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The Importance of Body Language for Effective Oral Communication

Written by: Judie Haynes
Published on: Oct 31, 2022

body language
Photo credit: Farknot Architect/Adobe Stock

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.

About 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.

View all posts by Judie Haynes →

This post first appeared on the TESOL Blog. Reprinted with permission.