Kids College have been proudly teaching Key Word Signing since our inception. Key Word Signing is a hugely valuable tool for communication and learning in early childhood education.
Key Word Signing fosters responsive and meaningful interactions between educators and children building trusting relationships, which engage and support each child to feel secure, confident and included.
Key Word Signing also improves the relationships between children. Each child is supported to regulate their own behaviour, respond appropriately to the behaviour of others and communicate effectively to resolve conflict.
With such a strong communication tool Key Word Signing ensures each child’s current knowledge, strengths, ideas, culture, abilities and interests are the foundation of the program in our child-centred curriculum of learning.
What is Key Word Signing?
Key Word Sign, formally known as Makaton, is a simplified form of manual signing and a highly effective communication form. It builds upon natural gesture and body language, which forms so much of how we communicate day-to-day.
In Australia, we borrow from the signs of Auslan, the Australian deaf community’s language. Key Word Sign may be used with both children and adults.
The use of signs does not replace spoken words but supports understanding and development of language at any age.
Key word sign uses a core vocabulary of specifically selected words containing concepts and ideas.
Each word or concept is matched to a hand sign. Signs are used for the words in the message that hold the most important information versus signing every single word. For example, if someone said, “Dry your hands” the key words that would be signed would be ‘dry’ and ‘hands’.
The 5 principles of Key Word Signing
- Sign and speech go together.
- Use complete grammatical sentences if appropriate – emphasise verbally the signed word.
- Sign only the keywords in your sentence, e.g. “Do you want to play?”
- Use facial expression and body language to add meaning.
- Teach signs that are relevant and interactive to allow the communicator to comment, question, request, protest and share their feelings and opinions
Communication is not just about using spoken words. First, we need to be able to engage a child through gaining joint attention. This social interaction with parents/carers is the early stage of communication. Once you have achieved this then communication begins by facial expressions, gestures, signs, and symbols. These are all ways we express ourselves even before we learn to talk.
Research suggests that the importance of gestures is significant and that children need 16 words and gestures by 16 months to begin to establish a language framework. The exact gestures learned will vary in families but this gestural language is a critical milestone in early language acquisition and it launches a child from early nonverbal language to first words and a burst of language development from 18 months. This also correlates with a child having attained gross and early fine motor skills, i.e. walking and pointing, etc. and they can now concentrate on developing the more complex and sophisticated motor skills of speech.
It is evident then that the gestures children use in communicating with those around them, even before they use spoken language, tell parents/carers and others about how a child’s communication is developing.
Signing can benefit communicators who have difficulties with attention, comprehension and/or developing speech, which makes it perfect for all children in the early years of their development where their communication skills are growing rapidly.
Key word signing in early childhood development
Teaching children Sign or signs before they learn to speak can inspire them to learn spoken language earlier, which is a blessing for many parents. The use of signs gets many children to enjoy communication, and take it to another level – the spoken word. Studies have found when people learn two languages at the same time they learn both languages better.
Signing develops more of the brain than learning a spoken language. When learning one or more spoken languages the information is taken in, processed, and stored in a small area of the brain’s left hemisphere. But when learning signing the visual information is taken in by the right hemisphere, and then transferred for processing and storage to the left hemisphere. Dr. Marilyn Daniels likes to point out that learning a spoken language only uses the mouth and ears, but learning signing as a second language utilizes the hands and eyes in addition to the ears and mouth.
Children go in and out of phases where they love to mimic, verbally and/or physically. Many youngsters, before they speak any words, will even develop signs for many things – juice, milk, the desire to have diapers changed, etc. Almost all kids go through a phase or more where they appreciate learning Sign and are very receptive to it.
Evidence suggests that children’s’ gestures often reflect knowledge they have but cannot express. This is particularly so in the early stages of language development.
Auslan is on the National Curriculum in Australian schools
In Australia, we borrow from the signs of Auslan, the Australian deaf community’s language to use with Key Word Signing. Auslan is part of the National curriculum in languages for primary schools and high school and is supported by The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA). Auslan has a dual pathway on the national curriculum taught as a first language and offered as a second language. This dual-pathway national curriculum for Auslan systematises provision in Australian schools, serving both deaf and hearing student populations and rightfully acknowledging the place of Auslan and the culture of the Deaf community in Australian society. It offers access to the formal study of Auslan to deaf children through a first language learner pathway and to students interested in learning it as an additional language through a second language learner pathway.
Most hearing children, or deaf children from signing families, enter the early years of schooling with established communication in one or more languages. Cognitive and social development at this stage is exploratory and egocentric; thus learning typically focuses on students’ immediate world of family, home, school and friends. Children at this age are learning how to socialise with new people, share with others, and participate in structured routines and activities at school. Auslan is learnt in parallel with English literacy and, for some children, spoken English. Some learners arrive at school with little experience of English and will learn it as a second language, while others may use spoken English with their hearing family members. The learning of Auslan supports and enriches deaf children’s learning of English and vice versa.
What are the building blocks necessary to develop key word sign?
- Fine motor skills: Development of fine motor skills to enable the physical performance.
- Imitation: A child needs to be able to copy what someone else is doing in order to produce the signs themselves.
- Lack of tactile sensitivities: A child must be able to tolerate being touched so that someone can assist them to manipulate their fingers to produce the signs.
- Planning and sequencing: The sequential multi-step task/activity performance to achieve a well-defined result.
- Receptive (understanding) language: Comprehension of language.
- Working memory: The ability to temporarily retain and manipulate information involved in language comprehension, reasoning, and learning new information; and to update this information as change occurs.
- Body awareness: Knowing body parts and understanding the body’s movement in space in relation to other limbs and objects.
The benefits of Key Word Signing
- Provides visual information alongside speech, which can assist visual learners.
- Lasts longer than speech, which can assist communicators who need more time to process information.
- Encourages a good language model where we slow our speech rate, simplify what we say and emphasise the most important words.
- Increases opportunities for successful interactions, as signs, can be easier to produce than speech.
- Promotes the extension of language skills while speech is still developing.
- Reduces frustration, as communicators have a tool for expressing their needs.
- Improves hearing kids’ reading skills as they are more likely to remember a word that they learnt in conjunction with a sign.
- Increased maths skills as their brain is wired to learn math in conjunction with the signs they were taught.
- Improves kids’ motor skills with the dexterity used to create the signs.
- Builds stronger pathways to remembering songs as the melody, words and signs boost memory and vocabulary.
- Opens up communication to a wider audience as the signs are based around Auslan, the official language for the hearing impaired.
- Encourages joint attention between you and the child
- Increase opportunities for successful and positive communicative interactions
- Reduce frustration where needs and wants cannot be expressed verbally
- Assist visual learners and allow longer processing time (signs last longer than speech)
- May be easier to perform if delayed/poor motor control or coordination of higher level motor skills
- Encourage body awareness and fine motor skill
How Kids College uses Key Word Signing
Rich language input characterises the first stages of learning. Most children are familiar with the forms of signs and their fluency and accuracy is further developed through activities such as play, games and viewing texts. Our curriculum builds on children’s interests and sense of enjoyment and curiosity, with an emphasis on active, experiential learning and confidence building. Creative play provides opportunities for using the language for purposeful interaction in less familiar contexts.
Children build vocabulary for thinking and talking about childcare topics, routines and processes, and expand their knowledge and understanding by interacting in new contexts and by participating in more structured routines and activities. We use Auslan for different language functions, such as asking and responding to questions, expressing wishes, responding to and giving directions, greeting, thanking, apologising, agreeing and disagreeing, and taking turns in games and simple shared learning activities.
We choose to use signs that are going to be powerful, motivating and allow the communicator to interact in different settings. For instance giving the child signs to say ‘more’ and ‘finish’ empowers their communication during any setting, whether playing in the playground or eating a meal.
We model sign in all parts of our day. Communicators will not use sign if they do not see it used in real life. By pairing our words with the signs children begin to understand the context of signing in our day not just at mat times but throughout the whole day. Signing ‘food’ whilst offering food during meal times.
Creating opportunities to sign. We offer choices, make some deliberate mistakes and keep items of interest in sight but out of reach. Most importantly, we make sure to pause to allow the communicator to have a turn in the conversation. During mat times we will let the child choose a card to denote what nursery rhyme we will sing and sign.
We keep signing fun and engaging. We accept any attempts to sign and keep the communication positive and rewarding. Like spoken languages there will be different quirks to their signing. Recognise every attempt they make and celebrate that learning.
Benefits of Key Word Signing for specific age groups at Kids College
Signs can be introduced successfully at any age as another means of communication – to be used alongside speech.
Within our Discoverers baby room program and the Explorers toddlers room program the benefits of Key Word Signing are early communication, reduced frustration and enhanced language development.
In the older rooms 3 Year Kindy Adventurers and 4 year Kindy Imagineers, the children can be encouraged to learn signs for behaviour / manners / emotions and much more – which will help to reinforce good behaviour and a kind & respectful attitude towards each other, the staff and other people’s belongings.
Children can be given clear instructions using signs. You can call a child’s name across the play area and then give a specific sign (don’t touch, gently, stop, wait etc) without embarrassing the child or having to raise your voice.
Children in the early years love to learn signs, they love singing action songs and they pick them up as quickly as you can show them. Choosing signs which follow the themes / topics we are covering at various times will help to vary what they are learning. Learning to sign the alphabet also helps with letter and word recognition, making reading easier.
What activities can be used to help improve key word signing?
When playing with the child:
Give the child instructions to follow, sign the key concepts within the command (e.g. “Put the doll in the bed”).
Sign the key concepts about what you and the child are doing when using toys in play (e.g. teddy bear jump, doll eating, big banana).
When looking at books with the child use the signs for the key words in the books (e.g. where is the green sheep?
Sign key concepts when completing routines throughout the day such as taking a bath and getting ready for bedtime (e.g. shoes off, in the bed).
Sign the question word and key information when asking questions (e.g. “Where is the girl?).
Sign the key words within you or the child’s comments when describing the picture and/or answering a question (e.g. “the girl is under the table”).
Get the child to answer questions using sign (e.g. adult: “Where is girl? child: Under the bed”).
Sing songs/nursery rhymes and sign the key words within the song (e.g. star in ‘Twinkle Twinkle’, the different animals in ‘Old Macdonald’).
Encourage the child to use key word sign during daily routines. For example:When asking for food (e.g. “I want apple please”). When asking for a drink (e.g. “Can I have water please?”). To go to the toilet (e.g. “I need to go to the toilet“). To ask for help (e.g. when they need assistance with a toy or need help to open something – “Help me please”.
This information has been sourced from the following websites
We recommend the Signing Stars resources which can be found at
and a special thank you to Hayley Cann, Childhood Development Planner at Key Word Signing Australia who teaches our whole Kids College team Key Word Signing.
National Quality Standards
1.1.2 Child-Centred. Each child’s current knowledge, strengths, ideas, culture, abilities and interests are the foundation of the program.
5.1.1 Positive Educator to child interactions. Responsive and meaningful interactions build trusting relationships, which engage and support each child to feel secure, confident and included.
5.2.2 Relationships between children. Each child is supported to regulate their own behaviour, respond appropriately to the behaviour of others and communicate effectively to resolve conflict.
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Teacher Jen and the Kids College Childcare family