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.

2 Replies to “British Keyword Signing”

  1. Wouldnt it be best if keyword signing courses were led by those fluent in BSL rather than those who only know the keyword signs. Isnt rather like someone teaching counting to 10 who only knows how to count to 10 themselves. What happens to the child with the potential to count to 11 in that situation they are held back by the limited skills of those supporting them.

  2. Yes, I think you are right. However, there are quite a lot of differences between Makaton, Signalong and BSL in terms of what the signs are, the purpose of signing and who uses them.

    Differences in signs

    Makaton and Signalong are losely based on BSL. Reasons for this include:
    – wanting to choose a particular sign to consistently represent a particular concept: in BSL there can be quite a lot of regional variation. Makaton/Signalong will have chosen a particular variation (sometimes they’ve each chosen a different one!!)
    – making it easier for people with learning/physical difficulties to use them (I’m not sure they are always easier, sometimes I would argue they are not!)

    In my experience, BSL signers using/learning either Makaton or Signalong can find it really annoying because of these differences.

    Differences in use

    Makaton/Signalong are designed to support communication. They’re a form of SSE (sign-supported English). It would be great if SSE were actually taught (I’ve never seen an SSE course advertised). Makaton/Signalong signs are designed for those who are struggling with language. For those who could use signing as their main form of communication, I would generally recommend BSL – but that would depend on the context.

    Having a set of actual BSL SSE signs as a basis for key word signing would be great – and this is what Makaton and Signalong have attempted to do. However, it’s already hard enough to get people to use signs to support communication with those who are struggling (due to language and learning difficulties), so I’m not sure how yet another set of signs would help.

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