Classroom communication: Is there a silver bullet?

Communication is an art and it is essential to learn the right way of communicating so that the correct message is conveyed. Dr Rashida H Kapadia discusses why communicating well is important for a teacher.

Knowingly or unknowingly, one is always communicating.

You may be communicating with yourself; for instance, you are telling yourself what has to be done next. Then again, you may be texting or talking to someone on the phone. While travelling in the same bus, when a stranger looks at you, smiles or frowns, unconsciously you may have communicated something to her with your demeanour.

As a teacher, you are always communicating with your students while interacting with them. You may not be focusing on your communication but you are constantly conveying a message to the students. But have you ever thought how you can communicate effectively?

What is more important when a teacher communicates – the content or method? Servilha and Costa (2015) pointed out that when teachers deliver a concept through instructions, students tend to retain certain portions of the teacher-talk distinctly. Thus as a teacher, you are always striving to communicate effectively so that students listen and remember the important points. The primary face-to-face interaction between a teacher and her student within the classroom is of importance and requires exceptional communication skills.

The role of teacher is not limited to helping students with subject information. In addition, she also supports the development of various abilities and inculcates values in them. To achieve this, the teacher communicates on a daily basis mostly within the classroom space but also outside of it.

Forces shaping student development

In 1973, Quick explained self-concept as an individual’s perception of self and what helps make each individual unique. Every teacher is involved in helping students develop a healthy self-concept and their overall personality.

If the child is labelled as ‘a good for nothing’ she may develop a sense of worthlessness. On the contrary, a child who is praised and appreciated for her actions will develop a sense of self-confidence. Thus, a classroom atmosphere or climate has a strong influence on a student’s self-development.

This argument can be theoretically supported by Kurt Lewin’s Field Space Theory. In his theory, he explains that the ‘life space’ of an individual is affected by positive and negative forces that exist in their surrounding environment. Such forces or valencies prevent or enhance the achievement of goals of an individual’s life. Thus, classrooms can be viewed as the said ‘life space’ where teachers support students in improving or impairing their self-concept.

In other words, several forces are acting, reacting, affecting, and influencing the development of a child’s self-concept. Every time, a teacher interacts with her student, the way she communicates with her students affects the development of their self- concept significantly.


Hamm in 2006 stated that communication involves exchange of ideas, opinions or feelings among at least two people. It is a two-way interactive process. While communicating, a sender sends a message and a receiver responds to that message. Gulec & Temel in 2015 and earlier Banbury & Herbert in 1992 suggested that communication is an essential element of the teaching-learning process.

Traditionally, there are two types of communication–verbal and non-verbal. In verbal communication, message is transmitted vocally, while in non-verbal communication wordless messages are conveyed, such as through body language.

In recent times, the emergence of digital media platforms have transformed the way people communicate. Despite the emergence of new forms of communication, interpersonal communication continues to remain the most important form of communication. In 1993, Hartly explained that interpersonal communication is an intentional, ongoing, two way face-to-face interaction that involves the creation and exchange of meaning and is cumulative over time. In a classroom, teacher-student and student-student interpersonal communication is dominant.

At an educational institute, the teacher-student interaction occurs as face-to-face communication. Right from primary to tertiary level of education, face-to-face communication between teacher and student, provides maximum scope for influencing the student in many ways; academically and personally.

In his 1981 work, Dr Albert Mehrabian states that three factors work in conjunction towards making a conversation effective at different levels. He points out that words contribute seven per cent, voice inflection contributes to 38 per cent and body language contributes to a whopping 55 per cent.

Constituents of effective communication

Vocabulary – word pool

Every teacher must attempt to improve her vocabulary. Use of correct words support better understanding of the idea that is being conveyed. In fact, a word may have multiple meanings. For instance, the word ‘field’ can be used in several ways.
- The corn field has good harvest.
- His field of vision is poor.
- The magnetic field has a strong pull.

Usage of appropriate words in a given context helps to convey a thought accurately. Traditionally, dictionaries or text books were used to learn words, but now the internet and mobile applications can be readily used to improve one’s vocabulary. With an enhanced pool of words, teachers can express their ideas and deliver their lectures effectively.

Voice inflection – toning up

The vocal component of communication–voice inflection–can be used to make interaction effective and engaging. Inflect is to change or vary. Voice inflection means changing the voice: its tone, pitch, intensity, volume or pace in a conversation. Using a pause to emphasise a point, or increasing the pitch to show excitement or lowering the volume to display sombreness are some examples of voice inflection.

Use of voice inflection breaks the monotony of speech and energises the conversation. It draws attention of the listeners and helps in better communication of thoughts. It supports in accurate messaging by avoiding ambiguity and misunderstandings. In the context of a classroom, the use of voice inflection supports better content delivery and breaks the monotony of lessons.

Several classroom management strategies are applied by a teacher to ensure students remain focused and do not wander away. Story telling is one such technique employed by teachers to grab student attention. Explicit use of voice inflection is observable in storytelling. Using proper voice inflection would also help to highlight the important points of the lesson, as such the practice of a teacher having to repeat certain things over and over again can be avoided.

In addition to adding clarity to communication, use of voice inflection also provides a humane touch to it. Controlling the tone of voice in face-to-face communication goes a long way in conveying emotions to the audience. Studies conducted by Plante & Ambady (2003), explored how the tone of voice influences individuals’ perceptions of positive and negative verbal messages. Results showed that the tone of voice substantially affected judges’ ratings of the politeness for positive content statements but did so only minimally for negative content statements.

Not just politeness, but a voice inflection can help one to understand the underlying feelings in a conversation. For example, the word ‘What’ when spoken in surprise will sound different than when spoken in doubt Similarly, the emphasis on certain parts in a statement would change its meaning. Consider a common statement ‘Woman without her man is nothing’– correct tone in speech can have huge impact in conveying the true message with feelings.

The way teachers communicate also reflects on their ability to empathise and counsel students. Some teachers are perceived to be friendly, warm, kind, congenial, and sympathetic by their students. These characteristics in a teacher are experienced by the students, based on how the teachers made them feel. The classroom climate that a teacher develops in her class depends on the tone of her voice. This in turn affects student’s level of comfort with the teacher and sets the tone for classroom interactions. The need for the appropriate use of voice inflection is thus pronounced for a teacher.

Body language – speak without words

Body language constitutes the non-verbal aspect of communication. It includes-bodily posture, facial expressions, movement and position of hands and legs, use of eye contact along with overall presentation. Studies on body language suggest that the conscious or unconscious collective appearance of one’s body reflects the state of one’s mind. For instance, biting of lips shows that the individual is nervous, or crossing legs or hands represents a defensive posture. There are cultural differences in the way body language is perceived, but by and large communication is affected by the perception of body language.

As soon as a teacher enters class, the first thing noticed by the students is the teacher’s body language. The way she walks, standing or addressing the class, or the confidence exuded by them, all contribute towards the student perception of their teacher. For instance, if a teacher avoids facing the students directly when entering class, the students may identify the teacher as hesitant or unconfident. On the other hand, if a teacher walks in with head held high and facing the class with a smile, it will have a positive effect on classroom engagements as the students will notice the teacher and will be ready to take instructions.

If a teacher is perceived to be incompetent, students may stop trusting the content that the teacher delivers and lose faith in her credibility. It gives rise to stressful classroom situations that eventually affect the classroom environment and suppress discussions.

There have been several researches such as Hamm in 2006, Gulec & Temel in 2015 and Yang in 2016 that discuss the use of appropriate body language in a classroom environment. Most of them advocate that if the teacher conducts herself with the conscious effort of enhancing classroom interaction then it may improve teacher-student relationship leading to better course transactions.

A teacher serves as a role model for her students. Students often emulate and follow their teachers in more than one way. Indeed, teachers play a much larger role in their lives that just help them learn the subject content. So the manner in which the teacher presents herself to her students as well as to others has a huge impact on her students. To note, it is often what teachers do not say that counts the most!

A version of this article first appeared in the print magazine Teacher, distributed in India, in January 2019.


Banbury, M. & Hebert, C. (1992). Do You See What I Mean? Body Language in Classroom Interactions. Teaching Exceptional Children. 24(2):34-38. https://doi. org/10.1177/004005999202400208

Gulec, S. & Temel, H. (2015). Body Language Using Skills of Teacher Candidates from Departments of Mathematics Education and Social Studies Education. Procedia – Social and Behavioural Sciences. 183:161-168.

Hamm, P. (2006). Teaching and Persuasive Communication: Class Presentation Skills. USA: Brown University.

Hartley, P. (1993). Interpersonal Communication. USA: Routledge.

Mehrabian, A. (1981). Silent messages: Implicit communication of emotions and attitudes. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. Available at. smorder.html.

Plante, D. & Ambady, N. (2003). On How Things Are Said: Voice Tone, Voice Intensity, Verbal Content, and Perceptions of Politeness. Journal of Language and Social Psychology. 22(4): 434-441. DOI: 10.1177/0261927X03258084 [Electronic Version].

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Servilha, E. & Costa, A. (2015). Knowledge about voice and the importance of voice as an educational resource in the perspective of university professors. Rev. CEFAC. 17(1).

Yang, H. (2016). On the Effective Way of Body Language in the Primary English Teaching. Jiang & Xue (Ed.) Proceedings of 2nd International Conference on Economy, Management and Education Technology. Part of ASSEHR, 2