British Keyword Signing

Keyword signing is a method of communication where signs are used with keywords when speaking. This method is used with and by people with a range of communication difficulties to improve understanding of spoken language and to make it easier to express themselves.

Keyword signing systems

In the UK, there are two main proprietary keyword signing systems – Makaton and Signalong. Both these systems use signs based on British Sign Language (BSL). Key features of these sign systems:

  • Signs are based on BSL.
  • In general, one sign is chosen to represent a concept and, unlike BSL, there are no regional variations.
  • In some cases, signs may be simplified in comparison to the original BSL sign.
  • In some cases, where an appropriate sign does not exist in BSL, a sign may be created within a system – usually – or always – with the advice of a BSL consultant.

Differences between keyword signing and BSL

BSL is a language

BSL is a complete language with a grammar and word order which is different from English. It is not possible to sign in BSL and speak English at the same time. BSL is used between and with people who are deaf.

Finger spelling

Finger spelling is often used in BSL. In general, finger spelling is not used in keyword signing systems. Finger spelling requires a high level of manual dexterity and can be difficult to read without good literacy. As many of those using keyword signing may have difficulties with one or both of these skills, finger spelling will not usually be helpful in enhancing their communication.

Sign Supported English

Sign Supported English (SSE) may also be used instead of BSL. With SSE, English is spoken whilst using signs from BSL. SSE may be used in mixed groups of deaf and non-deaf people, or it may be a person’s preference. When using SSE, much of the grammar of BSL is not used (particularly word order) – meaning that some information may be lost, or it may be harder to get over some information.

Although keyword signing is a form of SSE, it will sign less of the spoken language, may miss out more information that is otherwise clear from the context, would not use finger-spelling (except perhaps a minimal amount – one or two letters).

Regional variations

BSL (and BSL SSE) vary across the countries where they are used. There may be many different signs for a single concept – and the sign that is used predominantly for a concept can vary from place to place. Keyword signing systems have one sign to represent one concept for the vast majority of concepts. This makes them easier to learn and more usable between different contexts and settings.

Key principles of keyword signing

  • Always speak at the same time as signing.
  • Sign the most important words in what you are saying.
  • Sign the minimum amount to get key information over – where people are having difficulties processing spoken language signing too much can be confusing.


Learning to sign keywords

To use keyword signing effectively, it is highly recommended that you attend a course. Both Makaton and Signalong run courses in using keyword signing.

Finding signs

You can purchase sign manuals and dictionaries from Makaton and Signalong. Makaton offers an app where you can look up signs. Signalong has an online sign dictionary and also sign lookup text message service. Free online dictionary of Makaton and Signalong signs. is a fantastic source of BSL signs. Signs included here include signs used in the main keyword signing systems currently in use in the UK – but it also includes many signs which aren’t.

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