4 non-verbal communication strategies all teachers need

Mastering non-verbal communication doesn't just save your voice, it has pedagogical benefits too, says Mark Roberts

Mark Roberts

non verbal

Teaching has a voice problem. Given the nature of the job, and the environment in which we work, we have what occupational health experts euphemistically term “high occupational voice demands”. Research has found that “the majority of teachers have experienced vocal problems and 5 per cent suffer from problems so severe that their working ability is questionable”[1].  Any communication technique that can alleviate the strain on our ravaged vocal cords, therefore, is welcome indeed.

But non-verbal communication isn’t just about giving our throat a rest. Instead of seeing the use of gesture as temporary respite for a knackered larynx, we should embrace the pedagogical benefits of non-verbal communication in all lessons. Here are four ways that using our facial and body gestures can bring learning benefits to the students we teach:

1. Deal with behaviour silently 

Teachers often overuse their voice as part of behaviour management. Competing with pupils’ noise levels. Reprimanding individual students. Ineffective shushing. With practice, all of these issues can be tackled without saying a word: a look of consternation at the last pupil still speaking, a finger wagged from side to side or placed over the teachers’ lips. Some of the best behaviour management I’ve ever seen involved little speaking. Spread tranquillity and compliance by reducing how much you deploy your voice.

2. Maintain eye contact to show you are confident and that you care 

With the exception of some with pupils with certain types of SEND (such as autism spectrum disorders), pupils see the building of eye contact as a sign of a teacher’s credibility and trustworthiness[2]. As well as conveying confidence, meaningful eye contact shows a teacher is interested in them and cares about their contribution. This is particularly true during “cold call” questioning, where eye contact and encouraging nods can elicit excellent responses from previously reticent contributors.

3. Scan facial gestures to check for understanding 

How are some teachers able to quickly spot when the majority of students are struggling, while other teachers keep ploughing on with diminishing results? One explanation is that some teachers are better at spotting their students’ puzzled looks and adapting their lesson by reframing the instruction.

4. Highlight key ideas through emphatic gestures 

Research has suggested that when teachers use gestures to emphasise key ideas, children are more likely to arrive at a correct answer[3]. Students notice seemingly imperceptible things, for example, the way your lips move into an oval shape when you repeat important words or how you always switch off your projector to make an emphatic point[4].  

 

Using non-verbal communication doesn’t just protect your voice. It also builds trust, leading to a calmer, more purposeful environment. Refine how you use your hands, eyes and facial gestures and you’ll find more students giving your teaching a (metaphorical) thumbs up.      

References: 

  1. Lyberg-Åhlander, V., Rydell, R., Löfqvist, A., Pelegrin-Garcia, D., & Brunskog, J. (2015) ‘Teachers’ voice use in teaching environment: aspects on speakers' comfort’, Energy Procedia, 78, pp. 3090-3095.
  2. Zeki, C.P. (2009) ‘The importance of non-verbal communication in classroom management’, Procedia – Social and Behavioural Sciences, 1, pp. 1443-1449.
  3. Goldin-Meadow, S. (2004) ‘Gesture's Role in the Learning Process’, Theory Into Practice, 43:4, pp. 314-321.
  4. Zeki, C.P. (2009) ‘The importance of non-verbal communication in classroom management’, Procedia – Social and Behavioural Sciences, 1, pp. 1443-1449.

Mark Roberts is an assistant headteacher in the South West of England

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