George Lucas Educational Foundation
Formative Assessment

6 Hand Signals That Bring Learning to Life

Nonverbals are gestural cues that can help students quickly and respectfully communicate their reactions, needs, and levels of understanding in a fast-paced classroom.

April 21, 2016
Photo credit: New York City Department of Transportation via flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Editor's note: This piece is co-authored by Ellie Cowen and Megan Nee, a second-grade teacher at Brophy Elementary in Framingham, Massachusetts.

Imagine that you're a student. Your class has just learned something new. Your teacher asks for someone to share his or her strategy for the problem that you've just solved. You're beginning to feel as though you understand the new concept, and you have a strategy that you could share, but something is holding you back. You're worried that your ideas aren't good enough to be voiced. You want so badly for your teacher and your classmates to know what you know, but the fear of embarrassment keeps you from raising your hand.

Later, you're working in a group with your friends. Everyone else seems to have come to the same conclusion about a number pattern, but you've noticed a point where their reasoning goes wrong. Is it OK to tell your group what you noticed? You've been told that it's disrespectful to argue. How can you explain your thinking in a respectful way that is helpful and not hurtful to your group?

The Power of Nonverbals

One of the greatest challenges in teaching a classroom of diverse learners is determining what students are thinking and how they are feeling about the concepts being introduced or processed. Many of the thoughts that pass through students' minds would be of great value for their teachers to know, but opportunities to hear them can feel few and far between.

In many classrooms, students use nonverbals to communicate certain thoughts when teachers introduce hand signals for bathroom breaks, "quiet" signals, and silent cheers. But teachers can look to nonverbals for more than classroom management. During discourse, visible and nonintrusive signals provide instant feedback for peers and valuable insight for teachers about students' moment-to-moment reasoning and comprehension of the content being discussed.  Here are six handy hand signals to try.

"Me, too!"

The "me, too" symbol, derived from the ASL sign with the same meaning, is popular in American classrooms as an outlet for enthusiastic agreement. When a student hears a strategy or solution path that matches his thinking, he makes the "me, too" sign, acknowledging his classmate's reasoning, expressing that he had a similar idea, and communicating his understanding of what has been shared.

"I have a point of interest."

When students disagree with a statement that they've just heard or need to hear more so that they can follow the speaker's reasoning, they hold up a single index finger to express that they have a "point of interest."

"I have something to add."

The "build upon" signal consists of placing one fist on top of the other to represent the idea of "building." Students use this to express that they have something to say that will add to a classmate's idea.

"I can paraphrase."

Students make air quotes to express that they can paraphrase what they've just heard.

"Complete the thought."

This signal (made by touching the fingertips of both hands together in an "A" shape) can be used by teachers or students to remind a speaker that she needs to include a unit or a label, or to use a complete sentence to express her thinking.

"I have a conjecture."

After being introduced to conjectures (simple unproven statements about patterns in numbers or shapes), a group of second grade students devised their own "conjecture" signal: they place a fist, which represents an imaginary light bulb, on top of their heads to indicate that they have a conjecture to share.

Focus on Reasoning

Especially in early grades, sentence frames can help students articulate their thinking after they've used a hand signal. For example, sentence frames for the "build upon" hand signal may include, "I agree with _______ and would like to add _______," or "An example of what _______ is saying is _______." These sentence frames also direct students back to the classmate to whom they're responding, reminding members of the discussion that all are part of a community of thinkers and that their conversation is with one another, not just with their teacher.

One word of caution: all nonverbals, including raised hands, are most impactful when they reflect a classroom focus on reasoning, not getting the answer. Teachers may have to monitor students' use of signals to ensure that their integrity as communicators of critical thinking is always preserved.

Do you use signals in your classroom? What other academic purposes might nonverbal signals serve?

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  • Classroom Management
  • Communication Skills
  • Student Voice
  • Teaching Strategies

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