Photo Gallery: Thumbs up for school’s help with language skills

12:07 19 March 2014

St Edmund

St Edmund's Pre-School in Hoxne have been given Makaton friendly status after one of the children attending the pre school used it every day prompting the staff to learn and teach the other children and themselves, enabling better communication. l-r: Austin Pilch, Sharon Ashton and Noel Bassett

Archant Norfolk Photographic © 2013

A north Suffolk pre-school is using a form of sign language not only to help children who cannot speak at all but as a way to improve all youngsters’ communication abilities.


• Makaton was originally devised in the early 1970s to use signs (or hand gestures) and symbols (or pictures) to support spoken language but was revised in 1996 for children and adults with communication and learning difficulties.

• It is designed to be used alongside speech, with signs and symbols used in spoken word order to provide extra clues as to what the person is saying.

• This means there is a strong link to learning language and literacy, as the signs give visual support to words and therefore aid verbal comprehension.

• The aim is to only sign key words and then use direction or movement to add to the message, as well as facial expression, body language and tone of voice. “Research has shown that signs and gestures are easier to learn than spoken words,” the Makaton charity has said. “This makes sense. Babies use gestures before they can speak, to tell us what they want.”

• Makaton has since been made popular by the CBeebies character Mr Tumble, played by Justin Fletcher, who uses Makaton symbols and signs to support speech throughout each episode of the children’s programme Something Special.

• The programmes use a simple repetitive format, making it easy to learn the Makaton symbols and signs used in each episode.

Before a child learns to speak, using their hands and facial gestures are often the only way they can communicate.

Sharon Ashton, special educational needs co-ordinator at St Edmund’s Pre-School in Hoxne, near Diss, started to learn this through Makaton, when two-year-old Austin Pilch, who had an element of delay in his speech, started to attend.

It was suggested the language programme – which is designed to help those who cannot communicate effectively by speaking – could help the boy to ask for milk, water and his parents to read for him.

But having introduced it to him within the pre-school, manager Amanda Davies said they noticed it was “something being embraced by all the children”.

Now other workers at the centre in Oak Hill, Hoxne have been trained to use the technique – so all children can be taught how to use it and benefit from greater communication skills.

“It has been a wonderful success story,” said Mrs Davies, adding that learning signs for objects helps their understanding of language and learn words later on, as the signs and symbols give visual support to the words being spoken.

“We’re delighted that this generation is learning to use it for communication in a wider area.”

She stressed that Makaton is not a replacement for children learning to talk and that it does not delay their speech but enhances their overall abilities, as it enables them to interact better with other children and adults.

That interaction, in turn, aids their emotional development – and using their hands to make signs can help their physical skills too, she added.

“It is vital in giving children the confidence, if they can’t yet speak, to be able to communicate with each other,” Mrs Davies said.

The Makaton Charity has said that for many children it can often take away the frustration they feel at not being able to get their thoughts or what they want across – thereby improving behaviour.

Mrs Davies said St Edmund’s Pre-School now tries to use Makaton as much as possible and plans to continue using it as part of its daily routine.

She said it was particularly useful for highlighting objects and giving instructions. For example children can learn to ask for a drink, whereas staff can use it to say “break-time” or ask children to wash their hands.

Posters are displayed so that non-users can learn some of the signs and St Edmund’s has also been awarded Makaton-Friendly status by the Makaton Charity, because of its widespread use in the setting.

“Overall, it’s a fantastic addition to anyone’s language skills,” the pre-school said.

Is your child’s school and pre-school using innovative methods to teach young people new skills? Email


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