Caenorhabditis elegans chromosomes contain specialized regions called pairing centres, which mediate homologous pairing and synapsis during meiosis. Four related proteins, ZIM-1, 2, 3 and HIM-8, associate with these sites and are required for their essential functions. Here we show that short sequence elements enriched in the corresponding chromosome regions selectively recruit these proteins in vivo. In vitro analysis using SELEX indicates that the binding specificity of each protein arises from a combination of two zinc fingers and an adjacent domain. Insertion of a cluster of recruiting motifs into a chromosome lacking its endogenous pairing centre is sufficient to restore homologous pairing, synapsis, crossover recombination and segregation. These findings help to illuminate how chromosome sites mediate essential aspects of meiotic chromosome dynamics.