sse bsl makaton what's the difference

BSL, SSE, or Makaton – what’s the difference?

BSL, SSE or Makaton what’s the difference between these communication methods? To the untrained eye BSL, SSE and Makaton look the same. However, there are  distinct differences between all three communication methods which will be explained below:

Table of Contents

Makaton vs British Sign Language:

Learners often become confused about British Sign Language (BSL) and Makaton because they look similar to each other. Makaton also looks easy to understand. One reason is that we naturally use gestures as part of our daily communication without even realising it. Our brains easily identify universal gestures and this is why Makaton incorporates these gestures.

BSL is different. It is a visual-spatial language that uses 3-dimensional space, body movements and facial expressions to create meaning.

What’s Makaton?


Makaton is a communication method that uses speech, individual signs and symbols to help people with learning difficulties communicate. You may see terms such as ‘Makaton signs’ because Makaton ‘borrows’ gestures and signs from British Sign Language. It is not a language. It is a system designed to be easy to understand and be used by people with learning disabilities who need a way to communicate that involves simplified speech.

Makaton is always used alongside speech. The gestures are used in speech order so follow English grammar patterns. Makaton was designed to support spoken language. The ‘signs’ are usually very simplified hand gestures. For example to show eating involves the hand moving towards the mouth and at the same time saying food, hungry or eat.

Makaton uses individual hand signs, unlike Sign Language which has a complex grammatical structure. You can’t use Makaton for complex information such as describing a timeline of events that happened in the past or events that will happen in the future.

Makaton is great for very young children with learning difficulties. Children’s TV programmes such as Mr Tumble use Makaton. This has helped raise awareness of alternative, more visual forms of communication. Makaton is so easy to use, it can even be used with pre-lingual babies to make communication easier.

Signalong vs Makaton

Signalong is another communication support system that also has its roots in BSL. Like Makaton, it is primarily used by people with learning difficulties.

Baby Signing

You may also hear about sing and sign groups or baby signing groups. Speech and language experts encourage attending these groups and learning some signs. There is research to suggest that helping your baby communicate earlier also helps children recognise important words sooner. Check out our post about baby signing if you want to find out more.

For further details about Makaton, you can look at the Makaton charity website


What does SSE stand for? It’s a short way of saying ‘Sign Supported English’. SSE is more closely related to Makaton than to BSL in that SSE follows spoken language patterns. SSE can use the same signs as BSL but the signs are used in spoken word order. It is not a language in its own right but can make spoken English more visual.

Other communication methods such as Piaget Gorman signed speech system also try to make speech more visual. All these different communication methods can make learning about BSL confusing and more complicated.

Who Uses Sign-Supported English?

hearing impaired use sign supported english

Learners usually start using basic signs with English lip patterns until they understand the linguistic elements in BSL. People with a hearing impairment (also known as ‘hard of hearing’) who learn sign language later in life, also tend to use SSE.

SSE can be useful in education, particularly if specific words or phrases need to be explained and the communication support worker does not know the BSL equivalent. This is because SSE tends to use far more fingerspelling than BSL and follows the linear (one word after another) pattern of English.

As mentioned previously, SSE like Makaton can be useful for people who have communication difficulties.

SSE is also used for signed songs. Many hearing people perform signed songs but incorrectly label them as BSL signed songs. They are nearly always SSE as they follow written English in the lyrics. On rare occasions, signed songs are performed by deaf native sign language users:


British Sign Language (BSL) ‘is a visual-gestural language that uses hand shapes, space, facial expressions, and body language to convey meaning’ (BDA). Sign language has its own grammatical structure to spoken English so you cannot speak English and sign at the same time. Some learners are confused by this as they often see BSL users move their mouths when signing. This is because lip patterns are part of the grammatical structure of sign language but you can’t ‘speak bsl’.

BSL is the first or preferred language of deaf people in the UK and is the foundation of the deaf community. It is cherished among native sign language users and is the foundation for a rich history and culture. In fact, the earliest recorded use of sign language dates back to the 16th century.

Sign language is like any other language in that it has regional variations. The variations are like accents so there are signs that are specific to areas of the UK that are not used anywhere else.

There are also numerous sign languages across the world. You may have seen ASL (American Sign Language) or other sign languages being used on the news:

BSL History

Sign Language was recognised as a language in the UK in March 2003. Since then Scotland has enacted the BSL Act (2015). The Act requires public bodies to make information accessible in BSL.

More recently, the BSL Act (2022) recognised BSL in England, Wales and Scotland. The Act places an obligation on the government to make sure BSL is promoted and used across government departments. 

BSL, SSE or Makaton – What’s the difference?

So, now you know the differences between the different communication methods. An easy way to remember the difference is this: both SSE and Makaton use and need English to convey meaning, but BSL does not.

You can discover the different elements of BSL in our guides. Perhaps you need to understand how space is used, or why facial expressions are used in BSL or maybe you’d like to practise fingerspelling. Check out our guides to help you improve your BSL.

Related articles: How to sign numbers in Sign Language