“Be sincere; be brief; be seated.”

-(Franklin Delano Roosevelt)

Franklin Roosevelt was a former president of the United States, and he advised being brief and sincere when communicating. In advising to be seated, he was being somewhat more indirect; perhaps he was suggesting that conversation and dialog would be improved by reducing the power differences between individuals. If so, he was giving good advice, though perhaps it was also a bit misleading in its simplicity. As teachers, we face almost continual talk at school, supplemented by ample amounts of nonverbal communication—gestures, facial expressions, and other “body language”. Often the talk involves many people at once, or even an entire class, and individuals have to take turns speaking while also listening to others having their turns, or sometimes ignoring the others if a conversation does not concern them. As the teacher, therefore, you find yourself playing an assortment of roles when communicating in classrooms: Master of Ceremonies, referee—and of course source of new knowledge. Your challenge is to sort the roles out so that you are playing the right ones in the right combinations at the right times. As you learn to do this, interestingly, much of your communication with students will indeed acquire the qualities recommended by Franklin Roosevelt. Often, you will indeed be more sincere and brief, and you will find that minimizing power differences between you and students is a good idea.

In this chapter we look at how you might begin to move toward these goals. We describe briefly several major features of classroom communication that distinguish it from communication in other familiar situations. Then we explain several techniques, both verbal and nonverbal, that contribute to effective communication, and describe how these manifest themselves in several common activity settings, which we call structures of participation. As you will see, how an activity is organized—its structure of participation—has a major effect on how students communicate with each other and with the teacher.

Communication in classrooms vs communication elsewhere

Classroom events are often so complex that just talking with students can become confusing. It helps to think of the challenge as a problem in communication—or as one expert put it, of “who says what to whom, and with what effect” (Lasswell, 1964). In classrooms, things often do not happen at an even pace or in a logical order, or with just the teacher and one student interacting while others listen or wait patiently. While such moments do occur, events may sometimes instead be more like a kaleidoscope of overlapping interactions, disruptions, and decision—even when activities are generally going well. One student finishes a task while another is still only half- way done. A third student looks like she is reading, but she may really be dreaming. You begin to bring her back on task by speaking to her, only to be interrupted by a fourth student with a question about an assignment. While you answer the fourth student, a fifth walks in with a message from the office requiring a response; so the bored (third) student is overlooked awhile longer. Meanwhile, the first student—the one who finished the current task—now begins telling a joke to a sixth student, just to pass the time. You wonder, “Should I speak now to the bored, quiet reader or to the joke-telling student? Or should I move on with the lesson?” While you are wondering this, a seventh student raises his hand with a question, and so on.

One way to manage situations like these is to understand and become comfortable with the key features of communication that are characteristic of classrooms. One set of features has to do with the functions or purposes of communication, especially the balance among talk related to content, to procedures, and to controlling behavior. Another feature has to do with the nature of nonverbal communication—how it supplements and sometimes even contradicts what is said verbally. A third feature has to do with the unwritten expectations held by students and teachers about how to participate in particular kinds of class activities—what we will later call the structure of participation.

Functions of talk: content, procedures, and behavior control

Classrooms are different from many other group situations in that communication serves a unique combination of three purposes at once: content, procedures, or behavior control (Wells, 2006). Content talk focuses on what is being learned; it happens when a teacher or student states or asks about an idea or concept, for example, or when someone explains or elaborates on some bit of new knowledge (Burns & Myhill, 2004). Usually content talk relates in some obvious way to the curriculum or to current learning objectives, as when a teacher tells a high school history class, “As the text explains, there were several major causes of the American Civil War.” But content talk can also digress from the current learning objectives; a first-grade student might unexpectedly bring a caterpillar to school and ask about how it transforms into a butterfly.

Procedural talk, as its name implies, is about administrative rules or routines needed to accomplish tasks in a classroom. It happens, for example, when the teacher says, “When you are done with your spelling books, put them in the bins at the side of the room”, or when a student asks, “Do you want us to print our names at the top of page?” Procedural talk provides information that students need to coordinate their activities in what can be a relatively crowded space—the classroom—and under conditions in which time may be relatively short or tightly scheduled. It generally keeps activities organized and flowing smoothly. Procedural talk is not primarily about removing or correcting unwanted behavior, although certain administrative procedures might sometimes annoy a particular student, or students might sometimes forget to follow a procedure. Instead it is intended to provide the guidance that students need to coordinate with each other and with the teacher.

Control talk is about preventing or correcting misbehaviors when they occur, particularly when the misbehaviors are not because of ignorance of procedures. It happens, for example, when a teacher says, “Jill, you were talking when you should have been listening”, or “Jason, you need to work on your math instead of doodling.” Most control talk originates with the teacher, but students sometimes engage in it with each other, if not with the teacher. One student may look at a nearby classmate who is whispering out of turn and quietly say, “Shhh!” in an attempt to silence the behavior. Or a student may respond to being teased by a classmate by saying simply, “Stop it!” Whether originating from the teacher or a student, control talk may not always be fully effective. But its purpose is, by definition, to influence or control inappropriate behavior. Since control talk is obviously important for managing class effectively, we discussed it at length in Chapter 8.

What can make classroom discourse confusing is that two of its functions—content and procedures—often become combined with the third, control talk, in the same remark or interaction. A teacher may ask a content- related question, for example, as a form of control talk. She may, for example, ask, “Jeremy, what did you think of the film we just saw?” The question is apparently about content, but the teacher may also be trying to end Jeremy’s daydreaming and to get him back on task—an example of control talk. Or a teacher may state a rule: “When one person is talking, others need to be listening.” The rule is procedural in that it helps to coordinate classroom dialogue, but it may also control inattentive behavior. Double functions like these can sometimes confuse students because of their ambiguity, and lead to misunderstandings between certain students and teachers. A student may hear only the content or procedural function of a teacher’s comment, and miss an implied request or command to change inappropriate behavior (Collins & Michaels, 2006). But double functions can also help lessons to flow smoothly by minimizing the disruption of attending to a minor behavior problem and by allowing more continuous attention to content or procedures.

Verbal, nonverbal, and unintended communication

Another way to understand classroom communication is to distinguish verbal from nonverbal communication, and intended both unintended forms of communication. As the name suggests, verbal communication is a message or information expressed in words, either orally or in writing. Classrooms obviously have lots of verbal communication; it happens every time a teacher explains a bit of content, asks a question, or writes information or instructions on the chalkboard. Non-verbal communications are gestures or behaviors that convey information, often simultaneously with spoken words (Guerrero, 2006). It happens, for example, when a teacher looks directly at students to emphasize a point or to assert her authority, or when the teacher raises her eyebrows to convey disapproval or disagreement. Nonverbal behaviors are just as plentiful as verbal communications, and while they usually add to a current verbal message, they sometimes can also contradict it. A teacher can state verbally, “This math lesson will be fun”, and a nonverbal twinkle in the eye can send the confirm message nonverbally. But a simultaneous nonverbal sigh or slouch may send the opposite message—that the lesson will not, in fact be fun, in spite of the teacher’s verbal claim.

Whether verbal or nonverbal, however, classroom communications often convey more meaning than is intended. Unintended communications are the excess meanings of utterances; they are the messages received by students without the teacher’s awareness or desire. A teacher may say, “This section of the text won’t be on the test, but read it anyway for background.” But a student may instead hear the message, “Do not read this section of the text.” What is heard is not what the teacher intended to be heard.

Like many public settings that involve a diversity of people, classrooms tend to rely heavily on explicit, verbal communication, while at the same time recognizing and allowing nonverbal communications to occur (Neill, 1991). This priority accounts for the characteristically businesslike style of teacher talk—a style that we discuss in detail in the next chapter. A major reason for relying on an explicit, businesslike verbal style is that diversity among individuals increases the chances of their misinterpreting each other. Because of differences in background, the partners may differ in how they expect to structure conversation as well as other kinds of dialog. Misunderstandings may result—sometimes without the partners being able to pinpoint the cause. Later in this chapter we suggest how to minimize these problems.

Effective verbal communication

Communicating effectively requires using all forms of classroom talk in combinations appropriate for particular utterances and interactions. In various places earlier in this book, we have suggested ways of doing so, though in those places we usually did not frame the discussion around the term communication as such.

Effective content talk

In Chapter 9, for example, we suggested ways of talking about content so that it is most likely to be understood clearly, but in that chapter we described these as instructional strategies. In explaining ideas, for example, whether briefly or as a extended lecture, we pointed out that it helps to offer, in advance, organizing ideas, to relate new content to prior knowledge, and to organize and elaborate on new information. In the same chapter, we also suggested strategies about content talk intended for students, so that students understand their own thinking as well as possible. We especially highlighted two ways of learning: inquiry learning and cooperative learning. Table 18summarizes instructional strategies both for students and for teachers, and indicates how they contribute to effective verbal communication about content.

Table 18: Strategies for supporting content talk

Content talk by teachers



How it helps communication

Using advance organizers

Statements or ideas that give a concise overview of new material

Orients students’ attention to new ideas about to be learned; assists in understanding and remembering new material

Relating new material to prior knowledge

Explicit connections of new ideas to students’ existing knowledge

Facilitates discussion of new material by making it more meaningful to students

Elaborating and extending new information

Explanations of new ideas in full, complete terms

Avoids ambiguities and misunderstandings about new ideas or concepts

Organizing new information

Providing and following a clear structure when explaining new material

Assists in understanding and remembering new material

Content talk by students

Inquiry learning

Students pursue problems that they help to formulate for themselves

To formulate and and investigate a problem, students need to express clearly what they wish to find out.

Cooperative learning

Students work in small groups to solve a common problem or task

To work together, students need to explain ideas and questions to fellow students clearly.

These strategies are also discussed in Chapter 8 as features of classroom management, rather than of communication. Note, too, that the difference between procedural and content talk is arbitrary to some extent; in many situations one kind of talk serves the needs of the other kind.

Table 19: Major strategies of effective procedural and control talk

Strategy for procedural talk

Strategy for control talk

Creating and discussing procedures for daily routines

Creating and discussing classroom rules of appropriate behavior

Announcing transitions between activities

Clarifying problem ownership

Providing clear instructions and guidance for activities

Listening actively and empathetically

Reminding students periodically of procedures for completing a task

Using I-messages

Effective procedural and control talk

In addition to communicating about content, teachers need to communicate procedures and expectations about appropriate classroom behavior. In Chapter 8 we described quite a few ways to communicate with students about these matters, though, in that chapter we did not refer to them as methods of communication, but as methods of classroom management, of creating a positive learning environment, and of resolving conflicts in the class. Table 19 summarizes several of the major strategies described in that chapter.) By framing communication in these ways, we called attention to their importance as forms of communication. As we pointed out, procedural talk and control talk matter are used in teaching simply because clear procedures and appropriate classroom behavior are necessary students are to learn.

Effective nonverbal communication

In spite of their importance, words are not the only way that teachers and students communicate. Gestures and behaviors convey information as well, often supporting a teacher’s words, but sometimes also contradicting them. Students and teachers express themselves nonverbally in all conversations, so freely and automatically in fact that this form of communication can easily be overlooked.

Eye contact

One important nonverbal behavior is eye contact, which is the extent and timing of when a speaker looks directly at the eyes of the listener. In conversations between friends of equal status, for example, most native speakers of English tend to look directly at the speaker when listening, but to avert their gaze when speaking (Kleinke, 1986). Re-engaging eye contact, in fact, often signals that a speaker is about to finish a turn and is inviting a response from the listener.

But conversations follow different rules if they involve someone of greater authority talking with someone of lesser authority, such as between a teacher and a student. In that case, the person in authority signals greater status by gazing directly at the listener almost continuously, whether listening or speaking. This alternate pattern can sometimes prove awkward if either party is not expecting it. For students unused to continuous eye contact, it can feel like the teacher is staring excessively, intrusively, or inappropriately; an ironic effect can be for the student to feel more self-conscious rather than more engaged, as intended. For similar reasons, inexperienced or first-time teachers can also feel uncomfortable with gazing at students continuously. Nevertheless research about the effects of eye contact suggests that it may help anyone, whether a student or teacher, to remember what they are seeing and hearing (Mason, Hood, & Macrae, 2004).

Communication problems result less from eye contact as such than from differences in expectations about eye contact. If students’ expectations differ very much from the teacher’s, one party may misinterpret the other party’s motivations. Among some non-white ethnic groups, for example, eye contact follows a pattern that reverses the conventional white, English-language pattern: they tend to look more intently at a partner when talking, and avert gaze when listening (Razack, 1998). The alternative pattern works perfectly well as long as both parties expect it and use it. As you might imagine, though, there are problems if the two partners use opposite patterns of eye contact. In that case one person may interpret a direct gaze as an invitation to start talking, when really it is an invitation to stop talking. Eventually the conversational partner may find himself interrupting too much, or simply talking too long at a turn. The converse can also happen: if the first person looks away, the partner may take the gesture as inviting the partner to keep listening, when really the first person is inviting the partner to start talking. Awkward gaps between comments may result. In either case, if the conversational partners are a teacher and student, rapport may deteriorate gradually. In the first case, the teacher may even conclude, wrongly, that the student is socially inept because the student interrupts so much. In the second case, the teacher may conclude—also wrongly—that the student is very shy or even lacking in language skill.

To avoid such misunderstandings, a teacher needs to note and remember students’ preferred gaze patterns at times when students are free to look wherever and at whomever they please. Traditional seats-in-a-row desk arrangements do not work well for this purpose; as you might suppose, and as research confirms, sitting in rows makes students more likely to look either at the teacher or to look at nothing in particular (Rosenfeld, Lambert, & Black, 1985; Razack, 1998). Almost any other seating arrangement, such as sitting in clusters or in a circle, encourages freer patterns of eye contact. More comfortable eye contact, in turn, makes for verbal communication that is more comfortable and productive.

Wait time

Another important nonverbal behavior is wait time, which is the pause between conversational turns. Wait time marks when a conversational turn begins or ends. If a teacher asks a question, for example, the wait time both allows and prompts students to formulate an appropriate response. Studies on classroom interaction generally show that wait times in most classes are remarkably short—less than one second (Good & Brophy, 2002). Unfortunately wait times this short can actually interfere with most students’ thinking; in one second, most students either cannot decide what to say or can only recall a simple, automatic fact (Tobin, 1987). Increasing wait times to several seconds has several desirable effects: students give longer, more elaborate responses, they express more complex ideas, and a wider range of students participate in discussion. For many teachers, however, learning to increase wait time this much takes conscious effort, and may feel uncomfortable at first. (A trick, if you are trying to wait longer, is to count silently to five before calling on anyone.) After a few weeks of practice, discomfort with longer wait times usually subsides, and the academic benefits of waiting become more evident.

As with eye contact, preferred wait times vary both among individuals and among groups of students, and the differences in expected wait times can sometimes lead to awkward conversations. Though there are many exceptions, girls tend to prefer longer wait times than boys—perhaps contributing to an impression that girls are unnecessarily shy or that boys are self-centered or impulsive. Students from some ethnic and cultural groups tend to prefer a much longer wait time than is typically available in a classroom, especially when English is the student’s second language (Toth, 2004). When a teacher converses with a member of such a group, therefore, what feels to the student like a respectful pause may seem like hesitation or resistance to the teacher. Yet other cultural groups actually prefer overlapping comments—a sort of negative wait time. In these situations, one conversational partner will begin at exactly the same instant as the previous speaker, or even before the speaker has finished (Chami- Sather & Kretschmer, 2005). The negative wait time is meant to signal lively interest in the conversation. A teacher who is used to a one-second gap between comments, however, may regard overlapping comments as rude interruptions, and may also have trouble getting chances to speak.

Even though longer wait times are often preferable, they do not always work well with certain individuals or groups. For teachers, the most widely useful advice is to match wait time to the students’ preferences as closely as possible, regardless of whether these are slower or faster than what the teacher normally prefers. To the extent that a teacher and students can match each other’s pace, they will communicate more comfortably and fully, and a larger proportion of students will participate in discussions and activities. As with eye contact, observing students’ preferred wait times is easier in situations that give students some degree of freedom about when and how to participate, such as open-ended discussions or informal conversations throughout the day.

Social distance

When two people interact, the physical space or distance between them—their social distance—often indicates something about how intimate or personal their relationship is (Noller, 2006). Social distance also affects how people describe others and their actions; someone who habitually is more distant physically is apt to be described in more general, abstract terms than someone who often approaches more closely (Fujita, et al., 2006). In white American society, a distance of approximately half a meter to a meter is what most people prefer when talking face- to-face with a personal friend. The closer end of this range is more common if the individuals turn sideways to each other, as when riding on an elevator; but usually the closest distances are reserved for truly intimate friendships, such as between spouses. If the relationship is more businesslike, individuals are more likely to situate themselves in the range of approximately one meter to a three meters. This is a common distance, for example, for a teacher talking with a student or talking with a small group of students. For still more formal interactions, individuals tend to allow more than three meters; this distance is typical, for example, when a teacher speaks to an entire class.

Just as with eye contact and wait time, however, individuals differ in the distances they prefer for these different levels of intimacy, and complications happen if two people expect different distances for the same kind of relationship. A student who prefers a shorter social distance than her partner can seem pushy or overly familiar to the partner. The latter, in turn, can seem aloof or unfriendly—literally “distant”. The sources of these effects are easy to overlook since by definition the partners never discuss social distance verbally, but they are real. The best remedy, again, is for teachers to observe students’ naturally occurring preferences as closely as possible, and to respect them as much as possible: students who need to be closer should be allowed to be closer, at least within reasonable limits, and those who need to be more distant should be allowed to be more distant.

Structures of participation: effects on communication

Many class activities take on patterns that guide communication in ways that class members learn to expect, often without even being reminded. Each pattern is a participation structure, a set of rights and responsibilities expected from students and teacher during an activity. Sometimes the teacher announces or explains the rights and responsibilities explicitly, though often they are just implied by the actions of class members, and individual students learn them simply by watching others. A lecture, for example, has a particular participation structure: students are responsible for listening, for raising a hand to speak, and for keeping comments brief and relevant if called on. The teacher, on the other hand, has the right to talk at length, but also the responsibility to keep the talk relevant and comprehensible.

In principle, a host of participation structures are possible, but just a handful account for most class activities (Cazden, 2001). Here are some of the most common:

      • Lecturing—the teacher talks and students listen. Maybe students take notes, but maybe not.
      • Questions and answers—the teacher asks a series of questions, calling on one student at a time to answer each of them. Students raise their hands to be recognized and give answers that are brief and “correct”. In earlier times this participation structure was sometimes called recitation.
      • Discussion—the teacher briefly describes a topic or problem and invites students to comment on it. Students say something relevant about the topic, but also are supposed to respond to previous speakers if possible.
      • Group work—the teacher assigns a general task, and a small group of students work out the details of implementing it. The teacher may check on the group’s progress before they finish, but not necessarily.

Each of these structures influences how communication among teachers and students tends to occur; in fact each is itself sort of an implied message about how, when, and with whom to interact. To see how this influence works, look in the next sections at how the participation structures affected classroom communication for one of us authors (Kelvin Seifert) as he taught one particular topic—children’s play—over a twenty-year period. The topic was part of a university-level course for future teachers. During this time, Kelvin’s goals about the topic remained the same: to stimulate students’ thinking about the nature and purposes of play. But over time he tried several different structures of participation, and students’ ways of communicating changed as a result.


The first time Kelvin taught about children’s play, he lectured about it. He used this structure of participation not because he believed on principle that it was the best, but because it was convenient and used widely by his fellow university teachers. An excerpt from Kelvin’s lecture notes is shown in Table 20, and gives a sense of what he covered at that time.

Table 20:  Year one: Kelvin’s lecture notes

  1. Introduction to topic: What do we mean by play?
    • excess energy
    • seeking stimulation—relieve boredom
    • escape from work
  1. Six qualities defining play
    • intrinsic motivation
    • attention to the process, not the product
    • non-literal behavior—make-believe
    • no external rules
    • self-governed
    • active engagement
  1. Implications for teaching
    • devise activities with play-like qualities
    • learn by watching children playing

In some ways the lecture proved effective: Kelvin covered the material efficiently (in about 20 minutes), related the topic to other ones in the course, defined and explained all key terms clearly, and did his best to relate the material to what he thought were students’ own interests. These were all marks of good lecturing (Christensen, 2006). Students were mostly quiet during the lecture, but since only about one-third of them took notes, Kelvin had to assume that the rest had committed the material to memory while listening. The students quietness bothered him a little, but as a newcomer to university teaching, Kelvin was relieved simply to get through the class without embarrassment or active resistance from the students.

But there were also some negative signs. In spite of their courtesy, few students lingered after class to talk about children’s play or to ask questions. Worse yet, few students chose children’s play as a term paper topic, even though it might have made a highly interesting and enjoyable one. On the final exam few seemed able to relate concepts about play to their own experiences as teachers or leaders of recreational activities.

There was an even more subtle problem. The lecture about play focused overtly on a topic (play) that praised action, intrinsic motivation, and self-choice. But by presenting these ideas as a lecture, Kelvin also implied an opposite message unintentionally: that learning is something done passively, and that it follows an intellectual path set only by the teacher. Even the physical layout of the classroom sent this message—desks faced forward, as if to remind students to look only at the person lecturing. These are features of lecturing, as Kelvin later discovered, that are widely criticized in educational research (McKeachie & Svinicki, 2005; Benedict & Hoag, 2004). To some students the lecture format might even have implied that learning is equivalent to daydreaming, since both activities require sitting quietly and showing little expression. An obvious solution might have been to invite students to comment from time to time during the lecture, relating the topic to experiences and knowledge of their own. But during Kelvin’s first year of teaching about play, he did little of this. The lecture medium, ironically, contradicted the lecture message, or at least it assumed that students would think actively about the material without ever speaking.

Questions and answers

Because of these problems, Kelvin modified his approach after a few years of teaching to include more asking of questions which students were invited to answer. This turned the lecture on children’s play into something more like a series of explanations of key ideas, interrupted by asking students to express their beliefs, knowledge, or experience about children’s play. Kelvin’s preparation notes changes in appearance as a result (see Table 21). Asking questions and inviting brief responses was reassuring because it gave indications of whether students were listening and understanding the material. Questions served both to motivate students to listen and to assess how much and how well they knew the material. In this regard Kelvin was using a form of communication that was and continues to be very popular with many teachers (Cazden, 2001).

Table 21: Year three: Kelvin’s question-and-answer notes

Nature and Purposes of Children’s Play

  1. Introduction to topic: What do we mean by play? [First ask 1-2 students for their own answers to question.]
    • excess energy [Ask: What evidence is there for this?]
    • seeking stimulation—relieve boredom […or for this?]
    • escape from work
  1. Six qualities of children’s play [Invite students’ definitions, but keep them brief.]
    • intrinsic motivation
    • attention to the process, not the product
    • nonliteral behavior—make-believe
    • no external rules
    • self-governed
    • active engagement

[Can you think of examples and/or counterexamples of each quality?]

  1. Implications for teaching
    • devise activities with playlike qualities [What activities have you already seen as a student teacher?]
    • learn by watching children playing [How could you do this? Invite suggested strategies from students.]


But there were also new challenges and problems. For one thing the topic of children’s play took longer to cover than before, since Kelvin now had to allow time for students to respond to questions. This fact forced him to leave out a few points that he used to include. More serious, though, was his impression that students often did not listen to each other’s responses; they only listened carefully to Kelvin, the teacher. The interactions often become simply two-way exchanges between the teacher and one student at a time: Kelvin asked, one student responded, Kelvin acknowledged or (sometimes) evaluated. (Mehan, 1979; Richards, 2006). Some of the exchanges could in principle have happened just as easily without any classmates present.

In general students still had little control over the course of discussion. Kelvin wondered if he was controlling participation too much—in fact whether the question-and-answer strategy attempted the impossible task of controlling students’ very thought processes. By asking most of the questions himself and allowing students only brief responses, was Kelvin trying to insure e that students thought about children’s play in the “right” way, his way? To give students more influence in discussion, it seemed that Kelvin would have to become less concerned about precisely what ideas about children’s play he covered.

Classroom discussion

After several more years of teaching, Kelvin quit lectures altogether, even ones interspersed with questions and answers. He began simply leading general discussions about children’s play. The change again affected his planning for this topic. Instead of outlining detailed content, he now just made concise notes that listed issues about children’s play that students needed to consider (some of the notes are shown in Table 23). The shift in participation structure led to several major changes in communication between teacher and students as well as among students. Since students spoke more freely than before, it became easier to see whether they cared about the topic. Now, too, more students seemed motivated to think and learn about children’s play; quite a few selected this topic, for example, for their term projects. Needless to say, these changes were all to the good.

Table 23: Year twenty: Kelvin’s guidelines for group work

Nature and Purposes of Children’s Play

  • Make sure you listen to everyone, and not just to the people you agree with the most. Part of the challenge of this project is to include all team members.
  • You do not have to be best friends with someone in order to be partners. But you do have to get the work done.
  • Remember that it takes many skills and abilities to do this project well. Among other things, you need to:
    • 1) find and understand research and other publications about children’s play,
    • 2) observe children skillfully when they are playing,
    • 3) have confidence in describing what you learn to group mates,
    • 4) write about what you learn, and 5) be tactful and respectful when listening and talking with partners.


But there were also changes that limited the effectiveness of classroom communication, even though students were nominally freer to speak than ever. Kelvin found, for example, that certain students spoke more than their share of the time—almost too freely, in fact, in effect preventing more hesitant students from speaking. Sometimes, too, it seemed as if certain students did not listen to others’ comments, but instead just passed the time waiting for their turn to speak, their hands propped permanently in the air. Meanwhile there were still others who passed the time apparently hoping not to speak; they were busy doodling or staring out the window. Since the precise focus of discussion was no longer under Kelvin’s control, furthermore, discussions often did not cover all of the ideas about children’s play that Kelvin considered important. On one occasion, for example, he meant for students to discuss whether play is always motivated intrinsically, but instead they ended up talking about whether play can really be used to teach every possible subject area. In itself the shift in focus was not bad, but it did make Kelvin wonder whether he was covering the material adequately. In having these misgivings, as it happened, he was supported by other educators who have studied the effects of class discussions on learning (McKeatchie & Svinciki, 2005).

Group work

By the time he had taught about children’s play for twenty years, Kelvin had developed enough concerns about discussion as a communication strategy that he shifted approach again. This time he began using a form of collaborative group work: small teams of students carrying out projects on aspects of children’s play that interested them, making observations of children at play, reporting on their results to the class, and writing a common report about their work. (Kelvin’s work guidelines given to the groups are shown in Table 22.) Kelvin hoped that by giving students a common focus, communication among them would improve. Conversations would deal with the tasks at hand, students would necessarily listen to each other, and no one could afford either to dominate talk excessively or to fall silent.

Table 22: Year eight: Kelvin’s discussion notes

  • Discuss possible explanations for play—what do students think are its true purposes? (10 minutes?)
  • Can we define play? Brainstorm defining qualities, with examples. (30 minutes)
  • Important question for all defining qualities: Are there exceptions—examples of play that do not show certain defining qualities, but are still play? (15 minutes)
  • What is important about play for teaching? (10 minutes +)
  • …for the welfare of children? (10 minutes +)
  • Etc. (anything else brought up by students)


In some ways these benefits did take place. With a bit of encouragement from Kelvin, students listened to each other more of the time than before. They also diversified their tasks and responsibilities within each group, and they seemed to learn from each other in the course of preparing projects. Participation in the unit about children’s play reached an all-time high in Kelvin’s twenty years of teaching at university. Yet even still there were problems. Some groups seemed much more productive than others, and observing them closely suggested that differences were related to ease of communication within groups. In some groups, one or two people dominated conversations unduly. If they listened to others at all, they seemed immediately to forget that they had done so and proceeded to implement their own ideas. In other groups, members all worked hard, but they did not often share ideas or news about each other’s progress; essentially they worked independently in spite of belonging to the group. Here, too, Kelvin’s experience corroborated other, more systematic observations of communication within classroom work groups (Slavin, 1995). When all groups were planning at the same time, furthermore, communication broke down for a very practical reason: the volume of sound in the classroom got so high that even simple conversation became difficult, let alone the expression of subtle or complex ideas.

Communication styles in the classroom

Teachers and students have identifiable styles of talking to each other that linguists call a register. A register is a pattern of vocabulary, grammar, and expressions or comments that people associate with a social role. A familiar example is the “baby-talk” register often used to speak to an infant. Its features—simple repeated words and nonsense syllables, and exaggerated changes in pitch—mark the speaker as an adult and mark the listener as an infant. The classroom language register works the same way; it helps indicate who the teacher is and who the student is. Teachers and students use the register more in some situations than in others, but its use is common enough that most people in our society have no trouble recognizing it when they hear it (Cazden, 2001). In the following scene, for example, the speakers are labeled only with letters of the alphabet; yet figuring out who is the teacher and who are the students is not difficult:

A: All right now, I want your eyes up here. All eyes on me, please. B, are you ready to work? We are going to try a new kind of math problem today. It’s called long division. Does anyone know what long division is? C, what do you think it is?

C: Division with bigger numbers? A: Any other ideas? D?

E (not D): Division by two digits.

A: …I only call on people who raise their hands. D, can you help with the answer? D: Division with remainders.

A: Close. Actually you’re both partly right.

In this scene Person A must surely be the teacher because he or she uses a lot of procedural and control talk, and because he or she introduces a new curriculum topic, long division. The other Persons (B, C, D, and E) must be students because they only respond to questions, and because they individually say relatively little compared to Person A.

In general, effective classroom communication depends on understanding how features of the classroom talk register like these operate during actual class times. In the following sections therefore we describe details of classroom talk, and then follow with suggestions about how to use the register as effectively as possible. In both of these sections we assume that the better the communication, the better the learning and thinking displayed by students. For convenience we divide classroom talk into two parts, teacher talk and student talk.

How teachers talk

Although teacher talk varies somewhat with the tasks or purposes at hand, it also has uniformities that occur across a range of situations. Using detailed observations of discourse in science activities, for example, Jay Lemke identified all of the following strategies from observations of teachers’ classroom talk (1990). Each strategy simultaneously influences the course of discussion and focuses students’ attention, and in these ways also helps indirectly to insure appropriate classroom behavior:

      • Nominating, terminating, and interrupting speakers: Teachers often choose who gets to speak. (“Jose, what do you think about X?”). On the other hand, they often bring an end to a student’s turn at speaking or even interrupt the student before he or she finishes. (“Thanks; we need to move on now.”)
      • Marking importance or irrelevance: Teachers sometimes indicate that an idea is important (“That’s a good idea, Lyla.”). On the other hand, they sometimes also indicate that an idea is not crucial or important (“Your right, but that’s not quite the answer I was looking for.”), or fully relevant (“We’re talking about the book Wuthering Heights, not the movie that you may have seen.”). Marking importance and relevance obviously helps a teacher to reinforce key content. But the strategy can also serve to improve relationships among students if the teacher deliberately marks or highlights an idea offered by a quiet or shy student (O’Connor & Michaels, 1996; Cohen, et al., 2004). In that case marking importance can build both a student’s confidence and the student’s status in the eyes of classmates.
      • Signaling boundaries between activities: Teachers declare when an activity is over and a new one is starting—an example of the procedural talk that we discussed earlier. (“We need to move on. Put away your spelling and find your math books.”) In addition to clarifying procedures, though, signaling boundaries can also insure appropriate classroom behavior. Ending an activity can sometimes help restore order among students who have become overly energetic, and shifting to a new activity can sometimes restore motivation to students who have become bored or tired.
      • Asking “test” questions and evaluating students’ responses: Teachers often ask test questions—questions to which they already know the answer. Then they evaluate the quality or correctness of the students’ answers (Teacher: “How much is 6 x 7 ?” Student: “42.” Teacher: “That’s right.”). Test questions obviously help teachers to assess students’ learning, but they also mark the teacher as the expert in the classroom, and therefore as a person entitled to control the flow of discourse. There are additional features of teacher-talk that are not unique to teachers. These primarily function to make teachers’ comments more comprehensible, especially when spoken to a group, but they also help to mark a person who uses them as a teacher (Cazden, 2001; Black, 2004):
      • Exaggerated changes in pitch: When busy teaching, teachers tend to exaggerate changes in the pitch of their voice—reminiscent of the “sing-song” style of adults when directing speech to infants. Exaggerated pitch changes are especially characteristic of teachers of young students, but they happen at all grade levels.
      • Careful enunciation: In class teachers tend to speak more slowly, clearly, and carefully than when conversing with a friend. The style makes a speaker sound somewhat formal, especially when combined with formal vocabulary and grammar, mentioned next.
      • Formal vocabulary and grammar: Teachers tend to use vocabulary and grammar that is more formally polite and correct, and that uses relatively few slang or casual expressions. (Instead of saying “Get out your stuff”, they more likely say, “Please get out your materials.”) The formality creates a businesslike distance between teachers and students—hopefully one conducive to getting work done, rather than one that seems simply cold or uncaring. The touch of formality also makes teachers sound a bit more intelligent or intellectual than in casual conversation, and in this way reinforces their authority in the classroom.

How students talk

Children and youth also use a characteristic speech register when they are in a classroom and playing the role of students in the presence of a teacher. Their register—student talk—differs somewhat from the teacher’s because of their obvious differences in responsibilities, levels of knowledge, and relationships with each other and with the teacher. Student-talk and teacher-talk are similar in that both involve language strategies that guide content and procedures, and that sometimes seek to limit the inappropriate behavior of others. Compared to teachers’, though, students’ language strategies often pursue these goals a bit more indirectly.

      • Agenda enforcement: Sometimes students interrupt a discussion to ask about or remind others, and especially the teacher, of an agreed-on agenda. If the teacher tells students to open their text to an incorrect page, for example, a student may raise her hand to correct the teacher—or even do so without raising a hand. This communication strategy is one of more public, direct ways that students influence activities in the classroom, but its power is limited, since it does not create new activities, but simply returns the class to activities agreed on previously.
      • Digression attempts: During a discussion or activity, a student asks a question or makes a statement that is not relevant to the task at hand. While the teacher is leading students in a discussion of a story that they read, for example, a student raises his hand and asks, “Mr X, when does recess begin?”
      • Side talk: One student talks to another student, either to be sociable (“Did you see that movie last week?”) or to get information needed for the current assigned task (“What page are we on?”). Sometimes side talk also serves to control or limit fellow students’ behavior, and in this way functions like control-talk by teachers (as when a student whispers, “Shhh! I’m trying to listen” or “Go ahead and ask her!”). The ability of such talk to influence classmates’ behavior is real, but limited, since students generally do not have as much authority as teachers.
      • Calling out: A student speaks out of turn without being recognized by the teacher. The student’s comment may or may not be relevant to the ongoing task or topic, and the teacher may or may not acknowledge or respond to it. Whether ignored or not, however, calling out may change the direction of a discussion by
      • The nature of classroom communication influencing fellow students’ thinking or behavior, or by triggering procedural and control talk by the teacher. (“Jason, it’s not your turn; I only call on students who raise their hands.”)
      • Answering a question with a question: Instead of answering a teacher’s “test” question directly, the student responds with a question of her own, either for clarification or as a stalling tactic (“Do you mean X?”). Either way, the effect is to shift the discussion or questioning to content or topics that are safer and more familiar.
      • Silence: The student says nothing in response to a speaker’s comments or to an invitation to speak. The speaker could be either the teacher or a fellow student. The silence makes the speaker less likely to continue the current topic, and more likely to seek a new one.
      • Eye contact, gaze aversion, and posture: The student looks directly at the teacher while the teacher is speaking, or else deliberately averts gaze. The student may also adopt any variety of postures while sitting (sit up straight vs slouching). As we discussed earlier in this chapter, the timing of eye gaze depends partly on cultural expectations that the student brings to school. But it may also represent a deliberate choice by the student—a message to the teacher and to classmates. The same can be said about sitting posture. In classroom situations, listening is conventionally indicated by looking directly at the teacher, and either sitting up straight or leaning slightly forward. Although these behaviors can be faked, they tend to indicate, and to be taken as, a show of interest in and acceptance of what a speaker is saying. By engaging in or avoiding these behaviors, therefore, students can sometimes influence the length and direction of a discussion or activity.

Using classroom talk to stimulate students’ thinking

The various features of classroom talk characterize the communication of most teachers and students, at least when they are in a classroom and “doing school”. (Communication outside of school is a different matter: then teachers as well as students may speak, listen, and behave quite differently!) As you might suppose, the extent and balance among the features varies depending on grade level, curriculum area, and personalities of students or teachers. But failing to use a classroom register at all can easily create communication problems. Suppose, for example, that a teacher never asks informal test questions. In that case the teacher will learn much less than otherwise about her students’ knowledge of the current material. Then also suppose that a student does not understand teachers’ questions as test questions. That student may easily respond in ways that seem disrespectful (Teacher: “How much is 23 x 42?” Student: “I don’t know; how much do you think it is?”) (Bloome, et al., 2005).

The classroom talk register, then, constrains how communication between teachers and students can take place, but it also gives teachers and students a “language” for talking about teaching and learning. Given this double- edged reality, how can teachers use the classroom talk register to good advantage? How, in particular, can teachers communicate in ways that stimulate more and better thinking and discussion? In the next, final section of the chapter, we offer some suggestions for answering these questions. As you will see, the suggestions often reinforce each other. They are more like a network of ideas, not a list of priorities to be considered or followed in sequence.

Probing for learner understanding

How do you know whether a student understands what you are saying? One clue, of course, is by whether the student is looking at and concentrating on you and your comments. But this clue is not foolproof; we have all had moments of staring at a speaker while daydreaming, only to realize later that we have not heard anything that the speaker said. It is sometimes important, therefore, to probe more actively how much students are actually understanding during lessons or other activities.

Strategies for probing understanding generally involve mixing instruction with conversation (Renshaw, 2004). In explaining a new topic, for example, you can check for understanding by asking preliminary questions connecting the topic to students’ prior experiences and knowledge about the topic. Note that this strategy combines qualities of both instruction and conversation, in the sense that it involves combining “test” questions, to which you already know the answer, with real questions, to which you do not. When introducing a science lesson about density to kindergarten children, for example, the teacher might reasonably ask both of the following:

Teacher: Which of these objects that I have do you expect will sink and which ones will float? (A test question—the teacher already will know the answer.)

Teacher: What other things have you seen that float? Or that sink? (A real question—the teacher is asking about their experience and does not know the answer.)

By asking both kinds of questions, the teacher scaffolds the children’s learning, or creates a zone of proximal development, which we described in Chapter 3 as part of Vygotsky’s theory of learning. Note that this zone has two important features, both of which contribute to children’s thinking. One is that it stimulates students’ thinking (by asking them questions), and the other is that it creates a supportive and caring atmosphere (by honoring their personal experiences with real questions). The resulting mix of warmth and challenge can be especially motivating (Goldstein, 1999).

When warmth and challenge are both present in a discussion, it sometimes even becomes possible to do what may at first seem risky: calling on individual students randomly without the students’ volunteering to speak. In a study of “cold calling” as a technique in university class discussions, the researchers found that students did not find the practice especially stressful or punitive, as the teachers feared they might, and that spontaneous participation in discussion actually improved as a result (Dallimore, et al., 2006). The benefit was most likely to happen, however, when combined with gestures of respect for students, such as warning individuals ahead of class that they might be called on, or allowing students to formulate ideas in small groups before beginning to call on individuals.

Helping students to articulate their ideas and thinking

The classroom talk register is well designed to help students articulate ideas and thoughts, particularly when used in the context of discussion. In addition to the conversational probes, like the ones we described in the previous section, there are other ways to support students in expressing their ideas fully and clearly. One way is for the teacher to check repeatedly on her own understanding of students’ contributions as a discussion unfolds. Consider this exchange:

Student (during a class discussion): It seems to me that we all need to learn more climate change.

Teacher: What do you mean by “learn more”? It’s a big topic; what parts of it are you thinking about?

Still another strategy for helping students to articulate their ideas is to increase the wait time between when the teacher asks a question and when the teacher expects a student to answer. As we pointed out earlier, wait times that are longer than average—longer than one second, that is—give students more time to formulate ideas and therefore to express themselves more completely and precisely (Good & Brophy, 2002). In addition, longer wait times have the added advantage of indirection: instead of telling a student to say more, the teacher needs only to wait for the student to say more.

In general any communication strategy will help students become more articulate if it both allows and invites further comment and elaboration on their ideas. Taken together, the invitations closely resemble a description of class discussion, though they can actually be used singly at any time during teaching. Consider these possible conversational moves:

      • The teacher asks the student to explain his initial idea more completely.
      • The teacher rephrases a comment made by a student.
      • The teacher compares the student’s idea to another, related idea, and asks the student to comment.
      • The teacher asks for evidence supporting the student’s idea.
      • The teacher asks the student how confident he is in his idea.
      • The teacher asks another student to comment on the first student’s idea.

Promoting academic risk-taking and problem-solving

In Chapter 9 we described major features of problem solving, as well as three techniques that assist in solving problems—problem analysis, working backwards from the beginning, and analogical thinking. While all of the techniques are helpful, they do not work if a student will not take the risk of attempting a solution to a problem in the first place. For various reasons students may sometimes avoid such risks, especially if he or she has sometimes failed at a task in the past, and is therefore concerned about negative evaluations again (Hope & Oliver, 2005).

What can a teacher say or do to counteract such hesitation? There are several strategies, all of which involve focusing attention on the process of doing an activity rather than on its outcome or evaluation.

      • Where possible, call attention to the intrinsic interest or satisfaction of an activity. Consider, for example, an elementary-level activity of writing a Japanese haiku—a poem with exactly seventeen syllables. This activity can be satisfying in itself, regardless of how it is evaluated. Casually reminding individuals of this fact can contribute to students’ sense of ease about writing the haiku and encourage them indirectly to do better work.
      • Minimize the importance of grades where possible. This strategy supports the one above; by giving students less to worry about, they become freer to experience the intrinsic satisfactions of an activity. In writing that haiku mentioned above, for example, you can try saying something like: “Don’t worry too much about your grade; just do the best you can and you will come out well enough in the end.”
      • Make sure students know that they have ample time to complete an activity. If students need to rush—or merely just thinks they do—then they are more likely to choose the safest, most familiar responses possible. In writing an amusing story from their early childhood, for example, middle years students may need time to consider and choose among story possibilities. Then they may need additional time to experiment with ways of expressing the story in writing. In this case, to make sure students know that they have such time, try saying something like: “Writing a good story will take time, and you may have to return to it repeatedly. So we will start working on it today, but do not expect to finish today. We’ll be coming back to it several times in the next couple of weeks.”
      • Show that you value unusual ideas and elegant solutions to problems. When a student does something out of the ordinary, show your enthusiasm for it. A visually appealing drawing, a well-crafted essay, a different solution to a math problem than the one you expected—all of these deserve an explicit compliment. Expressing your interest and respect does more than support the specific achievement. It also expresses a more general, underlying message that in your classroom, it is safe and rewarding to find and share the unusual and elegant.

Note that these communication strategies support problem-solving and the related skills of creativity that we discussed in Chapter 9. In describing creativity in that chapter, in particular, we called attention to the difference and importance of divergent (open-ended) thinking. As with problem-solving, though, divergent thinking may seem risky to some students unless they are encouraged to do so explicitly. The strategies for boosting academic risk-taking can help to communicate this encouragement—that process matters more than product, that there will be time enough to work, and that you, as teacher, indeed value their efforts.

Promoting a caring community

A caring community is one in which all members have a respected place, in which diversity among individuals is expected, and in which individuals assist each other with their work or activities wherever appropriate. Classrooms and even entire schools can be caring communities, though moving them in this direction takes work on the part of teachers and other school staff (Noddings, 1992, 2004). The key work in promoting a caring community involves arranging for students to work together on tasks, while at the same time communicating the teacher’s commitment to mutual respect among students and between students and teachers. Many of the instructional strategies discussed earlier in this book, such as cooperative learning and inquiry learning (in Chapter 9), therefore contribute to community in the classroom.

More specifically, you can, as a teacher, encourage community by doing any or all of the following:

      • Tell students that you value mutual respect, and describe some of the ways that students can show respect for each other and for school staff. Better yet, invite students themselves to describe how they might show respect.
      • Look for ways to sustain relationships among students and teachers for extended times. These ways may be easier to find in elementary school, where a teacher and class normally remain together for an entire year, than in middle and secondary school, where students learn from many teachers and teachers teach many students. But still there are ways. Participating in extra-curricular activities (like sports teams or drama club), for example, can sometimes provide settings where relationships develop for relatively long periods of time—even more than a single school year.
      • Ask for input from students about what they want to learn, how they want to learn it, and what kind of evaluation they consider fair. Although using their ideas may feel at first as if you are giving up your responsibility as the teacher, asking for students’ input indicates respect for students. It is likely that many of their suggestions need clarification or revision to become workable, especially if the class must also cover a particular curriculum during a set time. But even just the asking for input shows respect, and can contribute to community in the classroom.
      • If conflicts arise between students or between a student and teacher, encourage respectful communication as explicitly as you can. Some communication strategies about conflict resolution were described in Chapter 8 and are helpful in this regard: identifying true problem ownership, listening actively, assertive (not aggressive) I-messages, and negotiation.
      • Find times and ways for the class to experience itself as a community. This suggestion may look a bit vague at first glance, but in practice it is actually quite concrete. Any action builds community if it is carried out by the group as a whole, especially if it is done regularly and repeatedly and if it truly includes every member of the class. Such actions become rituals, not in the negative sense of empty or mindless repetitions, but in the positive sense of confirmations by group members of their commitment to each other (Ehrenreich, 2007). In the elementary grades, an obvious example of a ritual is reciting the Pledge of Allegiance (or its equivalent in classrooms outside the United States). But there are many other examples of classroom routines that gradually acquire the (positive) qualities of ritual or community-affirmation, often without deliberate intention or effort. A daily, regular time to work through homework problems together in class, for example, may serve obvious academic purposes. But it may also gradually contribute to a classroom’s identity as a class. With time and familiarity the group homework time may eventually come to represent “who we are” and of “what we do here” for that class.

The bottom line: messages sent, messages reconstructed

As we have explained in this chapter, teachers and students communicate in multiple, overlapping ways. Communications may often be expressed in words—but not necessarily and not completely. They may be organized into lectures, questions, discussions, or group projects. They tend to be expressed in particular language registers that we have called simply teacher talk and student talk. All things considered, communication obviously serves a wide range of teaching and learning tasks and activities, from stimulating students’ thinking, to orchestrating classroom routines, to managing inappropriate behaviors. It is an intrinsic part of the parts of teaching that involve interaction among class members.

Note, though, that teaching consists of more than interaction among class members. There are times when teachers prepare lessons or activities, for example, without talking to students or anyone else. There are also times when they develop their own skills as teachers—for example, by reading and reflecting, or by attending professional development seminars or workshops—which may involve communication, but not in the sense discussed in this chapter. It is to these other parts of teaching that we turn in the next chapter.

Chapter summary

Because communication in classrooms is more complex and unpredictable than in many other situations, it is important for teachers to understand its unique features and functions. It is helpful to think of classroom communication as serving a mixture of three purposes at once: content talk, procedural talk, and behavior control talk. It is also helpful to recognize that classroom communication has elements that are not only verbal, but also nonverbal and unintended.

To be effective in using verbal communication, teachers need to use appropriate instructional strategies related to content, such as using advance organizers, relating new information to prior knowledge, and organizing new information on behalf of students. It includes strategies that assist students to communicate, such as inquiry learning and cooperative learning. To communicate well about procedures and about the behaviors expected of students, teachers need a variety of management techniques, such as those discussed in Chapter 8 and summarized again in Table 19. To be effective in using nonverbal communication, teachers need to use appropriate eye contact, allow ample wait time between speaking turns, and be aware of the effects of social distance on students.

Structures of participation influence communication by facilitating particular patterns of speaking and listening, while at the same time making other patterns less convenient or disapproved. Four common participation structures are lectures, questions-and-answers, classroom discussions, and group work.

Key terms

Caring community

Class discussions

Collaborative group work


Content talk Control talk

Eye contact Lecture

Nonverbal communication

Participation structures


Procedure talk



Social distance

Student talk register

Teacher talk register

Unintended communication

Verbal communication

Wait time


On the Internet

<http://www.uu.edu/centers/faculty/resources/index.cfm?CatID=13> This URL offers tips for enhancing classroom communication. It is organized around ten basic topics (e.g. “Organizing Effective Discussions”) and focuses primarily on verbal communication. It is part of the more general website for Union University of Jackson, Tennessee.

<http://www.idea.ksu.edu/index.html> This website contains over 40 short papers (1-4 pages each) on a variety of topics, including many related to enhancing communication, but also some related to classroom organization and management in general. Some of the papers refer to college or university teaching, but many are quite relevant to public school teaching.

<http://www.fhsu.edu/~zhrepic/Teaching/GenEducation/nonverbcom/nonverbcom.htm> This website contains a thorough discussion of nonverbal communication—more detailed than possible in this chapter, and with photos and drawings to illustrate key points.

<http://www.responsiveclassroom.org/index.html> This website contains many resources, among which are articles about classroom management and communication, including nonverbal communication. It is intended strictly for public school teachers. Once you get to the homepage, click on their “Newsletter” for the articles.


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