Why You Shouldn’t Use A Hand Signal For Quiet Attention

It’s a common scene.

The teacher stands in front of a large group of students with one arm extended skyward, fingers forming a number (two being most popular), while the other hand is closed but for the index finger poised over pursed lips.

The students, hopefully, are doing the same—mirroring her (or his) posture and hand positions while quiet and attentive. The idea is to throw up a simple hand signal anytime you need to speak, give a direction, or otherwise receive silent attention.

Typically, once attention is acquired, both the teacher and her students will put their signal down. But it’s also often used as a continual reminder of quiet while leading students down hallways and across campus.

Although the signal itself may vary from teacher to teacher, the method has good intentions. After all, every teacher needs a reliable way to call for quiet.

The problem, however, is that even at its best, a hand signal is insufficient for such an important aspect of classroom management.

Here’s why.

You have to wait.

Many students will be slow to comply simply because they don’t know when the signal is being given. In other words, unless you already have their attention, a hand signal will take time to domino around the class—especially in a noisy, collaborative learning environment or while on a field trip, for example.

It’s also common to wait on just one or two students who are immersed in their work or engaged in conversation. Typically, they need an additional verbal cue in order to snap into the present. Over time, waiting 30 seconds or more eight, nine, ten times a day takes it’s toll—dampening the crisp-moving, productive classroom you’re looking for.

It’s difficult to define.

One of the keys to effective classroom management is to have clearly defined and understood routines for every repeatable moment of the day. So if your students are in any way confused or unsure about anything, at any moment, then behavior, listening, and attentiveness will suffer.

The problem with hand signals is that they’re not as clear, as detailed, or as descriptive as a few, simple words can be. With practice, your students may indeed associate your signal with quiet, but once you remove the visual cue, it begins losing its punch, weakening the longer it remains out of sight.

In other words, hand signals don’t have the stickiness you need for prolonged attention.

Your students can do better.

If ever you find yourself with your arm overhead waiting for quiet, then you’re settling for far less than what is possible. Not only do you not have time for it, but your students can do much better. The truth is, to be most effective, you need to be able to get your students quiet and focused on you anytime you want.

You need a simple, direct, and immediate cue that stops them in their tracks. And nothing works better than asking, “Can I have your attention please?” This routine-prompting question communicates precisely what you want, works no matter where you are, and reaches every student at the same time.

Further, the responsibility to follow it begins the moment the words pass your lips.

One Simple Cue

It’s common for teachers to hold up their quiet signal while at the same time offering reminders, warnings, and admonitions. But this only adds to the confusion, throwing more variables into the mix for students to scratch their heads over.

A single, succinct verbal cue, on the other hand, is a once for all command that stays in play until you say otherwise. And for every time its given, it further grooves the habit of following your directions and tuning in to the sound of your voice.

When paired with a well-taught routine—modeled and practiced until perfected—it has clarity, urgency, and staying power and locks down a small but critical element of effective classroom management.

It also removes a great source of frustration, for both you and your students, saves carloads of time, and brings you one step closer to the finely tuned, high-performing classroom you’ve always wanted.

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23 Responses to Why You Shouldn’t Use A Hand Signal For Quiet Attention

  1. Caroline Calonne June 25, 2013 at 11:10 pm #

    Thank you for sharing.

    • Michael Linsin June 26, 2013 at 6:18 am #

      You’re welcome, Caroline!


  2. Filda. June 26, 2013 at 8:41 am #

    Thanks. Very helpful tips

    • Michael Linsin June 26, 2013 at 4:17 pm #

      You’re welcome, Filda!


  3. Dorcas Abbeyquaye June 26, 2013 at 8:49 am #

    Thank you. Good lessons.

    • Michael Linsin June 26, 2013 at 4:17 pm #

      You’re welcome, Dorcas!


  4. Ruth Lartey June 30, 2013 at 11:40 am #

    This is very good,keep it up.

  5. Ruth Lartey June 30, 2013 at 11:42 am #

    Thank u for the lesson.

    • Michael Linsin June 30, 2013 at 3:47 pm #

      You’re welcome, Ruth!

  6. Sandy July 13, 2013 at 6:25 pm #

    Hi Michael,
    I am enjoying your articles. I also believe in verbal cues with mt students. I use one word…class, the twist is they respond back with the word yes. Having them communicate back to me immediately draws everyone in. I use different voices and tones and they respond back the same way. They love it and it is so effective.

    • Michael Linsin July 14, 2013 at 7:50 am #

      Hi Sandy,

      Thanks for sharing!


    • Lyz July 6, 2016 at 4:47 am #

      Thanks for the article !!! Gracias

      • Michael Linsin July 6, 2016 at 7:32 am #

        You’re welcome, Lyz.


  7. Michelle September 16, 2013 at 6:59 am #

    Hi Michael,

    Great articles! I am a first year teacher and I am already having lots of trouble with classroom management. I am also experimenting too much with different strategies and my official classroom management plan and quiet signals have not been decided.

    Even worse, I only see my students twice a week so it’s difficult to be consistent, and since I am still playing around with what works for each class I am always trying something different with them and they don’t know what to expect from me.

    Currently I say “Give me 5” and wait for everyone to raise their hand, but I want to try the new strategy you suggest and instead say Listen Up (in Spanish) with not response or visual cue needed from them.

    Any advice about being able to still fine tune my rules, expectations, and procedures and get closer to the path of consistency?


    • Michael Linsin September 16, 2013 at 4:42 pm #

      Hi Michelle,

      My advice is to start from the beginning. Read first the Classroom Management Plan category of the archive, then move on to Routines & Procedures, and then on from there. You’ll find everything you need to create and/or fine tune your rules, procedures, and expectations, as well as improve your consistency.


  8. Ira November 20, 2013 at 5:20 am #

    I’m teaching an EFL class, and it gets so loud that a verbal cue like this usually doesn’t work. I have to ask them to be quiet multiple times (not in their native language) before the room gets kind of quiet. I’ve gotten used to speaking over a little chatter throughout class. It’s hard because I don’t know if what they are saying is related to what I’m teaching or not. I don’t want absolute silence, but sometimes, when I need to explain something important, it’s necessary.

    • Michael Linsin November 20, 2013 at 7:26 am #

      Hi Ira,

      You have to teach, model, and then practice it until they can do it. Only then should you begin using the strategy.


  9. Beth Fidoten May 10, 2014 at 6:22 pm #

    Hi Michael,
    Thanks for the amazing articles. Do you have any suggestions for modeling for high school students? Also, do you think it makes sense to put this in action with only a month left in school?
    Thanks again,

    • Michael Linsin May 11, 2014 at 7:42 am #

      Hi Beth,

      Other than a tone of voice and sensibility that reflects a more mature audience, there should be very little difference in the way you model for high school students. And yes, it’s never too late to model a routine.


  10. Korin July 20, 2015 at 3:36 pm #

    Hi Michael,

    I completely agree how effective a quick verbal cue can be with a group of students! I have been GLAD trained (Guided Learning Acquisition Design) and learned an amazing strategy that teaches vocabulary as well as gets students’ attention. It is called a CCD (Cognitive Content Dictionary) Signal Word. Each week we have a new Signal Word that relates to any subject we are studying (or will be studying) that week. I try to make sure that we will encounter that word authentically in a lesson during the week sometime to give a final definition (which we will come up with at the beginning of the next week. Many students will be able to make the connection, and for those that do not, we always share and make the connection as a whole on Monday.)

    The way the signal word works is you give students a word that MOST students in your class have either never heard of before and/or could not define. You want to choose a word that is unknown to your students. The more that don’t know it, the better! Sometimes you can find “stumpers” where all students have never heard the word before! This is always great because it creates curiosity among your class.

    Once you introduce the word, you survey your class and get a count of how many students have never heard the word before, and those who have. If all or most students raise their hand, I then try to get a tally on who could define the word, and who may have heard the word before but may not be able to give a definition. (I do not allow students to share their definitions just yet, they will have time to share with their group shortly.)

    After recording the quick tally, have students come up with a prediction for the word with their table groups (4 students). They will need to discuss and agree on a prediction, as well as share how they came up with their prediction (word parts, “sounds like”, learned it in science last year, etc.)

    It is important for all students in the team to know the prediction they agreed on since I will be picking a stick (1-4) that will determine who shares the prediction to the whole class. This holds students accountable for participating with their classmates.

    Once all teams are ready, by showing a silent thumbs up, I pick a stick and we go around and share each team’s predictions. Since all students showed they were ready to share, I expect all students to physically turn their bodies in their chairs to face the group that is speaking. This is a very important part of the process in my opinion because I truly want them to learn from one another by hearing their classmates’ thought processes. It is very interesting to hear how they came up with the prediction, whether they are anywhere near the actual definition or not! I always have a sentence frame posted near where I record their predictions, which is on a piece of butcher paper. The frame reminds students to include all of the parts, “We predict ______ means _______ because _______.” I write each group’s prediction WORD FOR WORD on the chart paper, no matter how off it may be and/or grammatically incorrect. This ensures an environment where they can share anything they came up with, without any judgement. I do not tell them they are right, and I do not tell them they are wrong. We simply share, I record the prediction (not the reasoning), and we move on.

    After all predictions are shared, we learn the signal word for the week. Each word will have a short definition (phrase) and a hand signal (ASL signal) that I will teach to the class.

    Here is an example from my 5th grade class last year:
    “Students, our signal word this week is “geographical determinism”.
    When I say “geographical determinism”, as a class in unison you will immediately:
    (1) Pause what you are doing and face me
    (2) Repeat the word
    (3) Say the short definition along with the hand signal.
    After the signal word, I expect all attention on me.”

    *After I give my direction/instruction/whatever I needed their attention for, I use the word again to signal that they are able to go back to what they were doing/carry out the directions I just gave. While their attention is on me, it is silent and there is no movement. This is SO important. It relates to one of your articles that talked about giving importance to your words. When I say the signal word, my students know that I have something important to share and it is important for all students to hear and understand.*

    With the word geographical determinism, we used the following short phrase: “Where you live, affects how you live.” While saying this aloud as a whole class, we used the ASL symbol for “location” and “how” (I get a lot of symbols from this site https://www.signingsavvy.com/sign/LOCATION/1737/1)

    I teach the students the short definition and symbol, and then we practice it a few times until we all understand and know it. I only have to practice it 2-3 times until I am confident they know it. Keep in mind, I am always saying the phrase and doing the symbol as well throughout the week. By the end of the week though, I will occasionally only say the word for their attention and allow the class to only do the definition/symbol. When students do not participate/do not give me their attention I will say it again until I get the desired response.

    IT IS WONDERFUL. Students respond SO well to this strategy. Not only is it highly effective in getting their attention and keeping it, it is changing every week! The procedure isn’t changing, but the word is. It keeps things interesting for the students all while learning a new vocabulary word.

    In order to move onto a new word the next week, we come up with a final definition as a class (which gets recorded on the butcher paper) and the students come up with an oral sentence using the word in context as a team. It is very similar to the way you would do the predictions, however this time they should have a much better understanding of the word, as well as have the connection to when you taught it directly earlier that week (see my first paragraph about teaching the word directly).

    Students talk as a team to come up with what they think the final definition of the word is.
    Have all teams share their definition aloud
    Give the final definition and write it on the butcher paper
    Have each team come up with a sentence USING the word, not just defining it. They will share it aloud as a class. (This is not recorded, it is just shared verbally, once again with all attention from classmates)
    Introduce the NEW signal word for that week!

    GLAD is an amazing training and has a TON of strategies, this is only one, but it is my favorite! I never meant to write such a long comment, but I really wanted to share this amazing teaching strategy and hope it was clear enough for someone to benefit from it 🙂

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge every week!


    • Michael Linsin July 20, 2015 at 4:29 pm #

      Hi Korin,

      Thanks so much for generously sharing your experience with what sounds like an excellent strategy—very Smart Classroom Management! I’m sure our many readers will benefit from your well-written description. 🙂


  11. Eugenia Papaioannou July 2, 2016 at 10:43 pm #

    Hello Michael,
    I’ve read your article about the hand signal and the verbal signal to draw the attention of the learners. It’s well justified.
    However, it seems that few of the inspiring writers consider the very young learners who study English as a foreign language. For instance, I teach English to YLs aged 4-6. I use only L2 without using L1 at all from Day 1. In this case if I use the verbal instruction ‘Can I have your attention, please?’, nobody will understand. For these classes visual stimuli (hand gestures) are the only effective ways. I do it along with verbal instruction: ‘Silence, please/Be quiet, please!’ Gradually I drop the hand gesture and use only verbal instruction. By that time they have identified these two and they respond properly.

    Thanks for your articles
    Eugenia Papaioannou
    EFL teacher, teachers’ trainer, author

    • Michael Linsin July 3, 2016 at 8:12 am #

      Hi Eugenia,

      Thanks for sharing your insight. Sounds like a smart way to do it. 🙂