A teacher uses hand gestures and facial expressions

15 Most Effective Non-verbal Teaching Strategies to Make an Impact on Your Class

Non-verbal teaching strategies can include everything from making direct eye contact to carefully planning time for silence in your classroom.

Without any words being said, non-verbal strategies can be incredibly effective and powerful tools, keeping your teaching skills sharp, and they really keep students engaged.

Read on for 15 of my top tips for non-verbal teaching strategies for both the language classroom and other subjects as well. I promise, though some may sound unconventional, they really work.

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1. Exaggerate Gestures and Movements

One of the things they remind you of in theater acting is that you’re performing not only for the audience in the expensive front seats, but also for those at the back of the room. This means performers not only need to make their voices louder, they also need to make their gestures and movements bigger and more expansive to be seen at greater distances.

Facial expressions need to be more intense than usual and delivered in a more dramatic way. They say that if you feel like you’re overacting, you’re probably doing it just the right amount.

So think of yourself as a stage actor. You need to ham it up and be animated when you teach, making your movements expansive. For example, when you teach that triángulo is the Spanish word for “triangle,” don’t timidly gesture and trace a triangular shape. Nope, do it grandly. It’s a big triangle that you should introduce the class to.

This exaggeration technique also works the other way around. Try to exaggerate smallness any chance you get. For example, when you gesture “running,” use long, brisk arm strides. Students visually get to observe that. But when it’s about “ants running,” use brisk but teeny tiny finger strides.

2. Anchor Concepts Together

Ever wondered why car advertisers always place a beautiful woman in front of their cars?

Because they want us to associate the two.

Anchoring is a Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) technique rooted in the Pavlovian conditioning tradition where a stimulus can evoke a specific response. Scientists have concluded that if we keep pairing two things together, the brain begins to see them as one.

The key here is repetition: Repeat the pairing often enough and soon, one will trigger the other.

You can take advantage of this psychological phenomenon in your class to boost your effectiveness as a language teacher by anchoring practically anything.

You can anchor lessons.

For example, when you use the exact same gesture or action for the word, you’re making it easier for students to remember. Like in a Spanish class, when you’re teaching “cat” as gato, use the same clawing action (or whatever gesture you pair it with) every time you say “gato.”

In time, repetition will help students remember the translation so that in the written test, they’ll see your clawing action in their mind’s eye and remember, “Oh yeah, gato!”

You can also anchor behavior expectations.

You can actually use anchoring as a way to manage student behavior in your language class. For example, you can take a black ball (or any object really) and make it a symbol for some desired behavior, say, keeping quiet.

To plant the anchor, every time you tell the class to be quiet, raise the black ball. As you’re saying, “Shhh! Class, quiet down,” raise the black ball. Repeat it a few times, in several different sessions. Soon, you will realize that you won’t even have to tell them anything. Just raise the black ball and they’ll know what’s up. Sometimes the anchor is so effective the class will start getting quiet even before you’ve had the chance to raise the object.

Any object can be made a symbol for behavior expectations. You can raise a yellow flag and anchor it to mean anything. For example, in a German class, it could mean that from that moment forward, you will drop using English in the discussions and conduct the lesson solely in German for the next 15 minutes. (Conducting lessons in the target language for a limited time is a wonderful teaching technique in itself, and serves as a quick immersive experience for your students.)

That raised yellow flag will tell them what’s up and get them to automatically change gears—without you telling them anything.

You can even anchor emotional states.

Do you want to encourage a positive vibe in your class?

Anchor that state in your students. Here’s how: Every time the class gets a boost in energy, wink!

Maybe you just told the class a joke, and it made them roar with laughter. Wink!

Maybe the language game you just conducted was a hit and the class enjoyed it. Wink!

Maybe you just told the class that they’re going on a field trip. Wink!

Every time there’s something good, wink!

Associate states of elation with that nonverbal cue. Soon, when the class is in a low point during class, you can trigger some positive vibes by simply winking. Try it!

3. Use Your Eyes

When talking about using the eyes as nonverbal communication, eye contact immediately comes to mind. But eye contact is just one of the nonverbal teaching techniques you can use.

One may be tempted to think that, since the eyes can’t utter words and sentences, they can’t communicate. On the contrary, a single look can convey so much. There’s probably an unlimited number of ways that the eyes can convey meaning. Eye movement and gaze direction can bring a wealth of information.

Consider the possibilities: In the realm of eye movements alone, you can look up and down, side to side, skim or scan. You can roll your eyes. You can blink—at varying speeds. You can wink. You can squint.

You can stare, glance, peek, leer, gape or gawk.

Or you can simply close them.

The eyes can anchor and lead the whole face in hinting a message. Try this experiment: Go in front of a mirror and try to communicate the following three states using only your face: surprise, disgust and anguish. Notice how the eyes lead your whole face into their proper positions to convey the emotion? The philosopher Cicero got it right when he said “The face is the picture of the mind, with the eyes as its interpreter.”

Your eyes are tools for effective communication.

For example, if you want to demonstrate serious intent, then avoid blinking. Look at a student straight in the eye, dead center, and they will know that you mean business.

Students look where you look, so if you want them to look at a specific object or direction, lead them by pointing your gaze to that specific object or direction.

If you want to emphasize a word, a concept or anything, repetition may work—but nothing is as effective as pausing and widening your eyes before (or after) saying the vocabulary word, sentence or phrase that you want to emphasize. (Notice here that conveying importance is all done without the use of words. It’s the eyes that do the talking.)

4. Use Positive Body Language

This is actually a collection of positive body language cues that lowers student anxiety and boosts student motivation. It makes students feel secure and engaged in the lessons. The body language cues we are talking about here include smiling, nodding, leaning in and employing open palms. It has long been known that nonverbal cues like these have powerful effects on learning.

Students become more focused, and displaying these nonverbal cues also boosts confidence and motivation across the board. Even IQ tests yield better results when the teachers conducting them smile more, nod often and lean in.

Think about the power in these body language cues. And not only that, but consider how easy it is to implement them. How simple is it to smile, nod or lean in? In fact, they can be controlled consciously, and if you do them often enough, you can turn them into a productive habit that boosts your effectiveness as a language teacher.

And even more good news: There are plenty of opportunities where you can apply these nonverbal techniques during class.

From the moment you enter the classroom, you can create a “positive force field” while you’re telling a story, asking questions, listening to student questions, going around class during paired activities, conducting drills and reviews, etc.

You can give off a positive force field that tells your students, “I am here to help. We can do this together.” This is what your students respond to.

And as a bonus, do you know what happens when you use positive, reinforcing body language during classes? Students not only do better in the different class activities, but they also perceive you as more competent. Let me say that again. All things being equal, the teacher who smiles more gets better student assessments. They think you’re doing a bang up job! While traditional teaching philosophies encourage a one-way, “I teach, you listen” notion, nonverbal cues such as mentioned above can harvest for you a well-deserved goodwill.

7. Use Facial Expressions

Beyond verbal communication, facial expressions are a powerful tool in conveying emotions, enthusiasm and emphasis.

A warm smile can create a positive and inclusive atmosphere, while a thoughtful expression may signal the importance of a particular concept.

Expressive faces help students connect emotionally with the material, fostering a sense of engagement and shared understanding.

8. Use Proximity

Adjusting physical proximity is a nuanced yet effective non-verbal teaching strategy. Moving closer during explanations or individual assistance signals approachability and personal attention, fostering a sense of connection.

Conversely, stepping back allows for a broader perspective during group activities, managing classroom dynamics with spatial awareness and creating a balanced learning atmosphere.

9. Optimize Your Use of Space

The physical arrangement of a classroom is a crucial aspect of non-verbal communication.

A well-organized space encourages collaboration and interaction among students.

Careful consideration of desk layout, placement of learning materials, and designated interactive zones optimizes engagement and contributes to a conducive learning atmosphere.

One desk arrangement that I find works very well for keeping students engaged is by facing all the desks toward the middle of the classroom, so students are facing one another, not just me.

11. Don’t Neglect Pacing and Timing

Controlling the pace of instruction is vital for maintaining student engagement. I always know when a particular activity has gone on too long, because students start fidgeting and yawning.

Effective timing ensures smooth transitions between activities and topics, preventing boredom or confusion.

By adjusting pace based on student responses, teachers create a rhythm that sustains interest, allows for optimal information processing and enhances the overall learning experience.

12. Use Non-verbal Cues for Transitions

Establishing consistent non-verbal cues for transitions is a strategic approach to managing classroom flow.

Whether raising a hand for quiet or using specific gestures for group work, these signals provide clarity and structure.

Students quickly understand and respond to these cues, creating a smoother transition between different instructional phases and enhancing overall classroom efficiency.

I like to raise my hands at the end of a section to signal we’re moving on to something else. I know it sounds a little strange, but it really works for me!

13. Use Visual Aids and Props

Visual aids, such as charts and graphs, serve as powerful complements to verbal explanations, catering to visual learners.

Integrating props into lessons adds a hands-on dimension, making abstract concepts more concrete and memorable.

These visual elements enhance comprehension, appeal to diverse learning styles and contribute to a more engaging and effective educational experience.

I know that preparing visuals takes time when planning lessons, but I’ve had students tell me months later that they remembered a chart or graph that I’ve shown them.

14. Don’t Forget Silence

Embracing carefully chosen moments of silence is a deliberate teaching strategy that allows students time for reflection.

Silence provides a pause for information processing, enabling students to consolidate their thoughts and formulate responses.

It can also serve as a powerful attention-grabbing tool, signaling a shift in focus or preparing students for the next phase of the lesson, ultimately fostering a contemplative and mindful learning environment.

When I’m totally silent, students tend to get quiet, too. It’s an amazing trick up my sleeve that I feel many teachers don’t use enough.

15. Use Colors and Visuals

Colors and visuals play a crucial role in enhancing the organization and clarity of information.

Color-coded content aids in categorization and reinforces key points, making complex information more digestible.

Thoughtful incorporation of visuals into presentations captures attention, supports learning objectives and adds a creative dimension to the educational experience, making lessons visually appealing and memorable.

I even experiment with my clothing. When I wear a bright red jacket, for example, students seem more engaged.

16. Improve Posture and Presence

Maintaining good posture transcends physical health—it communicates confidence and authority.

A teacher’s presence, conveyed through posture and energy, significantly influences the classroom dynamic.

Moving purposefully and with enthusiasm not only sets a positive tone but also contributes to a dynamic and engaging learning environment that encourages active participation and student involvement.

I know from personal experience that when I start out the first day standing upright with my shoulders back, students tend to pay better attention to what I’m saying.

17. Optimize the Classroom Environment

There’s nothing worse than a stuffy classroom. The students fidget and yawn, and they have a really hard time paying attention.

The classroom environment, encompassing factors such as lighting, seating arrangements and temperature, significantly influences the overall learning experience.

Creating a comfortable and well-organized space supports concentration, fosters effective communication, and contributes to a positive and conducive learning environment where students feel encouraged to actively participate and collaborate.

One tip I have is to bring a nice lamp into your classroom. That way, you can turn off the overhead flourscents and bring a warm yellow-hued light into the classroom for certain activities.

To learn more about how non-verbal communication works, check out this 12 minute TEDxManchester talk:

The Importance of Non-verbal Strategies in the Classroom

Let’s say you see a fellow teacher whose shoulders are slumped, whose arms are hanging limply, whose head is not upright and whose eyes carry a glum expression. Would you believe this colleague if they told you “I’m psyched to teach today”?

Probably not, right? You instantly know so much just with body language and nonverbal communication.

On the other hand, you know that a co-teacher is having a great day when they confidently walk into the faculty lounge with a wide smile, an air of accomplishment and a spring in their step. And you just know exactly what’s up. This teacher doesn’t even need to say anything, because so much has already been said.

In the language classroom in particular, it probably tells more than words can say. For example, studies have shown that nonverbal rewards are actually more effective in reinforcing good behavior than verbal ones. A simple pat on the back or a thumbs up can be more effective than lavish praise or a loud, “Good job!”

Every time you ask your students the question “Do you understand?,” you intuitively know that actions speak louder than words. Demeanor can tell you more about their state than any verbal reply they give you.

In a class where you often use a language not natively spoken by your listeners, what you say takes a comfortable backseat to how you say it. Meaning, body language becomes incredibly important. When your students hear you utter a word, phrase or sentence for the very first time, they’ve got nothing but nonverbal cues to go on. They may not perfectly understand exactly what you said (which is often the case in a language class), but they’ll look at your body language, the tone you used and your facial expressions in order to comprehend the lesson.

By consciously sending out the right body language, you can actually help your language class—you lighten your students’ load. Not to mention, you become a more effective communicator and teacher.

 

And those are the 15 nonverbal components for your teaching arsenal. They can powerfully boost your effectiveness as a foreign language teacher, from behavior management to student comprehension. What’s more, they’re free and easily used. So practice them immediately and witness how they’ll take your lessons to a whole new level!

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