More Than Meets the Eye

July 2016

Facial expressions, hand signals, mime, deeds, conduct, posture, eye contact, breathing, clothing, silences and vocal sounds all come under the banner of non-verbal communication. We can simply refer to these as gestures and in the classroom there are four distinct advantages of using such expressions:

  1. Gestures reduce unnecessary teacher talk by eliminating dispensable utterances.
  2. Gestures increase student participation by encouraging people to do things for themselves.
  3. Gestures compensate for noise interference and generally bad acoustics in the classroom.
  4. Gestures, if expressed fully, are often much more clear and unambiguous than speech — they can transcend language barriers.[1]

Here are some crisp and efficient devices that can be affected as an instant teacher response:

  • The international thumbs up and thumbs down technique to signal errors and corrections.
  • Don’t facilitate sometimes — stay impassive. It may feel awkward but it’s best to put people on the spot and create measured tension.
  • The full sentence sign: thumbs and index fingers pulled apart like pulling shoelaces tight.
  • The shrug combined with head scratch and puzzled expression.
  • Proximity to students. The closer you are, the slower the pace and the more controlled the setting.
  • Alternate between standing up and sitting down to switch gear and add energy.
  • The raised hand with arm extended and palm open to indicate that you want the dialogue to abruptly stop.
  • The fake cough / throat clearing to indicate a slip has taken place.
  • The exaggerated grimace to indicate incongruence or an error of judgement.
  • Cupping you ear combined with a squint to request a louder response.
  • A long ‘hmmm’ with a lowering of the brow to acknowledge a partially correct answer.
  • Raising of the eyebrows to signal the student is on the right track and that you are partially agreeing / anticipating a good answer.

Eliciting through gestures ties in very closely with the principles of the Direct Method and the Silent Way. Using these approaches does not mean you have to be a mute, it just means you have to let students figure things out for themselves while avoiding the urge to facilitate. The belief that the teacher is a facilitator has to be the most clichéd and banal label in teaching. I hear it every week when I’m interviewing people. In truth, language teachers are far more effective as elicitors as they are as facilitators.


1. Charles Darwin in his book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) argued that all mammals reliably show facial expressions. Thus non-verbal communication is much more psychologically ingrained than speech in evolutionary terms and consequently, facial expressions and gestures have the potential to create more meaningful and universal impact than speech when communicating.