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Communication is an essential life skill and, because speech is not always possible for many of the children who we care for, it is important for us to find other ways to engage so the children at the hospice can express how they feel. Nurse Siobhán communicates with some of the children who come to the hospice in Makaton, a unique language programme that uses signs, symbols and speech. And she even teaches you a few words in the video at the end of this blog – don’t miss it!

What is Makaton?

Makaton is a language programme that uses symbols, signs and speech to enable the children we care for to communicate. It is delivered face to face when a member of staff, trained in Makaton, communicates with a child during daily activities. It can also be delivered with picture communication tools called PECS where children point using hands or eyes to highlight the item they want or choose.

The complete Makaton Language Programme is made up of two vocabularies (taken from Makaton.org):

  • Core Vocabulary of essential words or concepts presented in stages of increasing complexity. The Core Vocabulary is taught first and is the foundation of the programme,
  • then, a much larger, open-ended, topic-based resource vocabulary providing an enormous bank of further signs and symbols covering broader life experiences and used in association with the Core Vocabulary is learnt/taught or used as required.

Who uses Makaton?

Makaton is a language that is commonly used with those who have conditions that can cause communication difficulties. This can be anyone from babies to adults. In our case, we use it with children who come to the hospice who may have physical or mental disabilities and/or limited movement. This language bridges the gap in communication and helps the children liaise with professionals, family, friends and carers. It is also often used at school and so, by using it, we help to provide continuity to young people’s language when they visit us.

An example of our ‘Butterfly’ and ‘Chicken’ cards:

At the hospice, Makaton is used alongside speech and during activities, such as reading stories and is mostly delivered by trained individuals. Nurse Siobhán has also run training workshops in-house and sends regular emails to teach all staff at the hospice new words and phrases. This helps to develop a deeper understanding of how we communicate and represents how important language is to everyone at the hospice, especially for the children and families that we care for. Siobhan and the team have also developed further resources to help staff communicate in Makaton by filling envelopes with small cards inside which can be found around Helen & Douglas House. The enclosed cards (pictured above) have a sign/symbol on one side and a picture on the other.

The aims of Makaton

Facts about Makaton

  • For basic communication
  • To aid understanding
  • To develop language skills
  • To facilitate social interaction
  • To help build relationships
  • To increase equal opportunities
  • There are 450 concepts within the core vocabulary
  • There are 11,000 concepts within the resource vocabulary
  • You should always use speech alongside signing
  • There are flexible teaching methods


How Makaton works

Communication and talking do not always include speaking. When you watch someone talk they will not just say words, but also use hand movements, gestures, facial expressions, eye contact and body language. With Makaton, signs are used with speech in spoken word order. Using signs can help people who have no speech, or whose speech is unclear.

Research has shown that signs and gestures are easier to learn than spoken words. For example, babies use gestures before they can speak, to tell us what they want – they might point at the biscuit tin or hold out their arms to be lifted up. Children and adults can use Makaton to let others know what they want, make choices, share information and understand more. This helps build and develop important communication and language skills and reduces isolation.

Why we use Makaton

Often, when a child cannot talk, or be understood, it can lead to behavioural issues such as frustration or becoming withdrawn. If this happens they may communicate in ways that could become harmful to them or others. By using Makaton at the hospice, we are developing a way to communicate with all children and helping them express how they feel in a calm and acceptable way. In turn, this can help improve their health and well being. It is another part of the overall holistic care we can deliver at the hospice to make the most of their life, however short that life may be. And it is also a beneficial part of making memories together with their family.

Some of the information found on this page has been adapted from information at makaton.org.

Why not try Makaton yourself? It is fun and engaging and here nurse Siobhán is going to teach you some of our favourite words. WATCH NOW

The practical help you need

Every donation you make enables us to continue to provide care to those who come to the hospice and for our clinical team to be able to develop and learn techniques, like Makaton, so we can effectively care for children and their families.

 You can also read more about other ways we communicate with children at the hospice and how they interact with us if they are non-verbal