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Teacher to Teacher

Honing nonverbal communication skills

New York Teacher
Miller Photography
Sandra Fajgier leads her pre-K students through a gallery walk in her classroom at PS 10 in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

The Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education describes a theory known as the “100 languages of children,” which is based on the idea that young children should be provided with many ways to share their thinking about the world around them: talking, drawing, the use of natural materials, dancing, creative movement, etc. In my Reggio Emilia-inspired pre-K classroom, the theory of the 100 languages has a deep impact on the way in which we communicate.

I strive to strengthen my students’ nonverbal communication skills because understanding facial expressions and gestures allows for communication to be fluid, natural and meaningful. For English language learners, these skills are just as important as listening, speaking, reading and writing English when it comes to acquiring English language skills.

During classroom conversations, I honor all students’ capacity to share. Some students might want or need to contribute nonverbally. When leading class discussions, I model nonverbal communication. Demeanor, facial expressions and posture are but three of many nonverbal cues that our students can learn to communicate with.

It’s natural to want to share student work, but looking at 18 to 30 pieces of work at the meeting area is not a great use of students’ time. Consider leading a “gallery walk” or “gallery share” to help your students learn to use nonverbal cues to notice their peers’ work in a nonevaluative, nonjudgmental manner.

A gallery walk usually happens after choice time. I ask all students to stop playing and gather at the meeting area without cleaning up. Before coming to the rug, the students place a card with their photo and name by an area where they feel proud of what they’ve created. Then I lead students in a quiet walk to notice the work that happened during choice time. I teach the ASL sign for “me too” so children can make a quiet connection to the work.

During a gallery share, I hold up each piece of work and pause for a few moments. Children learn to use sign language, gestures, facial expression, body language (like hugging their body when they love something) as each piece of work is quietly shared.

These nonverbal communication skills have an impact on language acquisition by helping students learn how to explain an idea without words. It also takes the pressure off young children who are not verbally adept, and it creates an equitable opportunity for all to share when holding class meetings and conversations.

Teachers can also create libraries that go beyond books. By providing open-ended materials and storytelling props, children will engage playfully and establish a deeper connection with familiar stories. In my classroom, we use story kits to offer another way for all students to retell familiar stories with nonverbal cues. After children get to know a particular story, I introduce the kit at the meeting area. Each kit is stored in a labeled Ziploc bag in a large basket. The kits can also be used before reading a story to introduce vocabulary with connected context for English language learners; for example, the kit for Eric Carle’s “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” includes drawings of the caterpillar pre- and post-feast, small plastic foods and, of course, a beautiful butterfly puppet.

Nonverbal communication plays an important role in our social interaction. Our body language — every facial expression and gesture — gives information that adds meaning and depth to our words. By providing a multifaceted method of communication for your students, you are offering multiple entry points for all learners.

Sandra Fajgier is a prekindergarten teacher at PS 10 in Park Slope, Brooklyn.