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Communication approaches

Deaf people communicate in lots of different ways. Listed below are some of the common ways deaf people communicate. Some people will use a combination of these, and some people might use different approaches depending on where they are and who they’re with.

If you're a parent of a deaf child and are thinking about how your child will communicate in the future, visit our information pages about choosing a communication approach.

Listening and speaking

Many deaf children and young people communicate with others using spoken language. They may use hearing technology to help with this such as hearing aids and cochlear implants. Listening and speaking is sometimes called oralism.


Lip-reading is the ability to read lip patterns. Deaf children and young people naturally lip-read, but many speech sounds look the same, for example, ‘pat’ and ‘bat’, so it’s difficult to rely on lip-reading on its own. Lip-reading is usually used alongside other communication approaches.

Sign language

Sign languages are visual languages which use handshapes, facial expressions, gestures and body language. In the same way as different countries have different spoken languages, different countries around the world have different sign languages, too. The main sign language of the British Deaf community is British Sign Language (BSL).

British Sign Language (BSL)

The British Deaf Association (BDA) estimates that 87,000 deaf people in the UK have BSL as their preferred language. BSL is a different language to English. It has its own vocabulary, grammatical structure, history and culture, and is recognised as a language under UK law.

Irish Sign Language (ISL)

Although ISL is mostly used in Ireland, some young people in Northern Ireland also use ISL. ISL is a different language to BSL, with its own vocabulary and structure.


The British fingerspelling alphabet is a way of spelling out words using your hands and fingers. Learning to fingerspell is a great first step towards learning BSL!

Sign Supported English (SSE)

SSE is a method of signing BSL signs in English word order. It can be useful for deaf young people who use both speech and BSL. 

Sign systems

Sign systems such as Makaton or Signalong are communication programmes, designed for people with speech and language difficulties, speech delays or learning disabilities. Sign systems don't have a grammatical structure and are designed to support speech, with signs and symbols signed or shown at the same time as the user is speaking.

Tactile signing

Tactile signing, also known as hands-on or hand over hand signing, is a way of using sign language for people who are blind or visually impaired. This means the blind or visually impaired person can feel the signs the other person is making. You can find out more about tactile signing, including Deafblind Manual, on the Sense website.

Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC)

Some deaf children with additional needs might use different ways of communicating as well as, or instead of, spoken, written or signed language. For example, eye gaze technology or alphabet boards can help people with additional needs to express themselves. To learn more about AAC, visit the Communication Matters website.

Cued speech

Cued speech is a visual communication system which is designed to support lip-reading. Users of cued speech put their hands in different positions around the mouth while speaking, to help lip-readers distinguish between speech sounds which look similar.