Body language has long been seen by communications specialists as a key component of the way we interact with others, with researchers claiming that anything between 50 and 80% of all communication happens through non-verbal communication.
Glenn Wilson – Author of ‘Body Language: The Signals You Don’t Know You’re Sending, and How To Master Them” and Visiting Professor of Psychology at Gresham College, London states that “Where body language conflicts with the words that are being said, the body language will usually be the more ‘truthful’ in the sense of revealing true feelings.”
So why is it that body language has such a low profile in the ELT world? It could be that we take fore-granted that body language is a transferable skill from the learners L1, but it certainly is not, though their are some shared similarities across cultures.
So, what is body language?
These are just a few of the commonly used features of body language.
This is probably the most obvious of the elements of body language. We use facial expressions to communicate a wide range of feelings. Researchers at Ohio State University have recently discovered that humans can consistently detect up to 21 different emotions based on facial expression.
Posture is also hugely important and can convey a wide range of attitude from confidence and dominance, to fear, insecurity or boredom. Folded arms, a head tilt to one side, combined with a genuine smile can send a completely different message from the arms folded and chin pushed forward slightly.
How close you stand to someone or someone stands to you can indicate the level of trust they feel in you. Levels of comfortable proximity can vary tremendously from culture to culture though, with some cultures feeling comfortable having tactile contact with people they don’t know very well and others, like the British for example preferring to have quite a large exclusion zone around them for people they don’t know well. Ever feel yourself constantly backing away from the person you are speaking to?
If someone isn’t looking at you, they probably aren’t listening to you. That’s the assumption made by most cultures, though there are those that avert the eyes as a sign of respect. Typically you should be giving someone direct eye contact around 60% of the time to indicate that you are interested in what they say, but at 90% they are going to think that you’re glaring angrily at them.
Our voice can betray a wide range of emotions, many of which can be very hard to control. Research from UC Berkley recently examined more than 2000 vocal bursts and were able to detect up to 24 different emotions based on tone, pitch, speed and volume.
The way we use our hands when we speak can convey wisdom (fingertips touching), frustration (clenched fists) openness (hands open with palms pointing upwards) or domination, arms outstretched with hands open and palms pointing downwards) and of course a wide range of other conscious and subconscious messages.
So how does this impact on how we teach?
As teachers standing at the front of the classroom we are using body language all the time, so having a greater awareness of how we are using it and what our body language is saying can be very enlightening.
Thinking about where and how we stand when we carry out various teaching related tasks and the impact this has on classroom management can also be very enlightening. Do you always stand in the same place when you want to get students attention back to you after a pair-work activity, or when you give instructions?
What about your voice? Are you conscious of how you use your voice at different times and for different tasks during the lesson? Do you have a ‘teachers’ voice when giving instructions and ‘personal’ voice when speaking to individual students? Is your voice giving the same message as your words when you give students feedback or when you respond to their input?
Are you projecting friendly confidence or angry dominance? Are you actually giving your students eye contact when they are speaking and showing that you are interested in what they are saying and not just how they are saying it?
All of these things can have a profound impact on your ability to build rapport, trust and a positive productive relationship with your students.
How best to evaluate this?
One of the best ways to evaluate all of these things is to bring in a camera and video yourself teaching your lesson. When you watch the video, try watching it without the sound the first time and just observe your body language and think about where you are in the room and what messages your body is conveying.
Likewise if you can review the lesson without the vision, perhaps just close your eyes for a while, you can think about the tone and volume of your voice. Are you sounding like a ‘real person’? Do you sound friendly and encouraging, or do you just sound bored, angry, stressed or impatient?
Get another teacher who you trust to watch and listen with you, and see if their perceptions match up to your own.
So, what about our students?
Well if we are just teaching students to say words and structures, read text and listen to audio scripts to identify information, then according to whichever researcher you believe, we are neglecting anything between 50% and 80% of our job of teaching students to communicate in English.
Whereas it is true that many of these things may be common between some cultures, the act of learning and speaking a new language may well be taking up such a large part of students available attention, that many of these aspects can easily be neglected.
How can we help our students with body language?
Here are a few tasks and activities that we can use to ensure we don’t neglect this valuable element of communication.
One great technique for raising awareness of body language is silent viewing of video. Using short clips of day to day soap opera drama can be very effective. Play clips silently and see what information students can detect just by watching the interaction between people. Can they detect what the relationships are? How people feel about each other? What they are discussing? What they are thinking and feeling? Get them to think about what it is they are seeing that’s giving them this information.
If you can find parallel clips from your students culture and the target culture, then make comparisons between the two, this can be very enlightening for students. I once used a clip of people interacting in a coffee shop in a comedy series from the US. Students then compared it with a similar one from Spain and the differences in proximity were staggering.
Mime role plays and dialogues
When we give students role plays or dialogues to practice we can ask them to mime these before they do them with the actual words. This will help them to think about the kinds of gestures and expressions they will use when they actually talk to the person. Miming a job interview role play can really help the interviewee focus on their posture and facial expressions without the additional cognitive load of having to think about the actual words and what they need to say.
Motivation and attitude
You have probably watched films about acting when the actor turns to the director and asks, “Yes, but what’s my motivation for this scene?” When doing speaking activities or role plays we need to give students additional notes on what their motivation or attitude is during the activity. We could even give them some background history of the relationship between the two people. Do they like each other? Are they telling the truth or trying to pass off a lie? Adding these elements can make activities more engaging and adding and feeling attitude can help students get a deeper learning experience from the activity.
Add a third party to pair work activities and role plays. Make the third person an observer and get them to take notes about the body language of the other two students to see if they were using body language in a positive way and what they felt was being conveyed by their body language. If you can get them to plug their ears while they do this, even better.
Get students to practice mirroring the person they are speaking with. Mirroring is a very common way that we show rapport, empathy or even attraction to the other person. You can get students in pairs sitting face to face. Ask student A to express an emotion through posture, gesture or facial expression and ask B to mirror the same gestures.
When introducing new language we often drill words or sentences to help students develop their confidence and pronunciation with the new words or structures. Often these drills are done with the whole class together in a monotone chant, but we can give students various attitudes to express and model these as we drill, by asking students to say the sentences as if they are angry, sad, happy, excited, etc. This helps students to notice and develop a wider range of vocal expression and also makes the drills much more fun.
So improving our own and our students use of body language doesn’t have to be difficult and it can even help to offer students a deeper learning experience, so why not give a few of these ideas a try and see what happens.
Would you like to learn more about body language in the ELT classroom? You may want to consider an advanced qualification in ELT such as the Trinity DipTESOL. Next course starts January 11th 2022.