Beliefs and habits: staff experiences with key word signing in special schools and group residential homes (summary)



Up to around a quarter of adults with learning disabilities (LD) use key word signing (KWS); using signs to support important words in their spoken language. Some users might use KWS as an alternative communication system without speech. KWS is used to support both expressive and receptive language. It is thought that the use of KWS, adding a visual input to the auditory given by speech, helps to support understanding. In addition the use of KWS usually slows the rate of speech and might simplify the message.

Communication partners of key word signers need to be actively involved in using the system in order to increase signers’ participation in communication activities. Their use of signs might support understanding of language and provides a language model for people with LD which could encourage the development of expressive abilities. Consistent use of KWS in an environment of setting has been shown to support the generalisation of its use by people with LD. However staff might find it difficult to use KWS consistently.

The attitudes of staff to the use of KWS are key to its success. If staff have a positive view of its effects they are more likely to use it, thus increasing opportunities to see the benefits and so becoming more likely to continue.

There are other factors that might influence the use of KWS even when a positive attitude is held. These can include; too little time for training and/or use and limited skills.

This study looks at why potential KWS use might not always happen.

What did they do?

Five teachers working with adolescents with LD who used KWS were interviewed and extracted data analysed. Data from interviews with five direct support staff working in residential homes for adults with LD was also considered.

Interview questions were related to KWS and included questions about; effectiveness, use, experience and support, interaction, collaboration and the need for further research.

What did they find?

The use of KWS was a theme throughout the interviews. Some staff used it with particular individuals when communication broke down, others used it throughout the day, but only with certain clients and some thought that they should use it even with people who did not need a high level of communication support.

There was a difference between teachers and support staff in their description of KWS use; none of the support staff mentioned its use unless there was an acute communication need but four of the five teachers did. Teachers were also more likely to say they used KWS throughout the day, not just when communication had broken down, and to encourage students to use it too.

The motivations for using KWS were related mainly to effectiveness and its perceived benefits for students. Teachers tended to focus on future goals for KWS whereas support staff tended to consider only more immediate needs and effects.

Both groups saw the importance of using KWS becoming a habit but acknowledged the difficulty of this and the need to self-monitor its use.

Obstacles to consistent use and maintenance of KWS skills included teachers supporting different students with varying needs each year or staff not working with a group who used KWS after training was undertaken. There was also a view that if people felt their skills were not good enough they are less likely to go to the effort required to remember and use the signs and to continue to practise.


The main theme from the analysis was that consistency of KWS use was affected by three things; effectiveness, self-monitoring and environmental barriers/facilitators. One particular finding was the lack of support to develop skills using KWS in real situations following initial training meant that both teachers and support staff were expected to apply newly learned skills without supervision, increasing the effort required and relying on self-monitoring.


The study included only a small number of participants, the interview responses were interpreted by a researcher leading to the possibility of bias and the interviewees perceptions of their use of KWS did not tally with those of speech and language therapists working in the schools with the teachers.

There was no observation of practice, findings were based on information given in interviews.

The paper suggests areas for further research.

Things you may want to look into:

Attitude and key word signing usage in support staff

Attitudes of teachers and undergraduate students regarding three augmentative and alternative communication modalities

Added to site August 17