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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.

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. According to many evaluation specialists, a stern look should be a teacher's first action in a situation that involves obvious cheating in a testing situation.

Experienced teachers will often look at their students' eyes to gain their attention, judge their level of interest and to see how well they understand the material being taught. Eye contact is such a powerful tool that teachers can make an individual connection with every student through its use.

Setting the Tone

Sometimes referred to as paralinguistics, vocal intonation includes components such as rhythm, pitch, intensity, nasality and slurring. It is important to remember that if vocal intonation contradicts your words, the former will dominate.

Teachers should use a variety of vocal inflections when presenting material. Remember the teacher Ben Stein played in the movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off? His delivery was so dull, lifeless and monotone that his students had long since stopped listening when he began asking questions. No wonder he had to keep asking, "Anyone ... anyone?"

Tone, pitch and speed affect how words are sent and received. Teachers should articulate words at a comfortable rate to maximize the potential for student comprehension. Speaking too slowly tends to aggravate students, while speaking too quickly makes it difficult for them to follow the presentation.

A Touch of Encouragement

Touching is an important aspect of any culture, but touching in the classroom is a delicate matter. Although perhaps warranted, a teacher who grabs the arm or shoulder of a student who is misbehaving in the classroom enters the student's space uninvited, creating an awkward and uncomfortable situation.

Touching can be used in a positive way, however, to offer encouragement and support. Patting a student on the arm, shoulder or back to congratulate him or her for a job well done is a much used--and usually favorably accepted--form of praise.

Research has shown that younger children tend to learn significantly more when teachers exhibit touching, close body proximity and smiles of approval. As children grow older, however, touching behaviors become less appropriate.

Body Talk

Body movements and gestures are another way we communicate meaning. We do it by the way we walk, stand, sit, and what we do with our shoulders, hands, arms and legs. We do it in how we hold our heads and the manner in which we position our bodies toward or away from others.

It is important that teachers learn how to use natural body movements when talking in front of a class of students, since inappropriate ones will diminish the lesson's delivery. While body movements alone have no exact meaning, they can support or reject the spoken word. They should accentuate and confirm the verbal messages the teacher is giving.

The best way for teachers to check body movements, postures and gestures is to record themselves teaching an actual class. By having colleagues or friends view the recording and offer a critique, teachers can become aware of any weaknesses and work on correcting them.

Students receive nonverbal messages of enthusiasm or boredom communicated through a teacher's body orientation, and teachers can also gauge student interest in the class through the students' body postures and movements. An observant teacher can also tell when students understand the material or if they are having trouble grasping major concepts. Slumping in a chair often indicates fatigue, boredom or discouragement, while attentive students will sit up straight and lean slightly toward the teacher.

Gestures are used in a variety of situations and are often comprehended more quickly than speech. Teachers routinely use them to convey information to students because they can either add to or replace words. Gestures are a visual form of communication that can travel farther than spoken words and are unaffected by the presence of noise.

Space to Move

How students use space nonverbally communicates how comfortable or anxious they feel. It is more than just personal space that is important; classroom environment is also a factor. Fixed-feature space involves the layout of walls, partitions and other immovable objects, while semi-fixed-feature space is the arrangement of classroom furniture. Both are more than aesthetic issues and can directly affect student learning.

Studies have shown that factors such as a nice color, good lighting and cleanliness inspire feelings of comfort, pleasure and enjoyment for completing tasks, while "ugly" rooms create reactions such as monotony, fatigue and irritability. Furniture arrangement also plays a role in students' attitudes. The typical straight-row seating found in most classrooms evolved to make optimum use of natural lighting from windows, but it greatly affects the communication process. Student interaction with the teacher in this arrangement is greatest in the front and middle rows.

Personal space between a teacher and a student is a critical factor in the communication process, and teachers can share feelings of acceptance or rejection simply by the distance they maintain. Teachers, like most people, tend to get closer to those they like and maintain a greater distance from those they don't like. Creating a supportive learning environment means not sending messages of rejection through the use of personal space.

Body of Work

If effective communication is to be achieved in today's schools, it must be an open process where teachers and students possess the ability to send and receive messages accurately. Good teachers are also good listeners--listening not only to the words being spoken but also to the silent messages that their students send.

Without words, teachers communicate their feelings, expectations and many other messages they would never verbally admit. Teachers should devore time and energy to developing their nonverbal communication skills, just as they do their teaching skills, because they must make sure they are sending the right messages to their students. Think of it as an unspoken rule.

Patrick W. Miller is the author of Grant Writing: Strategies for Developing Winning Proposals, which is sold through the ACTE Bookstore. His newest book is Body Language: An Illustrated Introduction for Teachers. He can be contacted at patrickwmiller@ sbcglobal.net.
Percent of communication sent, by type.

Words 7%

Facial
Expression 55%

Vocal
Intonation 38%

Note: Table made from pie chart.
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Author:Miller, Patrick W.
Publication:Techniques
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2005
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