Give us a sign!


The benefits of using BSL with all pupils

I have been using British Sign Language (BSL) as a visual learning tool in my science classes for the past year. As a kinaesthetic process, it is an excellent way for visual and tactile learners to reinforce key concepts. The majority of signs are very logical and can be used as part of a sequence of vocabulary – such as cell, nucleus, cell wall and cell membrane. Recall of signs is a useful prompt for vocabulary terms and as a visual cue for a particular topic or an assist for an explanation.

The use of signs allows students to express themselves and grow in confidence through an alternative form of communication, as well as learn an important lifelong skill which they can use to communicate with people with hearing impairments. I also use it to aid literacy by working on spellings with students. This kinaesthetic method is an alternative way that students can choose to remember key words, their spellings and their contexts.

The feedback I have received from students has been very positive. Students are always very engaged when learning new signs and using ones they have previously learned in conversation or explanations to answers. By creating visual clues, BSL helps learners to gain the context and a deeper understanding of terminology. It facilitates longer periods of attention, is inclusive and caters for all abilities.


BSL signs for BSL.I run an after school BSL club which focuses on general conversation skills and allows students of all backgrounds to integrate and express themselves freely. Students say they feel more confident in being able to communicate with other people, both adults and fellow students, using the new skills they have acquired.

Students who have autism and Asperger’s syndrome are able to communicate more easily in social settings and often excel with the rules and grammar of BSL. One student I teach is intrigued by the differences in word order in a sentence between English and BSL.

As BSL is a visual language, it can be a good antidote to the noisy classrooms that can distract and distress many learners with SEN. It can therefore create a calm learning environment where the chance of sensory overload is significantly reduced. The use of signing also helps students with specific learning difficulties refine their motor skills and coordination, as some signs involve a series of complex movements.

A student I work with who has severe dyslexia has picked up BSL rapidly and has used fingerspelling to improve written spelling and to cue for vowel and consonant digraphs that are tricky, such as “au”, “ou” and “ch”. By visually touching out the representative letters, it appears to assist with short-term memory and sequencing problems commonly found in people with dyslexia. The student is then able to transfer this to written work, and enjoy story-telling and giving presentations using BSL. The student’s attainment in science has significantly improved since the introduction of BSL to lessons. People with dyslexia are often visual learners, so the use of BSL makes a lot of sense for them.

As part of school INSET, I have run a course for other teaching staff to see how I use BSL to improve literacy and understanding of subject specific vocabulary. This has led to me working with a colleague on delivery of a lesson about waves in physics; I taught my colleague the science signs for frequency, wavelength and amplitude. The students in the class were shown the signs and asked what they thought they represented. Due to the visual and logical nature of the signs, the students were easily able to decipher the context and vocabulary for each sign. Through teaching BSL to other staff members, there has been a lot of sharing of ideas and new creative practice.

BSL is being used in primary schools to improve literacy and numeracy skills and I believe that it has much wider uses as a learning tool than have so far been identified.

Further information

Jon Hickman is a science teacher at Ferndown Upper School in Dorset:


Jon Hickman
Author: Jon Hickman

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  1. We are a school with a 40 place MLD inclusive setting within it, we use makaton throughout for all children and it helps with behaviour management too. Since bringing in the signing element to all children we have found that very rarely a raised voice is heard within the walls. Additionally, the choir sing and sign and children learn words for songs, stories and poems which enhances the learning from the text and fits in beautifully with talk for writing,
    Thinking inclusively the mainstream and the unit provision both benefit from the inclusive signing throughout.

  2. I work for a music hub and teach in both sen and mainstream primary schools schools. I also use Makaton to support children’s learning. It helps with understanding, bahaviour management, and is particularly useful to support pupils with EAL.
    As Makaton uses signs, speech and symbols it can give aural, visual and kinaesthetic support.

  3. I use SIGNALONG rather than Makaton with my students with SEN it has a much wider vocabulary and you are able to use grammatical markers such as tense endings.
    In the school where I work we are having significant impact on our students grammatical awareness and ability to produce mature adult phrasing. Sign allows children who have difficulty processing sound to see grammar and therefore relate it to meaning.


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