What Is Key Word Sign?

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By Natacha Fasel-Murphy

Here at Speech Ease Speech Pathology we frequently use Key Word Sign (KWS) in our sessions and recommend it to many families. It can look and feel strange to use KWS to start with and we are often asked how it can help and why we use it with children who have spoken language.

What is Key Word Sign?

KWS uses gestures and signs to support communication and the language development of children with communication difficulties. KWS draws on selected signs from the language of the Australian Deaf community, this is called Australian Sign Language (AUSLAN). KWS focuses on a ‘core’ vocabulary of key words to support communication, we do not recommend it as a complete communication system in itself.

When using KWS, we use spoken language at the same time and communicate in full sentences to provide a correct model of the spoken sentence. For example:

“We are finished playing”. We could use the KWS for ‘finish’ to support this sentence.

Facial expressions, body language and natural gestures are also used to communicate information at the same time, such as smiling and pointing. Other communication supports such as visuals or speech generating devices can also be used at the same time.

Will it stop my child from talking? How will it help them?

Using KWS does not prevent children from developing spoken language, it can actually assist children to develop intentional communication and can lay the foundations for language development. KWS can help children convey messages and may have the benefit of reducing frustration and challenging behaviours if a child cannot express themself through spoken language alone. KWS can also help children with receptive language (auditory comprehension) difficulties to understand questions or instructions.

Who can use KWS?

  • Children who use spoken language but are slow to develop language
  • Children who use spoken language but have unclear speech
  • Children who are non-verbal
  • Children who have difficulties understanding spoken instructions
  • Some Australian childcare centres use KWS with all of their students
  • Whilst we have focused on children in this post, KWS is commonly used by adults with communication difficulties as well!

How do I start using KWS?
Anyone can use KWS, you don’t need special training to get started. Key Word Sign Australia (www.kwsa.com.au) is a national organisation who works to promote KWS, provide information, resources and training. Their website contains free resources and they also regularly share information on Youtube and Instagram. Paid workshops are also available.

Here at Speech Ease Speech Pathology we often use the signs for ‘more’ ‘finish’ and ‘help’ with many of our families. These three signs may be a good starting point for many children. If you have a treating speech pathologist, chat to them about what KWS you can use with your child.

How long will it take my children to learn KWS?

Each child will learn KWS at a different rate. Don’t give up if it takes weeks or months of modelling for your child to start using a sign themselves. Children will typically learn a KWS faster if it is introduced and used in a motivating way. For example, modelling the KWS ‘more’ to extend play with your child’s favourite toy (eg. “do you want more bubbles?”) is more motivating than using the KWS ‘more’ at the supermarket to support the sentence “we need more shampoo”.

References and further reading:
Kid Sense Child Development Corporation (2021). Key Word Sign. Accessed through: www.childdevelopment.com.au/areas-of-concern/using-speech/key-word-sign

Key Word Sign Australia (n.d). What is Key Word Sign? Accessed through: www.kwsa.com.au

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