Teaching and learning

For better Early Years language learning, we need more Makaton

Makaton gives everybody a helping hand in communicating. Here’s how.
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April 7, 2021
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In a rush? Here’s the quick run-down.

  • This story looks at a tool we can use to help build language skills in Early Years settings: Makaton.
  • In a nutshell, Makaton is a system of hand signs and illustrated symbols we use on top of spoken English, to help make ourselves easier to understand.
  • In your Early Years setting, Makaton can give young children more tools to express themselves and build their language skills, and it makes your environment more accessible for everybody.

When you think of the word ‘communication,’ you probably think about speech. But then again, you’re thinking with a grown-up brain.

If you’re using a baby brain, it’s a whole different game. Communication means crying, gurgling, or wiggling your legs about and hoping for the best.

The point is, there are a whole lot of stepping stones to learn how to communication. And when we’re talking about speech and language development in the Early Years, it’s worth looking at how Makaton can help us on that journey.

Put simply, Makaton is a system of hand signs and symbols that we use on top of our spoken English, which helps make our speech more accessible and helps people learn the building blocks of how language works.

Makaton often comes up in the context of inclusivity, as it’s a terrific way to give people with cognitive or speech difficulties more tools to express themselves. But Makaton is more than that, too. With infants and toddlers, practicing Makaton signs in an early education environment is a great way to support language development, while also making your setting more accessible for everyone.

Today, we’ll take a crash course on Makaton, talk about why it’s so useful in the Early Years, and then look at how you can get going in your own early education environment.

Ready? Let’s get into it.

Makaton 101: What’s it all about?

Makaton isn’t quite a language — it’s a language system. This means that it’s still based on standard English. What makes it special is that it adds hand signs and illustrated symbols on top of spoken English, to give a visual component to our communication.

Here’s how those signs and symbols work:

  • Signs – Makaton’s main feature is its vocabulary of hand signs, which you do while you’re talking — almost like subtitles for real life. Unlike British Sign Language, which has its own sentence structure and grammar rules, Makaton’s gestures are simpler to do, and follow standard English sentence structure. This is part of what makes Makaton useful for language learning, as the signs you learn transfer directly over to spoken English.
  • Symbols – The Makaton system also includes simple line drawings to illustrate the words in our vocabulary. Typically, we don’t use the symbols so much in a conversation — you’d use them as you learn new words, to understand how some object, feeling or action might look out in the real world. However, some Makaton users might carry a booklet or sheet of symbols with them, which they can point to to help give a reference point for what they’re saying.

Makaton isn’t meant to replace standard spoken English, and it doesn’t slow down the rate at which you learn it. Rather, Makaton provides some helpful stepping stones on that language learning journey, and gives everybody the tools to join in the conversation.

The big ideas

What does Makaton look like?

To give you an idea of how Makaton looks in action, here’s a clip from the BBC’s CBeebies, where comedian Rob Delaney reads the children’s book Ten in the Bed using Makaton.


As you can see, Makaton draws on the more physical elements of communication. By adding signs and symbols to speech, it gives you different ways to communicate, so that you can play to your own strengths. And along the way, it helps users (especially young ones) learn some foundational parts of communication, like how we use our faces, bodies and eye contact to deliver a message.

How Makaton helps young children learn language skills

As babies, we learn how to communicate through gestures before we can speak. Just think about how a baby stretches their arms out to you when they want to be held, or points toward an object they’d like to learn more about.

Infants and toddlers are good at gesturing, which is why Makaton’s hand signs are a natural stepping stone for early language learners.

And especially when children are just beginning to build their language skills, Makaton offers them a wider set of tools to be able to express their needs and interests. Hannah Anderson, Director of Membership and Partnerships for the Makaton Charity, explains that this can help us cut down on tantrums and outbursts in the early years.

“Often, bad behavior from children comes from frustration. And young children don’t always know how to express what they want, especially if they’re feeling tired, or confused,” she says. “Sometimes giving the choice of symbols and signs can help them avoid that frustration, which avoids that bad behavior altogether.”

But beyond curbing frustration, Makaton’s signs and symbols just give young children more angles from which to approach language learning. A 2012 study from the University of Bedfordshire also found that for children learning English as an additional language, using Makaton appeared to speed up the rate at which children pick up speaking skills.

Why Makaton matters for inclusivity in early education

We take physical accessibility as a given. So why not make sure our settings are inclusive for speech and communication, too?

You might not need Makaton yourself. In fact, maybe nobody in your early years setting has an immediate need for it. But in the same way that you might not need a lift or a wheelchair ramp, you still know why it’s important to have them.

Makaton helps create an early years environment where every child feels able to speak and be heard. And especially when every child, regardless of need or ability, can boost their language skills by using Makaton, we’ve got a strong case for making it a regular part of your early years environment.

Most of all, Hannah explains, it’s about making a gesture of inclusivity for everyone.

“If you’re someone who needs Makaton, you might feel alone if you don’t see others using it. Makaton shouldn’t just be for key persons or caregivers, but for the whole classroom,” she says. “It’s about creating an environment where everyone sees their needs being supported, and feels able to support the people around them. You never know when you might be someone else’s helper.”

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It’s easy to make Makaton part of early years learning

If you’ve never dabbled in Makaton before, the most important thing to know is that just a small start makes a big difference.

You don’t need to spend weeks researching Makaton or getting certified before you start using it in your early years environment. Just learning the signs for a few key concepts, like immediate needs or core emotions, can go a long way in making your setting more inclusive.

Here are a few common needs you might start with — you can click each word to see the Makaton sign.

Emma Jones, a Makaton Tutor and Artistic Director at Splatter Dance, points out that starting out with Makaton doesn’t have to be intimidating. Getting the ball rolling becomes easier if you look at Makaton as something to sprinkle throughout your day, rather than limiting it to a focused lesson. This also helps children understand all the ways they can use Makaton to help everyone feel more included.

“I think as adults, we’re wired to think we’ve got to be perfect at something before we can use it ourselves. But if you make Makaton a natural part of the things you do each day, it feels easier and becomes spontaneous. You don’t feel like it’s a separate activity, which helps ease the pressure to perform,” she says.

How you can get started with Makaton in your Early Years setting

Right, so a small start is a good start. But how might Makaton look on the day-to-day in your early years setting?

To get into it, you might want to check out all the free resources in the Makaton Library. It’s got vocabulary learning packs, plus plenty of activities and games to help little ones use Makaton in their daily routines. You can also get a membership with the Makaton Charity through the same website, if you’d like access to even more resources and tutoring.

And when you’re learning Makaton with little ones, here are some top tips and ideas to help everyone along:

  • Start with a Makaton ‘sign of the week’. The Makaton Charity updates their website every week with a new sign to learn, including a video of what it looks like. This is a great way to gradually build everyone’s Makaton knowledge at a manageable pace.
  • Learn Makaton signs to go with your favorite nursery rhymes. This helps children see how they can fit Makaton into concepts they already know — plus, having a little singalong makes everything more fun.
  • Move children’s hands at the start, to help them get used to the motions of Makaton. This is most helpful with infants, but everybody can use a helping hand in the beginning.
  • Make sure to use Makaton at snack time. Food and drink are wonderful motivators, and you can easily repeat these signs throughout the day. It’s also a great chance to learn Makaton signs for words like “more,” “less,” and yes and no.
  • Face children straight on when you’re signing together. This makes it easier to understand the hand signs, and also helps emphasize other important parts of communicating, like our facial expressions, body language and eye contact.
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Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

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