Making Makaton – The Great North Museum: Hancock

What is Makaton?

Put simply, Makaton is a language programme that uses signs and symbols alongside speech to help over 100,000 children and adults in the United Kingdom communicate. As well as aiding the development of language in young children, it’s particularly useful for children and adults with learning and/or communication difficulties. By using a combination of signs, symbols and speech Makaton is a way to support spoken word English.

Importantly, Makaton differs from its close cousin British Sign Language (BSL). While the signs for Makaton were originally based on signs from BSL, many of the signs have been simplified and are standardised across the whole country with no regional variations – unlike BSL. Another key difference is that Makaton follows the spoken word order of English and therefore doesn’t have its own sentence structure and grammar like BSL.

Clearly both Makaton and BSL are important modes of communication but crucially, have different uses for different users. With this in mind, it wouldn’t be foolish to assume that Makaton could aid communication, learning and development of early years as well as adult learners with learning and/or communication difficulties in museums such as the Great North Museum: Hancock.

The Great North Museum: Hancock

Located in Newcastle and housed in an impressive Victorian purpose built museum, the Great North Museum: Hancock displays a wide variety of objects relating to natural history, archaeology, geology and world cultures. Part of the museum’s mission is to strive to be innovative and it would be easy to claim that the ways and the extent to which Makaton has been implemented into the museum’s learning programme, are certainly innovative; arguably providing inspiration to the rest of the sector.

Above: Great North Museum: Hancock (Image provided by Great North Museum: Hancock)

Makaton in the ‘Polar Explorers’ (2016) exhibition

Makaton is included in almost all parts of the museum’s early years learning programming. Kate explained that their Makaton journey started when a colleague first joined the museum having previously been an Early Years Practitioner and having used Makaton in this role. Realising that this is something they could potentially apply to a museum environment, work was begun on incorporating Makaton into their 2016 exhibition ‘Polar Explorers’; aimed at young children and their families. 

The main method of employing Makaton in the exhibition was through the use of Makaton symbols activities sheets. These sheets asked the learner to circle the symbols of the animals they could hear, count how many animals they could find using symbols and even draw their own symbol of their favourite animal in the exhibition. In doing this, children were encouraged to engage with the displays and collection while also learning about Makaton and its uses. Importantly, as Amy stated:

“being able to view Makaton symbols alongside the objects we have on display can really support young children and give them the confidence to explore and interact with our collections.”

Above: Listening Activity Sheet for ‘Polar Explorers’ (Image provided by Great North Museum: Hancock)

Above: Counting Activity Sheet for ‘Polar Explorers’ (Image provided by Great North Museum: Hancock)

‘Monkey Puzzle’ Trail and Makaton Die

Since then, the Learning team have used Makaton for trail sheets, such as the ‘Monkey Puzzle’ trail. Using lines from the children’s book ‘Monkey Puzzle’, the learner is asked to find the animal in the gallery with the corresponding sentence in the book. Each animal is displayed with its own Makaton symbol on the sheet and on the gallery.

A similar concept is the Makaton die, which once thrown will display a particular type of animal in the form of a Makaton symbol. From here it’s the learner’s job to hunt down the animal by searching through the many other objects in the gallery. The die has interchangeable sides, which allows the Learning team to change the Makaton symbols and consequently what objects they want the learner to search for.

Storytime sessions

Lots of examples of Makaton symbols being employed then, but what about signs? Well, signing is often used as part of the ‘Storytime Sessions’. For instance, during a storytime session on the book ‘The Gruffalo’, Amy would ask the learners to sign with her when they met certain characters in the story, such as the mouse, the owl, and of course the Gruffalo. Doing this not only helps the learners engage with the story, but also helps keep their attention on the Learning Facilitator. Makaton requires you to be active, moving your arms and hands in order to convey meaning. Having the learners physically take part in their own learning in this way can make all the difference in facilitating an environment of mutual learning; replicating not just Amy’s signing but also each other’s.

Visual Stories

A final way in which Makaton is employed at the museum is through the use of ‘Visual Stories’. Becoming increasingly common among museums and public spaces, ‘Visual Stories’ are essentially access guides either in the form of text or symbols with the aim of making visitors’ and learners’ experiences of the museum flow easier and therefore making the visit more accessible. The guide features symbols of different parts of the buildings, different members of staff as well as different facilities. This shows what can be achieved outside of learning programming and importantly what can be done to make the overall visitor experience more accessible for visitors who may rely on Makaton to support their communication. Crucially, the learner needs to first get inside of the building in order to engage in learning sessions or activities; ‘Visual Stories’ are a way to help make this step into the museum more comfortable.

Above: Section of the Visual Story with text (Image provided by Great North Museum: Hancock)

Above: Section of the Visual Story with Makaton symbols (Image provided by Great North Museum: Hancock)

How Makaton aids engagement

The power of signing can do wonders for engagement. Amy noted that signing while singing gives an almost completely different response among young learners than if you were to just sing songs. This makes sense, as the use of signing and singing together has been shown to aid the development of communication and language skills and are beneficial for vocalisation, confidence, social skills, emotional development, well-being and self-esteem.

A real pro of Makaton is the ability to use more general signs for specific objects. At first this may seem counter-productive, as the aim is to convey meaning and description as clearly as possible but as Amy explained:

“Sometimes with early years children, a child may have something that they want to say, or are trying to say, but when their parent or carer or myself (as the session facilitator) does not understand, this can occasionally lead to feelings of frustration. This is where Makaton signing can help. Even if a child doesn’t yet know for example, the word ‘duck’ or ‘swan’ they may know the word ‘bird’, and so you can instead sign ‘bird’ in Makaton which may in turn improve communication and the success of the engagement.”

In certain situations like this, particularly with very young children, it’s not necessary for the child to understand the difference between a duck, an eagle, or even an albatross. At this stage in their development, identifying the difference between a bird and a bear is a more realistic expectation and attainable outcome. The flexible way in which Makaton can be applied, therefore makes it useful in situations such as these. However, this can also be its downfall, as some situations require more specific and accurate descriptions.

Challenges implementing Makaton

Amy explained the drawbacks of Makaton using the example of a storytime session about dinosaurs while all the children were sat beneath ‘Dippy’ the giant diplodocus. Naturally, the story was all about different types of dinosaurs. There does exist a Makaton sign and symbol for dinosaur but not for each individual type of dinosaur out of the dozen or so mentioned in the story. Certain stories, histories and indeed sessions, therefore, don’t necessarily lend themselves well to Makaton inclusion. A way around this could be to sign different elements of the story but when the focus of the story is on the dinosaurs, this can become tricky.

Another notable challenge of utilising Makaton in a museum learning environment, is the difficulty of acquiring accurate and detailed feedback on engagement. Due to the nature of Makaton being used for very young children and learners with Special Educational Needs and/or Disabilities (SEND), it can often be difficult to ascertain this level of feedback on sessions. If Makaton is being used to help learners develop their communication skills or simply aid communication, then the use of traditional methods of review such as feedback forms and questionnaires are not the most appropriate ways to attain this. Although they could be used for parents and guardians, this doesn’t necessarily give an accurate account of the actual user’s opinion. Kate explained that this is the major drawbacks of using Makaton as an engagement tool. Essentially, measuring engagement has to be done at an observational level which does of course hold value, but perhaps not in the level of detail that is always desired.

Important things to consider

Favourite moments

During my talk with Amy and Kate, they gave a prime example of how Makaton can help assist engagement for learners with SEND. In a story session for a reception class, there were a few children present who had their BSL interpreter with them ready to help translate what Amy was saying. At this point in time, Amy was still learning Makaton. However, before they got started, Amy introduced herself to the children using the Makaton she had learnt so far. She describes how: 

“The children were immediately surprised, and perhaps slightly taken aback, that I could communicate with them, introducing myself directly without my needing the support of their grown-up”.

Moments like this demonstrate the importance and value in taking every step possible to be more accessible to audiences. In taking these steps to increase accessibility, museum professionals can increase the level of inclusion among their communities, consequently leading to more meaningful and rewarding engagement.

Concluding thoughts

It’s the responsibility of museum professionals to ensure that learners receive the highest level of engagement possible and it’s clear that Makaton is one way in which this can be achieved. Although there are clearly some challenges in adapting Makaton into museum learning environments, such as signs not being appropriate for some sessions and feedback and evaluation issues, The Great North Museum: Hancock have demonstrated the potential that Makaton can realise when implemented in a variety of different ways across learning programming but also throughout the visitor experience. Amy, Kate and the rest of the team should therefore be proud that they’ve created such an inclusive learning programme that even Mr Tumble himself would be proud of.

Useful links:

A question for you…

Do you think Makaton could be employed with any collections or exhibitions you’ve worked with? If so, how?

Feel free to answer in the comment box below.

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