Contemporary Educational Psychology/Chapter 12: The Nature of Classroom Communication

“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. The advice to be seated was somewhat more ambiguous; maybe he was suggesting that conversation and dialogue are improved by reducing the power differences between individuals. If so, he was giving good advice, though perhaps advice that is 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 expert source of knowledge. Your challenge is to sort out the roles so that you combine them effectively at the appropriate times. As you learn to do this, interestingly, much of the communication with your students may indeed take on the qualities recommended by Franklin Roosevelt. Often, you will indeed be more sincere and more brief, and you may find yourself minimizing the power differences between you and students.

In this chapter we look at how 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).[1] 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...

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Communication in Classrooms vs. Communication Elsewhere
Functions of Talk: Content, Procedures, and Behavior Control
Verbal, Nonverbal, and Unintended Communication

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...

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Effective Content Talk
Effective Procedural and Control Talk

Effective Nonverbal Communication


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Eye Contact
Wait Time
Social Distance

Structures of Participation: Effects on Communication


Many class activities take on communication patterns that class members learn to expect without even being reminded. Each pattern is a participation structure, a set of rights and responsibilities expected from students and teacher during an activity...(read more...)

Questions and Answers
Classroom Discussion
Group Work

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... (read more...)

How Teachers Talk
How Students Talk

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 most desirable balance among the features depends on grade level, curriculum area, and personalities of students or teachers... (read more...)

Probing for Learner Understanding
Helping Students to Articulate Their Ideas and Thinking
Promoting Academic Risk-Taking and Problem-Solving
Promoting a Caring Community

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 Chapter 13, "The Reflective Practitioner".


  1. Lasswell, H. (1964). The structure and function of communication in society. In W. Schramm (Ed.), Mass communications. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.