Effective Use of Body Language in the EFL Classroom

Written by: Mike Turner



Time to read 5 min

Body language and other forms of non-verbal communication have been shown to be instrumental in both student learning and behaviour management. It is particularly important for EFL teachers because students are unlikely to understand everything said to them in the target language. Some teachers seem to know instinctively how to communicate effectively using a combination of physical and verbal means. For some, however, it is only through practice and experience that this becomes second nature. Non-verbal communication is used by teachers in many ways, including:

  • to demonstrate or reinforce meaning

  • to cue student responses

  • to manage behaviour

  • to indicate how you would like students to organise themselves for an activity

  • to mark transitions between different phases of a lesson

  • to show approval/disapproval

It can also be used to indicate your role at a particular stage of the lesson – educator, organiser, confidante, disciplinarian, etc.

If you are new to teaching, try to become aware of how you use eye contact, facial expressions, body language and gestures to communicate. Also think about where you stand in the space, how close you come to your students and how you position yourself in relation to them. Monitor student responses and gauge what works for you.

Here are our top ten tips for how to use make the most of non-verbal communication:

1. Eye Contact: Showing you are Listening

Look at students when they respond to a question and signal that you are listening by nodding or by using other verbal or non-verbal signals.

2. Eye Contact: Including the Whole Class

When you are speaking to your students as a class - whether you are giving instructions or explaining a language point – try to make brief eye contact with students in different parts of the room. This helps maintain the focus of the whole class - wherever they are in the room - and reinforces that what you are saying is important for everyone.

3. Eye Contact and Behaviour Management

Eye contact is also a great way of managing minor behavioural issues with EFL students. You will find that a look can speak volumes. It tells your students that you have noticed what they are doing and that if they don’t stop, there will be consequences!

4. The Importance of Facial Expression

Facial expression is the most important aspect of your non-verbal communication – it has been estimated that the average human can make and recognise around 250,000 different facial expressions! We are attuned to reading people’s faces and the complex musculature can express subtleties and nuances that often go beyond words. In the same way that we should make full use of our voice through varying intonation, volume and speed, we also need to use a variety of facial expressions to help bring our teaching to life.

5. Words and Gestures

We use gestures naturally when we speak. They help reinforce meaning, add emphasis and can be used to draw attention to different aspects of the physical environment. Think about the wide range of gestures we use when we are explaining or giving instructions. How might you, for example:

  • Invite a response from a specific student?

  • Invite a response from anyone in the class?

  • Quieten students down?

  • Indicate that you need a student to wait?

  • Ask students to form a circle?

  • Get students into pairs or small groups?

  • Count down time to the end of an activity?

6. Gestures and Culture

We need to be a bit careful with certain gestures, as they can have different meanings in different societies. Used inappropriately, they can cause surprise, embarrassment and even give offence. Having said this, there is a range of gestures that seem relatively safe and appear to have broadly the same meaning across a wide range of cultures. Such gestures are likely to be understood by the majority of students (pointing, nodding, waving, ‘thumbs up’, a finger held to the lips or a hand cupped to the ear).

You will soon know if a gesture isn’t working by the look of confusion on the faces of your students. If this happens, try a different way of communicating your meaning. Also, if you are teaching specific nationalities, read up on the meanings of common gestures associated with their cultures; that way, you are less likely to use a gesture that could be confusing or offensive.

7. Teaching Using Gestures and Facial Expressions

Gestures and facial expressions are a great way of demonstrating meaning. Here are just a few examples:

  • Facial expressions can quickly depict an emotion or feeling. Simple adjectives are relatively easy to mime for low-level classes (hunger, tiredness, joy, pain).

  • You can also mime a range of other vocabulary items such as animals or jobs.

  • Similarly, you can use gestures and body language to communicate a wide range of simple activities such as drinking, driving a car or washing your hands. In fact, you can mime a whole daily routine.

  • More complex activities can also be mimed. Everything from unwrapping a present, to building a bookcase.

  • You can indicate the sizes of objects or heights by the use of your hands and fingers.

  • Hands can be used to point to yourself and to objects in the classroom. This is an easy way to teach classroom objects, body parts, personal pronouns, shapes and colours.

  • You can help students with the pronunciation of various sounds, by showing mouth, lip and tongue positions, and can help students with stress patterns by indicating stressed syllables with your hand.

  • Teachers often indicate or elicit appropriate verb forms by pointing back past their shoulder for past tense forms, downwards for present forms and forward for future forms. Even if such gestures aren’t clearly understood at first, students will soon learn these visual codes and what they mean.

8. Let Your Students Know How You Are Feeling

It’s important for students to be able to read the situation in the classroom by interpreting your expression and body language. Is this phase of the lesson a time for quiet, serious work, or fun and games? Are you impressed with a student's answer, or do you need them to expand on what they have said? Are you confused or surprised by a response and need them to reformulate? Are you signalling that a particular behaviour is inappropriate? Misinterpreting the mood of the teacher can cause problems and tension, so try to make your expressions and body language clear.

9. Standing, Bending, Sitting, Crouching

We use our bodies to indicate which of the many roles you are adopting as a teacher. Key to this is how you position your body. For example, standing at the front of the room is probably the best position when giving instruction to the whole class. Bringing yourself down to a student’s level by crouching down next to their desk is the best way to indicate that you are there to help. Standing at the back of the room is a great position for monitoring student behaviour.

10. Bringing it all Together

The final point to make is that whilst it is useful to isolate the different aspects of communication - to examine them and to hone our skills - it is important to bring them back together to get the full effect. Words, intonation, gestures, facial expressions and body position are all important communication tools and, used together effectively, will turn you into a formidable teacher!