Our Stories: Communication game-changers: Key Word Sign

Communication game-changers: Key Word Sign


Whenever Speech and Language Therapist (SLT) Vivien Ong wants to expand her vocabulary of the localised edition of Key Word Sign (KWS), she waits for committee meetings or new video tutorials on MINDS’ YouTube channel for new words and their corresponding signs.

With the launch of a new KWS Singapore book series last weekend, Vivien and other SLTs like herself no longer have to wait for meetings or video tutorials to learn new signs, but have immediate access to a vocabulary of some 700 signs.

“It will be very helpful in guiding me in my work. I can tap on it as a resource to shortlist and identify KWS that will be relevant to sessions and for the teachers to use in class,” says Vivien, who is based at MINDS Lee Kong Chian Gardens (LGS) School.

What is Key Word Sign?

You might have heard about sign language, but what about KWS? Unlike sign language, KWS incorporates both manual signs and natural gestures in dialogue, with key words being signed at the same time they are spoken.

KWS is often used as a visual system to encourage communication interactions and support the development of language skills. The use of KWS provides a dual input of information – where one can see the sign and hear the words.

MINDS developed KWS Singapore in collaboration with the Singapore Association for the Deaf and Key Word Sign Australia – SCOPE. Signs from the Singapore Sign Language are incorporated to cater to the needs and culture of the local context in Singapore, such as local food, festivals, and holidays.

For instance, the localised KWS vocabulary includes words like durian, rojak, and sugarcane, said Vivien.

At MINDS, all staff have a basic knowledge of KWS. Commonly used KWS include ‘help’, ‘toilet’ and ‘eat.’

“We want to make communication enjoyable, so our children initiate communication when they have things they want to share.”

Ms Vivien Ong
Speech and Language Therapist (SLT)

Helping children with special needs find their voice

Vivien has seen first-hand the transformative power of KWS in giving her students a voice.

Last year, she began working with Haris, an 8-year-old boy with intellectual disability in LGS. Soft-spoken and quiet, Haris preferred to interact only with individuals familiar to him.

boy showing a peace sign in a classroom
LGS student Haris is one of many students who have become stronger communicators through KWS

In school, he mainly communicated via body language and gestures, such as nodding or shaking his head to indicate yes or no. He preferred to keep to himself, and his teachers often had to prompt him for specific questions and needs. At home, Haris would express himself in single words to his mother.

Though Haris was initially reserved, he gradually warmed up to Vivien.

Using an expressive and animated voice, and letting him play with toys, Vivien slowly built rapport with Haris. She was mindful to give him options and choices, which served as opportunities to express himself. Over time, he began to mimic her actions and picked up KWS.

“For kids like Haris, there’s the societal expectation that (they should speak) because they are verbal; (there’s often the question about) why can’t they open their mouth and just talk. But we want to make communication enjoyable, so our children initiate communication when they have things they want to share,” explains Vivien.

“The use of KWS takes away the pressure that he needs to verbally talk; there are different ways he can express himself once he realises I’m a safe person to interact with,” she adds.

Today, Haris is a lot more expressive and actively initiates interactions.

Through the consistent use of KWS in the classroom, Haris has started to approach teachers to express himself, such as requesting for more biscuits or for help with opening a container. It has also helped his teachers better understand his wants and needs instead of guessing, says Vivien.

boy gesturing to a lady on eating signs
After learning new signs with SLT Vivien, in-class teachers reinforce their learning by practising the sign with them. Here, Haris practises the sign for ‘eat' in KWS with teacher Catherine.

Haris and teacher Catherine practise the sign for ‘more’.

However, the uptake of KWS is not always simple.

For children with limited fine motor skills, KWS can be difficult to imitate accurately. In addition, caregivers may not be as receptive to the use of KWS as they are afraid that it might deter their children from using verbal communication.

However, KWS is not meant to replace verbal speech, but to help and support speech, stresses Vivien. In the case of children who are minimally verbal, they can use KWS to communicate while learning to speak.

“If you look at it, it’s the same as how we communicate with young children who can’t express themselves fully. With KWS, you don’t need external picture cards or devices to express certain things, but just hand signs and natural gestures… It’s really powerful in that sense.”

Beyond the book launch, Vivien is also looking forward to an upcoming KWS Singapore Presenter Training workshop.

Once she is accredited, she will be able to run her own Basic KWS Singapore workshops to train more teachers and caregivers as well, so that they can be equipped to use KWS in classrooms and at home. This creates a rich signing environment for students to use KWS.

MINDS is proud to be a pioneer in the development and use of Key Word Sign Singapore. Explore the newly launched Key Word Sign Singapore book here, or learn a new KWS through our tutorials on YouTube.

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NOTICE OF THE 59TH ANNUAL GENERAL MEETING OF MINDS: NOTICE is hereby given that the 59th Annual General Meeting (AGM) of the Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore (MINDS) will be held by way of electronic means as follows: Date: Saturday , 18 September 2020 Time: 9:30am (Registration starts at 8:30am) Venue: Online via ZOOM MINDS members will be receiving an email on the notice of AGM and are strongly encouraged to register your attendance to facilitate the verification process on the day of the AGM. For enquiries regardingthe AGM, members may email to agm@minds.org.sg or call 849607358