Integrating Nonverbal Communication into Classroom Activities

Integrating Nonverbal Communication into Classroom Activities

(with Simon Mumford)

Nonverbal communication (body language, paralinguistics) covers a huge area, primarily the realm those interested in effective business presentations and interpersonal relationships rather than English language teachers, though the use of gestures and mimicry have crept into ELT research via neuro-linguistic programming. The importance of nonverbal communication as an accompaniment to spoken language, however, cannot be underestimated, given that up to ninety percent of communication takes place through voice tone, sounds and a variety of devices such as kinetics (movement), haptics (touch), oculesics (eye-contact), proxemics (space) and chronomics (time) as well as posture, locomotion and even silence. Misinterpretation of body language can be a cause of intercultural misunderstanding, while a lack of it may be as much the cause of ‘unnatural’ communication as ignorance of the phonological features of the language. Despite this, nonverbal communication is rarely taught alongside the speaking skill and very few classroom activities have been developed to practise it. Similarly, it is not widely recognized that expressions, gestures and other devices have form, function and meaning which vary from culture to culture and may be learned in a similar way to, and in conjunction with, structural and functional language.

Introduced in the right way, both for receptive and productive purposes, aspects of nonverbal communication can add an extra dimension to language learning and be immense fun to practice in the language classroom.

Activities to practice nonverbal communication may be categorized in a number of ways, each categorisation having implications as to how the activities might be integrated into a syllabus:

  • Activities which practise a function such as agreement, indifference or deception.
  • Activities which practice a pure nonverbal aspect such as locomotion.
  • NLP-type activities such as mirroring body language.
  • Activities which combine speech with aspects of nonverbal communication such as facial expression and gesture.
  • Activities which combine structural or functional language with appropriate nonverbal reinforcement.

In terms of integrating nonverbal communication into a standard multi-layered syllabus, the last two of the above are probably the most manageable and acceptable to both teachers and learners, though these may also incorporate elements of the other activity types, particularly since verbal and nonverbal devices are often complementary in adding aspect to function. The following are examples of activities designed either to reinforce structural or functional language (guided practice) or to accompany fluency-based language tasks (less guided practice).

Guided Practice Activities

Ear pulling reported speech (reported speech/deception)

It has been suggested that people who are lying are more likely to use a gesture such as pulling their ear. Students work in groups of three. One makes a statement about himself which may or may not be true. The second reports it to the third, who writes it down. The student making the original statement should pull his ear when making statements that are not true. The second student conveys to the third student (who should not hear/see the original statement being made) that he believes the statement to be true or not by emphasising or not emphasising the reporting verb. This emphasizing, and using ‘doubting’ intonation, has the effect of showing disbelief.


Student A (to B) I went to the cinema last night. (No gesture)
Students B (to C) He said that he had gone to the cinema last night.
Student C writes He said he had gone to the cinema last night.
Student A (to B) I found twenty pounds in the street.(pulls ear)
Students B (to C) He said that he had found 20 pounds in the street.
Student C writes He said he had found 20 pounds in the street, but I don’t believe it.

Hotel dialogues (Degrees of politeness/gestures)

In threes, students take the following roles: Porter, Manager, VIP guest. The table shows requests and accompanying gestures. Practise the statements gestures. In groups of three, give each student a role. They then practise moving each other around the class.

  To Porter To Hotel ManagerTo VIP guest
Porter saysI wonder if  you could you come here, Mr. Thomas(back hand gesture)If Sir/Madam would care to step this way (Back hand pointing gesture and flourish,  slight bow)
Hotel manager saysGet yourself over here! (direct finger pointing)Mr. Goldsmith, if you would be so good as to follow me. (Back hand gesture)
VIP Guest saysCome here a minute please, would you? (Beckoning)If you wouldn’t mind stepping over here  (wave towards self)

Pep talks (emphasis)

Give an example of a pep talk, e.g. by a coach to a football team.

I want you to get out there, pass the ball, run fast, and shoot hard. I want you to watch the ball, and don’t wait for it to come to you. You have to score first, you have to stay ahead. You’re not going to let them score. You have to win.

Punch your fist into your other hand on every main verb to show that you mean it! Then ask students what you want them to do. (Now, what are you going to do?’) Get them to remember as much as possible, repeating the punch on the verbs. Put students in groups to write other pep talks e.g. a teacher to students before an exam, officer to soldiers before battle, manager to sales team before going out to sell, head surgeon to doctors going into a difficult operation, inspector to police dealing with a dangerous gang, etc. Put students into different groups and let them give each other their pep talks.

Shrugging drill (past tense/body language)

This is a drill to practise past tense questions, statements and past continuous. The shoulder shrug is associated with not knowing, not having a reason, and the word ‘just’. In pairs, students ask and answer:

A: Why did you wear that tie?

B: I don’t know, (shrug) I was just getting dressed and I wore it

A: Why did you watch that film?

B: I don’t know, (shrug) I was just walking past the cinema and I watched it.

A: Why did you sing that song?

B: I don’t know, (shrug) I was just singing and I sang it.

Continue with other verbs: play, eat, go to, read, drink, buy, say, phone, insult, kick, etc.

Agree with me (agreement/dominance)

In small groups, one student is appointed as the dominant one. Other students have to copy his body language and agree with everything he says, however ridiculous it may be, for example:

S 1 The sky is green.

S 2,3,4 That’s right, the sky is green. It’s a very beautiful green.

S1 It’s a lovely day for swimming

S 2,3,4 Yes let’s go for a swim now, Yes, freezing water is good for you.

Let students take turns in being the dominant one.

Less Guided Practice Activities

Sage drills (body language associated with thoughtfulness)

Tell the class they are sages/philosophers. They should formulate deep questions such as:What is the meaning of life?What is Evil?Is there a God?Is there life on other planets?Is it possible to travel in time?Who am I?

Put the students in groups of four. One starts with a question e.g. ‘Is life an illusion?’ and a gesture, e.g. chin stroking. They pass the question around the group with the gesture. Once the sentence has been round the group once, a different sage can pose a different question with a different gesture, e.g. chin resting on a fist, which goes round again. The group members should keep trying to find new questions and new appropriate body language, which could include: pacing up and down, finger on chin, scratching heads, looking up, and closing eyes.

Entertained or not (speaking/open or closed posture)

Write up a variety of subjects to talk about, elicit these from the class e.g. football, cars, cooking, animals. Half the class remains sitting, the others move from student to student, every minute, having conversations. The sitting students should show their attitude to the subject under discussion (chosen by the standing student) by using open or closed postures (crossed arms and legs, no smile or eye contact is ‘closed’ body language.) It is the job of the standing students to keep their partners entertained with interesting conversation and they should make notes about each person’s interests after their conversations. At the end have a feed back session in which the standing students say who is interested in which subjects.

Drumming on the desk (speaking/boredom)

In groups, everyone gets a turn to speak for one minute on a subject. The idea is to speak for one minute without stopping. The other students fill breaks in speaking with drumming on the desk with fingers. Drumming shows impatience, so it should encourage the speaker not to stop, and it also shows the speaker how annoying it is.Clearing the throat (speaking/validating)

In groups of three, one student talks about himself in an exaggerated way. The second student listens and the third student must try to pass on non-verbal messages suggesting that the things said are not true, true but exaggerated or completely true. The third is a non-speaking student who tries to give his impression of what the speaker is really like by clearing his throat, to draw attention to minor exaggerations and coughing (where the exaggeration is greater), and nodding, smiling where true. This works well in groups of three where two students know each other well, but the third does not, perhaps a new student in the class.Nervous habits (speaking/exaggerated gestures)

Explain that two people in the room each have a different nervous habit, e.g. pulling their ear or scratching their head, as they speak. Students mingle and talk to each other, changing partners every minute. People with no nervous habit adopt the nervous habit of the person they have just been speaking to. If two speakers both have different nervous habits, the person who speaks first passes his nervous habit on to the second speaker in each pair. After 5 to 10 minutes, stop the activity and see which nervous habit has been acquired by most people.

Back-channeling (describing/noises/gestures)

Each student is given a picture of a person. They sit for three minutes making appropriate noises and gestures as if listening to that person talking about themselves, and then they introduce their new ‘friend’ to the class. The three minutes should be spent making appropriate noises (Really? I see) and gestures (nodding, smiling, open posture), while thinking how they will introduce the person, describe his family, work, and interests.


The use of gestures, facial expressions, posture and other devices varies widely from culture to culture. Some aspects of nonverbal communication, therefore, have to be taught, often in the same way as spoken language. Constant use of video/DVD is probably the best way of providing context, but is time consuming and sometimes impractical. Consequently the teacher is his/her own best resource for presenting and modeling. Nonverbal devices are best presented, and, of course, drilled, along with their accompanying spoken language, but may also be practiced in isolation. These stages should not be forgotten before moving on to activities such as those above.

 first published January 2006 MET Volume 15 Issue 1

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