5 Non-verbal Teaching Techniques of Successful Foreign Language Educators

Do you want to become the kind of teacher students absolutely love listening to?

Do you want to stand in front of your language class knowing you’re really good at what you do?

Well, I’ve got five teaching tips that’ll ensure you can achieve this.

But here’s the somewhat surprising part: They all involve how you move, not what you say.

Body language is something every language teacher needs to pay attention to, so let’s dive right in.

The Importance of Body Language in the Language 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.

In the next section, we look at five powerful ways that can really skyrocket your effectiveness as a second language teacher.

Body Language: 5 Powerful Non-verbal Teaching Techniques That Boost Your Effectiveness

1. Exaggeration

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 actions 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.

Or when you want to teach polar opposite concepts—like “big and small,” “fast and slow” or “heavy and light”—exaggerate the difference between opposites and make the juxtaposition much more effective.

Exaggeration, whether in gestures, voice or facial expressions, is particularly memory friendly. Since it’s grandiose (almost comical), the mind can save and recall lessons much better.

Don’t believe me? Ask Donald Trump.

2. Anchoring

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 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. Eye Talk

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. (That’s why some styles of looking can be considered rude.)

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.)

Eyes do really talk. Make your lectures more effective by employing them to your advantage.

4. Voice Modulation

Have you noticed that in the classroom, the fastest way to get attention is by sound?

Shout, tap the board, clap your hands or drop a vase in class and the attention will immediately center on you.

Sound is especially important in a language classroom, since your listeners might not perfectly understand what you’re saying in the target language. Sometimes they have to go by how you pronounce a word or phrase in order to figure out its meaning.

Your students are trying to use context clues to arrive at an educated guess about words, rules and usages that are still new to them. So you can make your lessons more effective by modulating your voice, which will lead/guide students to comprehend a word.

You can make your lessons come alive by using different voices. And not just for different characters during storytelling, but whenever appropriate. You might change the pitch, volume or melody of your voice to convey an emotion or mood, to indicate size and speed, to hint at something ominous, to heighten interest or even to motivate students.

For example, you can use voice changes when teaching opposites like “big” and “small.” Use a loud and robust voice when teaching “big,” and juxtapose that by using a soft voice when referring to “small.”

Whenever students say that a teacher is boring them to death and has been droning about language, there is usually an auditory element there. It means the speaker probably used the same tone, pitch, speed or volume despite numerous opportunities to paint a vivid picture using their voice.

Remember, there’s meaning in your voice, probably more meaning than the words you actually use.

5. Positive Force Field

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. (The thing is, 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.

So let’s see that wonderful smile. It’s a win-win!


And those are the five 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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