Communicating through Key Word Sign (KWS)

Published on: February 04, 2019

For adults and especially children who find it difficult or are reluctant to freely communicate in gatherings and generally, Key Word Sign (KWS) provides an effective way of expressing oneself while taking the pressure off from actually having to ‘talk’.

By Hayley Thomas

Everyday tasks such as asking questions, expressing our needs, and learning at school all rely on our ability to communicate with each other. Communication is also essential for interacting with others, making friends and having fun. 

However, for children with speech, language, and communication difficulties, these everyday tasks are not so easy and being unable to communicate meaningfully or effectively is often a significant and frustrating challenge.

For those who find it difficult to communicate verbally, the use of sign and gestures can play an important part in supporting functional communication skills and help them to connect with the people around them. 

The highly visual and interactive aspect of signing can help gain and sustain a child’s attention much more effectively than words alone.

Making use of signs & gestures to communicate: Key Word Sign

Key Word Sign (KWS), also known as Makaton and sometimes referred to as ‘total’ communication, is the use of signs and natural gestures to support communication and language development of children with communication difficulties.

Approximately 60% of our social communication is communicated nonverbally and many of us already use our hands, facial expressions, and body language along with speech when communicating with others. KWS takes all this into consideration, adds in some formalized hand-shapes and movements, and the result is a fun and functional way of developing communication and interaction skills for children with a range of speech, language, and communication difficulties. 

KWS is designed to support and be used alongside spoken language. It is extremely flexible, and can be used with children in order to allow them to:

  • Share thoughts, choices, and emotions
  • Request and comment
  • Take part in games, songs, and storytime

Signs are used with speech, in spoken word order, which helps to provide extra clues about what someone is saying and helps support understanding of verbal information. It also helps support attention as the highly visual and interactive aspect of signing can help gain and sustain a child’s attention much more effectively than words alone.

Using signing … can take the pressure off having to ‘talk’ while still giving the child a way … to communicate, engage, [and] express themselves.

Emphasize the message

The idea behind KWS is that the main subject of any message is emphasized by the use of signs and gestures. For example, when signing the sentence “Please stop playing and come and eat your lunch”, the key words to be signed would be ‘stop’, ‘playing’, ‘come’, and ‘eat’. This helps the person to understand the main points of the instruction.

Help slow down to process info

Another benefit of signing with speech is that it naturally helps to slow us down. Children and adults with speech, language, and communication needs often need a longer time to process information and understand what is being said to them. When we use speech and sign together, we naturally slow ourselves down and reduce the amount of information given by using simple, repetitive sentences. For those with difficulties understanding spoken language, this is just what they need in order to help them process spoken information.

Using signing will not stop a child’s speech development if the person is aiming to learn to speak. However, it can take the pressure off having to ‘talk’ while still giving the child a way of being able to communicate and engage in joint activities while expressing themselves.

This article was coordinated by Steps with Theera.

Further information


About the Author

Hayley is a UK-trained speech and language therapist and Head of the Therapy Centre at Steps with Theera. who is passionate about helping children to communicate. She has over ten years’ experience in providing therapy for those with a wide range of speech, language and communication disorders within the UK, Hong Kong, and Thailand. Hayley enjoys finding fun, creative ways to deliver therapy and believes that a multimodal approach in supporting communication development is essential. 

The views expressed in the articles in this magazine are not necessarily those of BAMBI committee members and we assume no responsibility for them or their effects.

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