Using various types of nonverbal communication in teaching writing
assists students whose preferred learning modes do not use words,
such as those who learn best through images or my hands-on activities.
Obviously, since writing is a verbal activity, you cannot avoid
using language to teach and test writing skills. However, you can
and should supplement spoken and written explanations
with nonverbal cues, examples, and support.
Typefaces and their enhancements
Because type is used to display words, you may not realize that
the appearance of words can convey meaning quite apart from the
meaning of the words. Your students are familiar with some nonverbal
typeface communications from their reading:
In a nonfiction text, the relative importance of ideas is shown
by the size of heads and subheads.
Boldface is used to emphasize important ideas in a text.
Italics call attention to a word used as a word or a letter
used as a letter. Italics also are used to identify titles of
publications, including such publications as TV shows and DVD
titles as well as print publications.
Putting something in all caps is the printed equivalent
Typefaces can also be used to convey information about message
content. For example, look at these three type samples:
You could use an usual typeface to suggest an idea, such as the
setting of a literary work or the degree of formality required by
various kinds of writing.
Hint: Confine your use of specialty faces to use as accents, such
as a headline. Don't use them for body copy.
Icons & avatars
Icons and avatars
are types of nonverbal communication that are particularly helpful
in teaching writing to students for whom verbal learning is difficult:
they contain no words at all.
It would be stupid for us to revert to teaching writing via pictographs,
but it is equally stupid for us to ignore the value of graphic images
for many learners.
- Can convey certain information more efficiently than words.
- Are more easily read by some students than words.
When teaching writing to a students who struggle with reading,
supplement your verbal instruction with icons, avatars and
similar pictorial types of nonverbal communication.
Icons also work well as visual reminders of steps
in a strategy or process. See
my visuals for theexpository paragraph for an example of using
People who are not particularly visual may not realize how much
information can be communicated by shapes. For example, seeing particular
shapes triggers specific driver behaviors.
of an introduction paragraph is often represented by an inverted
pyramid. The use
of pronouns to link sentences can be represented by interlocking
links on a chain.
Shapes also can convey to students the amount and kind
of written response needed. For example, a 2x8-inch piece
of paper suggests a list; a 6x4-inch piece of paper suggests a
paragraph; an 8.5x11-inch piece of paper suggests several paragraphs
Aside from body language, the most commonly used types of nonverbal
communications in the classroom are probably 2-dimensional images
such as charts, posters, drawings
on a whiteboard, photographs and videos.
In teaching writing, charts and posters provide a handy way of
reminding students of steps in writing. Fill-in images, such as
the outline template,
combine visual reminders of strategies and relationships as well
as providing a place to record information.
I use 2-dimensional images as cues on the Talk
It Out questions I give students to use in providing
one another with feedback on their plans for writing essays.
English teachers rarely use 3-D images, but they can be very useful
in helping students to record spatial information. For example,
you might use a doll house as a visual for starting a discussion
of organizing and selecting details to include in a physical description.
A large object that students could walk around and observe from
various vantage points could be useful for a discussion of point
Clocks, timers, calendars
Many struggling writers need reminders that the time available
to work on a writing project is limited. Clocks and old-fashioned
kitchen timers that tick off passing time help students be
aware of time.
Struggling writers often need help to break a big project into
manageable portions. Calendars are useful for planning backward
from a due date so work can be completed without undue stress.
Music is one of the types of nonverbal communication that students
find most appealing, but which teachers rarely use to good advantage.
The trick is to find music that does not compete with the intellectual
effort of writing.
You can associate music with various writing tasks. A short, fast
piece of music would fit the task of getting a working thesis, for
example. You could use a waltz to cue students' use of the
You could use background music instead of a timer with students
who must learn to work against the clock but find a timer produces
too much stress.
Facial expressions, gestures, hand signals, eye contact,
and touch can communicate to student messages
- "Your time is nearly up."
- "You're doing a good job."
- "That's an interesting idea. Tell me more."
You can calm a restless student by putting your hand on the back
of his chair or corner of her desk.
I've talked here only about using various types of nonverbal communication
in teaching students.
You can also have students use nonverbal communication in demonstrating
their knowledge. For example, students could prepare visuals that
describe a process or act out a writing process.
I would warn you that the only valid measure of writing skill
is student writing. Preparing a poster or making a video is
not the same as actually writing.