on. It is often unconscious but it can add a lot of important meaning to the words we use.
  • Gesture is a form of body language where movements are used more deliberately to convey a specific message, for example nodding our head, beckoning, pointing, rolling our eyes, or wrinkling our nose.

In situations where it is hard to make ourselves understood (such as a noisy pub or a country where we don't speak the language) we tend to gesture more with our face and hands to explain what we mean. For people with communication difficulties, body language and gesture may be central to communication. Rather than just adding to speech, these non-verbal methods of communication might be the only way they can express a particular thought.

Words are often spoken or written, but they can also be expressed by gesturing or signing such as in British Sign Language which is widely used by deaf communities across the UK. People who cannot speak may use signing to express their thoughts. Signing is also used as a visual support to help people who have comprehension difficulties understand what is said to them. Signing, like speaking, does not involve any equipment – so signing can be a very spontaneous, portable and reliable form of communication. The main difficulty with signing and gesture systems is that other people need to know the system in order to understand what the signer is saying.

In the AAC context, it is recommended that speech is always used as well as signing. Many people who use signing as part of their total communication system can hear at least some of what is said to them. Signing is used to help them to understand what is being said, rather than to replace speech. Signing can have benefits for both communication partners in a conversation.

Signing systems currently used in the UK

Makaton is designed to support spoken language. Signing is used with speech and in the same order as the spoken word. The signs are based on the signs of British Sign Language. Makaton was originally designed to help people with learning disabilities to understand spoken language and to provide a means of basic self-expression. However, it is now used with a wide range of people with complex communication needs.
The Makaton Charity | Email: | Website:

Signalong is sign supported communication to help children and adults with communication difficulties, mostly associated with learning disabilities or autism. Signing is used at the same time as spoken English, and follows English word order, so providing support for everyday communication. Signalong signs are based on British Sign Language.
Signalong | Email: | Website:

Paget Gorman Signed Speech is used to teach English language and literacy to children who are deaf. This system is also used with children who have a specific language disorder and is used at the same time as spoken English. Every component of spoken language is signed following the exact word order of the spoken form.
Paget Gorman | Website:

Amer-Ind is a set of signs based on the hand shapes used by native Americans to communicate with other tribes. The signs stemmed from the need to communicate with groups who spoke different languages. Amerind signs are therefore more guessable than signs from natural sign languages used by deaf communities. Amerind uses key words only, and does not follow the word order of any spoken language. It has been particularly useful as an AAC system for adults with acquired difficulties.
See also: Amer-Ind Gestural Code: Based on Universal American Indian Hand Talk; Reference: Skelly, M. et al 1974: 'American Indian sign (Amer-Ind) as a facilitator of verbalization in the oral apraxic', Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders, 39, 445-456

Finger Spelling / Manual Alphabet uses hand positions to represent letters. People in the deaf community use the two-handed form. One-handed versions are used by and with people who are both deaf and partially sighted. This system may be used by people with hemiplegia (one-sided paralysis).


British Deaf Association | Website:

Action on Hearing Loss | Tel: 0808 808 0123 | Textphone: 0808 808 9000 | Email: | Website: