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 – 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. 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.

My first Office programme code

The Commtap symboliser and Eye Gaze Communication Book Maker programmes use code (VBA – Visual Basic for Applications) which has been added to Microsoft Office. Virtually anyone with a Microsoft Office product can create VBA code. Here’s how.

  1. Close any open PowerPoint documents.
  2. Create a new PowerPoint document.
  3. Enable the “Developer” tab:
    • Right click on a blank space on the ribbon and choose “Customize the Ribbon…”.
    • In the list of Main Tabs on the right, scroll down to “Developer” and click on the box next to it to get a tick in it.
    • Click on “OK” at the bottom.
  4. Create some code:
    • Click on the “Developer” tab.
    • Click on “Visual Basic”.
    • In the menu on the left, right click on “VBAProject (Presentation1)” and go to Insert -> Module.
    • On the left, you will see “Module1” has appeared – double click on it.
    • In the white area on the right, type the following – exactly as it appears here:
Option Explicit
Sub MyCode()
  MsgBox "Hello everybody!"
End Sub
  1. Click on “MyCode”, then press “F5” or “fn” and “F5” together on your keyboard.

You should get a message box popping up saying “Hello everybody!”. Click on “OK” on the box to get rid of it.

Of course, this is just a very quick introduction to VBA. There are loads of sites and books which you can use to learn more.

Downloading and using a symbol set to use with the Commtap Symboliser in PowerPoint

If you are using the Commtap Symboliser for PowerPoint, to get the full benefit you will need to add at least one symbol set.

As an example, I will show you how to download and use the large and free Arasaac symbol set.

Follow on in the video above, or follow the steps below:

  1. In the Commtap Symboliser group, click on “Preferences”.
  2. In the box, click on “Get more symbols”. This takes you to the “Symbol Sets” page on the Commtap Symboliser website.
  3. Scroll down to “Arasaac Symbols” and  click on the link to get it from the Commtap resources website. You can also download it from Arasaac – but this version includes more words. The symbol set can be used for non-commercial purposes.
  4. Scroll down and click on download.
  5. Choose to save the file. This may take a few minutes.
  6. Find the file you downloaded. Right click on it and choose “Extract all…” and then “Extract”. This will take a minute or two.
  7. Move the new folder called “Arasaac colour” (not the zip file) to somewhere safe on your computer.
  8. Go back to PowerPoint. In the Symboliser preferences box, click on “Create Word List from Folder”.
  9. Browse to the folder you just copied. Click on OK, and then on OK again: this tells PowerPoint where to find all the picture symbols in the set you just downloaded.
  10. Enable the new symbol list by clicking in the box next to its name. Close the preferences box.
  11. You can now symbolise words using the new symbol set.

Commtap Symbols in Schools Project

We are looking for schools who would be interested in taking part in an exciting project exploring the use of communication symbols in mainstream schools.

Are you interested in (or concerned about) any of the following?

  • Being more easily able to differentiate lessons to include children with communication and/or learning difficulties.
  • Being more easily able to communicate the schedule and routines for all children in the class.
  • Having worksheets that work for both more and less able children in a class.
  • Easing children’s frustrations or anxieties from not knowing what to do/what’s going on.

What we can offer:

  • A method for easily adding communication symbols to lesson materials created in PowerPoint (a free subscription for one year to the Commtap Symboliser for PowerPoint for as many staff as would like to use it).
  • Free training/support for your staff in using communication symbols in school.
  • Working with your school to work out what is and isn’t practical for you in terms of communication symbol use.
  • Working with your IT department to help get things set up in a way that best suits your school.

What we would like from you:

  • Feedback about what is and isn’t helpful in terms of communication symbol use.
  • How practical it is using communication symbols.
  • If and how children have benefitted from the use of communication symbols.

Who we are:

Commtap CIC is a not for profit organisation which is a member of the Communication Consortium ( It was formed in 2005 by a group of specialist teachers and speech and language therapists. It provides a free website for sharing ideas for supporting children with communication difficulties and software to assist in this process (

Register your interest

If you or your school are interested in participating in this project or if you would just like to find out more, please contact Neil.

Phone 07986 356634 or 01905 571008.