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Auslan (Australian Sign Language) :
from baby sign to fluent signing.

What Sign?

People new to Sign Language are often daunted by the terms.
What is Auslan? What is Baby Sign, Key-Sign, Makaton, Signed-English? What does it all mean?

Below you will find a Brief Glossary of Terms, after each you will find a link to a section lower down on the page that goes into more detail.

You will also find a brief introduction to learning Sign Language, titled Learning Sign Is Easy full of hints and tips to help you start off.

Glossary of Sign Language Terms

Auslan is the native sign language for Australian signing people. There are many other sign languages used internationally. Australian Sign Language differs from the sign language used by signing people in other countries in linguistic structure and grammar similarly to oral languages between nations, say English and Italian for example.

Most Auslan users are children and adults who need it as their main means of communication; however everyone else who shares their lives may also use Auslan. These include the families, carers, friends and professionals such as teachers, speech and language therapists, social workers, playgroup staff, college lecturers, instructors, nurses, and psychiatrists. 

Baby sign refers to the use of sign language with pre-verbal babies and toddlers. It has become increasingly popular in recent years with hearing babies, as hearing parents begin to discover the advantages Deaf parents have known for some time, that comes from having a 4 or 6 month old who is able to communicate their needs, such as hunger, nappy and thirst.

Key signing refers to a semi-adoption of sign language where only the key words in each sentence are signed. Key-Signing is often the first step to learning AUSLAN for both non-signing adults and children. It is often used in teaching sign to Pre and Primary School children and forms a large part of the Auslan as LOTE curriculum in formative years.

Sign for hello using Makaton sign languageMakaton refers to a symbols and key-sign system. IT IS NOT A LANGUAGE.
This is the most common mis-conception and area of confusion.

The Makaton system comprises a small signed vocabulary derived (in Australia) from both Auslan and Signed English signs. Makaton is most commonly used with persons with multiple disabilities usually including an intellectual disability who can usually hear but who either cannot talk or whose speech is difficult to understand.   

Signed English is a word-for-word translation from spoken English to signs. It is laborious and has been found to be ineffective as a language and teaching tool. However elements of Signed English are often adopted with signing children in the lead up to reading, to assist in the exact translation of words in written form. 

Learning sign is fun and easy!

We have found the easiest way to introduce yourself to sign is to first learn some "keysigns" for everyday things. Many signs quickly become obvious, you may recognise them from your own natural gestures, so remembering "Keysigns" can be easy!

If you are wanting to sign with adult signers then it is then a good idea to learn the Australian Sign Alphabet, so if you ever don't know the sign for something, you can resort to fingerspelling. A tip with fingerspelling that is rarely emphasised is that the vowels , 'a', 'e', 'i', 'o' and 'u' are the thumb and fingers on one hand, pointed to by the other hand.

You can look-up signs online at Sign Planet, or view signs by category. So keep practicing and expanding your sign knowledge. Try and find other people who sign you can practice this method of communication with. Soon you'll be able to hold reasonable conversation in sign and will begin playing with it's own little puns, humour and slang.

By now you may feel you are ready to think about doing a course in sign. In the past these have largely only been available at the more serious level, usually through a Uni or TAFE. We are pleased to report that recent years have seen dramatic increases in the number of people learning sign language. As a result you can often find "beginner" or "First" signer courses at many local community centres, adult learning centres and alike. There are also a number of tutors specialising in classes for "newbies", which are more customised to the needs of participants.

Perhaps you feel you are ready for a more advanced course, where you can expand your range and understanding of sign, and come to understand the logic behind the grammar of the language. If you wish to continue learning sign from here, the most obvious step is to become a qualified interpreter. These are in high demand, so pay rates are well in excess of a suffering teacher's wage. Still higher rates are paid for interpreters with specialised AUSLAN knowledge, such as medical, legal or engineering terms.

More about Auslan verse other Sign Languages

In Australia we use AUSLAN, AUstralian Sign LANguage. AUSLAN differs to the sign language used within other countries. Within the UK they use BSL (British Sign Language), Americans use ASL (American Sign Language), in New Zealand they use NZSL and so on. Auslan is a visual language, with no oral form. It uses hand shapes and movements, facial expressions and body expressions to express a visual means of communication. Each sign is made up of 5 main parts; Handshape, Orientation, Location, Movement and facial Expression.

Each sign language differs in handshapes used, location of signing (signing space), grammatical structure and alike. A sentence in English is often shorter when translated into Auslan. For example "I'm going to catch the bus at 8:30 this morning" would be "Me catch bus 8:30 am today". In contrast, 'Signed English' is estimated to take 1.5 to 2.5 times as long to sign as the oral sentence would be to say!

Auslan evolved from British Sign Language (BSL) but also includes influences from ASL, Irish sign language and indigenous signs (learned from our own indigenous aboriginal sign languages). Sign usage can vary across Australia based on these regional influences and the natural and rapid evolution of the language on a regional basis. It is hoped that the advent of websites such as, and the use of video conferencing and alike will assist signing people to communicate new and variant signs across Australia as quickly as they evolve.

The recent introduction of Auslan as a lote subject throughout an increasing number of Australian schools will also bring rise to a dramatically increased number of Australians utilising and facilitating the development and communication of this truly beautiful and versatile language.

The number of Signing People in Australia is difficult to accurately ascertain. Untouchably signing people are majoritively members of our Deaf community but also includes those members of our community with DOWNS, Speech dyspraxia, Cerebral Palsy, Autism, ADHD and varying levels of hearing impairment. As a result the parents and extended family, carers, therapists and other professionals, and of course educators of signing people also become signing people, to varying degrees.

About Australian Baby Sign Language.

What is Baby Signing?

One of the reasons children's songs such as "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" are so popular with children are the actions, which serve to make it simpler for the child to understand. This technique has simply been taken as step further with the adoption of baby sign.

So it is no surprise that the use of sign language by hearing parents, with hearing children, around the world has provided impressive research results. Proving that not only are babies able to communicate simple sign expressions from before 6 months of age, but also that these children tend to develop oral language earlier.

An extensive study in the UK, by Drs. Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn (funded by the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development), found that there is "a clear advantage to using signs with pre-verbal children". Parents within the study experienced "reduced frustration" and "stronger bonds with their babies".

Does it really increase IQ?

For a great number of years now baby signing has been widely utilised throughout the US, UK, Europe and Canada. This has triggered many research studies and trials, which have generated astounding results.

In the UK, by Drs. Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn (on behalf of the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development) conducted a study that has now spanned over 8 years. Within the study hearing children were provided sign language as a supplement to oral language in their "pre-verbal" years, and then compared to their peers.

The doctors have found that signing children outperform non-signing children in both language development and IQ. Seven years after initial, infant testing, the children were re-evaluated, now in early primary school years. "The results were even more extraordinary, indicating that as a group, children who signed as babies had a mean IQ of 114 compared to 102 for non-signers." Royal Association for Deaf people UK.
    More about baby sign can be found at
  • 6 Signs Change Parenting - A free information sheet for parents about baby sign (pdf)
  • Baby Sign Information : There is a special section on this site that is dedicated to Baby Signers, with lots more information and tips for you.
  • Sign Planet - Baby Sign Section : This site includes more information about Baby Sign and Free resources to get you started

What is Key signing?

Key-Signing is often the first step to learning AUSLAN. Key signing refers to the use of key words in each sentence in sign language, without the full adoption of AUSLAN grammar and perhaps with only the 'essential words'. Key signing is sometimes also used in teaching hearing Pre and Primary School children, in the lead-up to reading.

Key signing, on its own, does not constitute a language, but does form the first stage to learning Auslan. As with the development of any second language, nouns and basic adjectives are often the first to be learned. In most areas of Australia, Key sign constitutes the first 2-4 stages in Auslan as a LOTE and most beginner level courses in sign language.

The SignPlanet website includes Bilby Publishing's Sign Image Bank of over 5000 words. Each year over 1 million sign images were viewed and printed from the site by a little over 50,000 users.

You can look up signs by single word search, or by category, for free...why not start now : SignPlanet : Search

About the Makaton Key-Signing System.

"Makaton is a key word signing system that aims to provide a basic means of communication and encourage language development. Makaton comprises of a small vocabulary derived from Australasian Signed English and Australian Sign Language (AUSLAN) . " (Source: Latrobe University)

The Makaton key-signing system utilises gesture, pictures and diagrams to assist communication. The core system includes a short list of approx 320 signs, divided under 9 stages of learning. These are based on words most frequently used in everyday communication. The system was originally developed in the UK using signs from BSL (British Sign Language), however in Australia Makaton presenters and users actually utilise a blend of AUSLAN and Signed English signs. When using Makaton principles the speaker generally slows down, simplifies their language and uses more repetitive speech (Makaton Workshop, 2005).

"Makaton borrows features from both Auslan and Signed English. Makaton is used with children and adults who can usually hear but who either cannot talk or whose speech is difficult to understand. Makaton use a key word approach. This means that people use speech with their signs but they do not sign every word." Karen Bloomfield, SCIOP (1998)

Makaton uses signs matched to words and pictures, so that as you speak you also sign at the same time. Makaton users are first encouraged to communicate using signs, then gradually, as a link is made between the word and the sign, the signs are dropped and speech takes over.

For some children and adults, combining symbols, signs and speech together is proving to be an effective way of developing literacy skills; however "There is little research specific to the success of using Makaton with children with autism." (Latrobe Uni) The child needs to have some social, imitative, and communicative intent before communication can develop (Beukelman & Mirenda, 1998).

Makaton is generally used in the disability field as either an alternative to spoken and written language, or as a language support tool, where a child or adult has either very limited or no effective speech and written skills. It is an augmentative communication system, it is not a language and is often used in intellectual or developmental disability areas.

About Signed English

Signed English, like Makaton and keysign, is not a language. Signed English is a word-for-word translation from spoken English to signs, augmented with finger-spelling for the end of words.

Signed English shares or borrows Auslan signs wherever possible, in fact in Australia the 'Signed English' system was developed utilising Victorian based Auslan.

Regrettably Signed English remains the most common language taught to Deaf children. Research in the area has been extensive and it is obvious to anyone attempting to provide a signing child equal access to information within the classroom that Signed English is quite clearly a less concise language than Auslan. In fact one study indicated that to sign translate communication within the average day within a 'preschool class' in Signed English would take 2 1/2 sessions. In other words, to utilise Signed English in the classroom is to limit the child to only 40% of the average class communication and thus only 40% of the input received by their non-signing peers. Signed English requires a dramatic deterioration in the rate of speech to sign at the same time.

Signed English is entirely different from Auslan, although it does borrow many signs from Auslan and this is where some confusion occurs between the two. Signed English is English, a manually coded English, so it is English delivered in a different format and is mainly used in education settings. It is not a sign language as it is not a language separate from English but a signed form of English. Signed English uses English grammar and syntax so that it uses a sign for word system.