Another way to understand classroom communication is to distinguish verbal from non-verbal communication and intended from 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. Non-verbal 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 non-verbal twinkle in the eye can send the confirm message non-verbally. But a simultaneous non-verbal 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 non-verbal, 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 non-verbal communications to occur (Neill, 1991).
This priority accounts for the characteristically businesslike style of teacher talk. 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.
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).
Scenario of a Register
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.
Throughout this module it is assumed that the better the communication, the better the learning and thinking displayed by students.
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