Pairing and grouping strategies in sign language classes

Cooperative and collaborative learning is one of some principles in Communicative Language Teaching. ASL students practice signing with one another in pairs, trios, and groups. They learn from one another with the instructor's corrective feedback, support, and guide.

A standard seat arrangement in sign language class is a traditional horseshoe shape, where everyone can see one another. Sign language students, not all, often sit in the same seat spots with the same class neighbors throughout the semester. It's not uncommon that the peers sit together. To ensure that the learners can practice with different classmates of various skills and signing styles, a sign language instructor uses various pair-up techniques.

Below are some grouping techniques and strategies that ASL instructors can use to group students for practices and activities. That way, every student can practice with a new partner of various signing styles and skill every time to improve their receptive and expressive skills.

Pairing up in pairs

Adjacent pairs. Pairing up two partners or students is the most common technique. Pairing up two heads who sit together is one of the easiest and quickest grouping.

asl classroom
ASL class at a college in early 2000s(?)

If there is an odd number of attendees, group the last three students together. If the number of students is odd, I sometimes alternate the start at one side of the semicircle and next time start at the other side of the semicircle.

Pairing up in trios

Second common technique is to partner up three neighbors around the semicircle of students.

asl classroom
ASL class at a college in early 2000s(?)

These first two techniques work well for the first few classes or weeks, since most students don't know one another beyond their sitting peers. It also works for peers who know each other to feel comfortable with each other after the first few classes throughout the semester.

Pairing up horizontal opposites

The students frequently sit in the same spots after a few weeks. That's where I introduce students to new pairs by pairing up two heads sitting the opposite.

asl classroom
ASL class at a college in early 2000s (?)

Starting at the ends of the semi-circle arrangement, assign two students a number one, move on to the next students, assign the pairs a number two, and so on toward the middle of the semi-circle. If the last students are three, round up the last three.

A benefit of this technique is that the students practice making eye contact with one another and nodding to confirm or recognize their assigned partner while the instructor assigns the pair one at a time. Practice visual alert!

Pairing up diagonal opposites

Split the class in even half and pair up the diagonal opposites. Like the horizontal opposites, I point to the student with the number 1 and the other student with the number 1, move on to the next number 2 and so on around the arc. With the intuitive skill, splitting the half can be accurate, easier with the odd number. I was getting great at that.

asl classroom
ASL class at a college in early 2000s (?)

The benefit of this variant is that the learners practice making eye contact with the instructor and the assigned student.

The purpose of the diagonal pairs are to get the students out of comfort zone; to make using voice difficult; and/or to avoid looking at the partner's written information (e.g. drawing a described shape). Sometimes I turn to this technique when students continue to use voice in the classroom after a few weeks.

Like horizontal opposites, students would often stand up and walk to another chair near their partners. Before they take a step, I intervene them, telling them to stay in their seats. They still can converse across the room.

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Posted 2021.

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