The Importance of Body Language for Effective Oral Communication

For those educators who are teaching multilingual language learners (MLLs), body language is an important topic to address. Teachers of MLLs need to impart to their students that speaking to others is more than putting words together. If we create in MLLs an awareness of how they use voice and body language to communicate, we can help them become aware of the nonverbal behaviors that will equip them to express themselves in a more effective manner.

There are six aspects of body language:

  1. facial expressions
  2. body movements
  3. gestures
  4. eye contact
  5. touch proxemics
  6. voice

This month, I’ll begin by talking about eye contact, proxemics, and voice. I’ll add to this list in future posts.

1. The Importance of Maintaining Eye Contact 

Eye contact happens when people look into to eyes of another person when communicating. In the United States, it is considered rude for a student to not maintain eye contact when speaking to a teacher. I can’t count the number of times I was accosted in the hallway of my school by my colleagues who complained about an MLL who they believed was rude because they looked down when speaking to the the teacher.

It’s important in the United States for both the speaker and the listener to hold eye contact when they are communicating—this is true for both children and adults, students and teachers. In many other cultures, however, it is not polite to maintain eye contact. For this reason, MLLs need to practice making eye contact. One elementary ESL teacher reported that she had her MLLs engage in staring contests so that they learned how to look into the eyes of other students and adults in school.

2. Proxemics Is an Important Aspect of Body Language

Proxemics is the amount of personal space between people who are talking. This is an important aspect of body language that needs to be taught. Many teachers have commented to me that their MLLs are standing too close and invading their space, which makes them feel uncomfortable. Everyone has a need for physical space, but this need differs depending on the culture and the closeness of the relationship.

I usually teach children about the “American Bubble,” which is about 12–15 inches. Two American adults who are speaking generally stand about 24–30 inches away from each other. People from Central and South America stand much closer than those from North America. Having students role-play these situation is very helpful. I ask them to observe students in their class to see how far they stand when talking to the teacher or to other students.

3. How Volume, Pitch, and Intonation Affect Oral Communication

I believe it is important to MLLs to learn about voice and how it affects what they say. In this section I’ll talk about volume, pitch, and intonation, because each of these aspects of voice affects how MLLs are viewed in school.

Volume: Many young children speak very loudly when they are in school. They have to be taught about “inside” and “outside” voices. MLLs who are self-conscious about speaking English may use a very low voice when they are speaking, making it difficult for them to be heard. Children may need to use a loud voice to be heard on the playground, but they may need to speak in a quiet voice when they are in small spaces or in the library. We need to train MLLs to use the appropriate voice for the situation that they are in. I’ve seen classroom teachers use various signals to indicate what is appropriate, which can be very efficient. One teacher I observed had a special clap that she used to indicate that students needed to quiet down. Another flicked the lights in the room, and a third held up two fingers to indicate quiet.

Pitch: Controlling pitch is useful when expressing emotion. A person’s pitch may rise when they are excited or scared and will usually be lower when they are afraid. I used to teach this by showing pictures of different emotions and have students gesture whether their voice would be louder or softer. Then I would give them pictures of a scenario that takes place in school and write a sentence about it. They would read their sentence in a small group using the appropriate pitch.

Intonation: Intonation refers to the changes in speech during a normal conversation. This would best be taught through modeling and practice. For example, an upward intonation would show that the student is asked a question and a downward intonation indicates that a message is complete. Role-playing is a good way to give MLLs practice with intonation.

If you have any thoughts on or experiences with teaching these elements of body language for MLLs, please share in the comments below.

About Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes
Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher" and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.
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6 Responses to
The Importance of Body Language for Effective Oral Communication

  1. Judie Haynes says:

    Thanks for your comments. I speak from 28 years of teaching MLLs and from 3 years of living in France where I was the MLL. It took me more than a year to to begin to understand French culture. I made so many mistakes and some were centered on making eye contact. I think teachers of MLLs in the U.S. to know what the norms are here and to communicate them to students. I don’t want MLLs to be scolded because they don’t make eye contact with teachers. Teachers need to know that they should make allowances for the cultural differences.

  2. Abeer says:

    Great post. Thanks for sharing this with us.

  3. VSKj says:

    This is an excellent offering. Thank you Judie.
    The topic of body language awareness is So important for learners and teachers alike. For novice teachers it can be make or break, and for veteran teachers it can be a welcome reminder or refresher aid.

  4. Amir says:

    Hello
    I found your article a bit biased toward nativespeakersim. You may wonder why? Here is the answer: How can you force a Muslim woman to stare at a man for a long time in class when it’s against their religion?
    Why should the whole world follow Brits and Americans when people already know that English does not belong to inner cycle countries anymore. We teachers should learn to respect our students coming from various cultures without implicitly pushing them toward the pitfall of nativespeakersim.

    • Cynthia Fagan says:

      This is an interesting comment Amir, but I don’t think the author said anything about forcing anyone to do anything. Certainly, there are many different cultures in America and we should be sensitive to that. However, if
      someone is living in the U.S. for example, I believe it is helpful to let them know about our culture. I lived in Japan for a year and I would have been extremely grateful for someone to explain the Japanese culture to me. I was lost most of the time. I knew I was doing and saying things that were incorrect and that caused me to not make as many friends as I wanted to.

      • Kim Deprenger says:

        I agree with Cynthia and Amir alike. . For example, when I lived in Ethiopia, the personal distance/bubble, is much smaller than here in the U.S. Men hold hands and dance together with no problem. There is more touch. When greeting a woman, there are kisses on both cheeks and hugs. Many of my students learned through observation or negative experiences once they immigrated to the U.S. For example, men and boys holding hands in the U.S. has a whole different meaning here than in Ethiopia. But Amir, you are correct in the sense that we as teachers need to respect and learn and teach to others that different cultures have different ways of expressing themselves or acting. The eye contact is a good point. Many cultures believe that NOT making eye contact is a show of respect. Or, back to Ethiopia. The girls are generally taught to be silent and let the boys do the talking. A woman being loud is cause for gossip. I learned that the hard way . Being shushed at an Oromo party where I was being to loud for the Oromo women to accept. I would rather be told what is acceptable in the culture because not everything can be learned by observation.
        Some things should be taught as to what is considered acceptable in American culture, but not pushing a student to do something far out of their comfort zone. Cynthia, I have a cousin who lived in Japan and she told me the same thing. She said she was always “doing something wrong”, but only learned about some of the cultural norms.

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