George Lucas Educational Foundation
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6 Hand Signals That Bring Learning to Life

Ellie Cowen

Educator and math specialist
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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 (PDF):

"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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Ellie Cowen's picture
Ellie Cowen
Educator and math specialist

It may sound silly, but I've actually used the "I agree" signal in conversations with teaching colleagues, since I know we all know what it means and it won't disrupt the flow of the conversation. The "point of interest" signal is one that I've seen many adults use without even thinking about it, and I believe the "complete the thought" signal originated in a middle school classroom. The others may be less useful in discussion with teens and adults, since they have better mastery of language and can articulate the purpose of their interjections without as much scaffolding. If you try them at all, let us know how it goes!

Megan Nee's picture
Megan Nee
2nd Grade Teacher

That is a great question! I feel that the best way to get a nonverbal to become a routine in your classroom is to let the students become a part of the development. My 2nd graders have invented many of these nonverbals because they are based on conversational skills we learned. I think you should open up the dialogue in your class. You could ask the students if there is a conversational skill that they would like to transform into a nonverbal. For example, if your students are working on supporting their ideas with evidence from the text, the nonverbal could be flat hand with fingers below to support the hand. In my opinion, you should let the students do the creative work! That way, the nonverbal is more meaningful to them!

cnavata's picture

I can't agree enough with the use of hand signals. I integrated hand signals in the classroom, initially, to minimize noise and interruptions. Then, as a total participation technique (i.e. thumbs up or down). Then I got moved to a kindergarten, half-day classroom with 30 students and no aide...hand signals became a a survival tool. The chorus of "me too's" became a the surfers' "hang loose" gesture. We did the silent applause from ASL or butterfly claps (clapping with 2 index fingers).
Now, 4 years later, I'm back in a first grade classroom and in addition to the management signals, I've added a few signals to help a child with a severe speech impediment to communicate when he gets nervous. So, with the help of a another teacher who knows sign, I taught my class some simple phrases that would be beneficial to that child (I need help, can you repeat the question, etc.) Now all the kids use the signs and he's so much more relaxed since he knows he can sign on the days that he really can't get the words out. So for him? Life changing. For me, sanity saving, too.

Azar Aftimos's picture

Excellent notion of the use of hand signals during class. You can ask the students of certain signs that they would expect as an agreement. Thank you for sharing.

Ellie Cowen's picture
Ellie Cowen
Educator and math specialist

Wow, you've had a long road with hand signals! Great to hear other uses for them. Thanks for the comment.

Vesta Wynkoop's picture

I am thankful to a friend who shared your article with me. Your nonverbal ideas using hand signals are wonderful. My favorite part of the article is this, "focus on reasoning, not getting the answer." When we are working as a whole class or in a small group, students are NOT allowed to tell the answer only their thinking process. This makes it easier for everybody to share and for me to see misconceptions I may have created when teaching a process. Thank you for sharing.

Yogita Sharma's picture

I like the ideas of butterfly claps and 6 hand signals.In this way they can do creative work.I 'll share it with my 3rd grade this!Its an easy and practical.

Norah's picture
Early childhood teacher, writer, life-long learner

I really enjoyed this article and its suggestions. I like the emphasis on critical thinking and informed discussion rather than seeking a known answer. I think this has lots of potential. The hand signals could also be considered polite ways of indicating you have something to add, rather than interrupting.

Lynne Borden's picture

I thought this strategy would work well for children and adults. Thank you for sharing g.

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