Body Language in the Classroom: Communication Is More Than Words, and It Is Important for Teachers and Administrators to Understand the Nonverbal Messages They Are Sending and Receiving in the Classroom

By Miller, Patrick W. | Techniques, November-December 2005 | Go to article overview

Body Language in the Classroom: Communication Is More Than Words, and It Is Important for Teachers and Administrators to Understand the Nonverbal Messages They Are Sending and Receiving in the Classroom


Miller, Patrick W., Techniques


Ralph Waldo Emerson and Mae West would seem to have little in common, but there is one thing they both understood--the importance of body language.

"The telltale body is all tongues," Emerson once said, while West famously noted, "I speak two languages, body and English."

Educators, psychologists, anthropologists and sociologists define body language or nonverbal communication as communication without words. It includes overt behaviors such as facial expressions, eye contact, touching and tone of voice. It can also be less obvious, however, as through dress, posture and spatial distance. The most effective communication occurs when verbal and nonverbal messages are in sync, creating communication synergy.

There are some important reasons why we use nonverbal communication:

* Words have limitations.

* Nonverbal signals are powerful.

* Nonverbal messages are likely to be more genuine.

* Nonverbal signals can express feelings too disturbing to state.

* A separate communication channel is necessary to help send complex messages.

Just how important is nonverbal communication? Some research findings suggest that two-thirds of our communication is nonverbal. Other experts suggest that only seven percent of a message is sent through words, with the remaining 93 percent sent through facial expressions (55 percent) and vocal intonation (38 percent).

In the classroom, teachers and students--both consciously and unconsciously--send and receive nonverbal cues several hundred times a day. Teachers should be aware of nonverbal communication in the classroom for two basic reasons: to become better receivers of students' messages and to gain the ability to send positive signals that reinforce students' learning while simultaneously becoming more skilled at avoiding negative signals that stifle their learning.

Students use smiles, frowns, nodding heads and other cues to tell teachers to slow down, speed up or in some other way modify the delivery of instructional material. To be a good receiver of student messages, a teacher must be attuned to many of the subtle nonverbal cues that their students send.

It is just as important for teachers to be good nonverbal communication senders as it is for them to be good receivers. Teachers express enthusiasm, warmth, assertiveness, confidence and displeasure through facial expressions, vocal intonation, gestures and use of space. However, when teachers exhibit verbal messages that conflict with nonverbal messages, students become confused, which in turn can affect their attitudes and learning.

Face the Facts

In human interaction, people focus their attention on the face to receive visual cues that support or contradict verbal messages. Facial expressions are the primary source of information, next to words, in determining an individual's internal feelings.

Momentary expressions that signal emotions include muscle movements such as raising the eyebrows, wrinkling the brow, rolling the eyes or curling the lip. A teacher's face should convey a variety of expressions when speaking to students, but whenever suitable, they should smile when working with students, since smiles present a warm and open invitation for communication.

While listening to students, teachers should use facial expressions that communicate interest about questions and concerns.

When it comes to visual communication, certainly "the eyes have it," as eyes can both send and receive messages. Making eye contact communicates openness and honesty, while avoiding eye contact may indicate that something is wrong. It is important to note, however, that there may be cultural aspects to consider as well in a lack of eye contact.

Teachers usually maintain eye contact and flash visual signals when they want to emphasize particular points. Direct teacher eye contact can express support, disapproval or neutrality. …

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