Program Goal VI: Communication

"Communication is the process of exchanging knowledge, ideas, opinions, and feelings through the use of verbal or non-verbal language" (Smith and Tyler, 2010, p. 121). The Education Department regards communication as a critical component of the teaching process, and we agree with Dettmer, Thurston, and Dyck (1996); West and Cannon (1988); and Carl Rogers (1962) that communication is among the most important skills an educator can possess The paragraphs that follow describe selected elements of effective classroom communication and provide a brief overview of language development and communication disorders.

Effective Classroom Communication Skills: Dance and Larson (1976) have noted that successful leaders must be effective communicators and must match their communication behaviors to their goals and monitor the effect of their communication.  These researchers identified three clusters of communication skills that are essential for good leadership: 1) Linking, which includes monitoring the environment, creating a trusting climate, and building cooperative teams; 2) Envisioning, which encompasses creating new agendas, visions, or knowledge out of previously existing elements; and 3) Regulating, which involves influencing others by developing credibility and power, using effective verbal and nonverbal communication, creating positive expectations, managing change, guiding compliance, and negotiating.

The regulation cluster, particularly non-verbal communication, is very important in the classroom. Research has shown that non-verbal communication accounts for up to 65% of meaning (Cooper, 1995), and educators who use nonverbal cues consciously in their teaching tend to be more effective than those who are not aware of their use of nonverbal cues (Love and Roderick, 1971). Cooper (1995) has listed the following six aspects of nonverbal communication that are especially important for teachers to know and understand:

Proximity: using fixed and personal space to enhance student learning and keep students' attention;

Spatial arrangements: arranging classrooms in ways that positively impact student participation;

Environmental Factors: using lighting, color, and temperature to improve classroom climate;

Time: having appropriate wait-time for student responses;

Kinesthetic Behavior: effectively using body movements, gestures, facial expression, and eye contact;

Vocal Qualities: knowing the importance of intensity, pitch, range, rhythm, articulation, tempo, variation.

According to Friend and Cook (1992) listening skills are another essential aspect of communication for effective teaching. These writers noted that listening is the primary means of gaining information. Students, as well as teachers, acquire knowledge, develop language skills, increase communication skills, and gain understanding of the world through listening. Listening is also a major tool in establishing rapport with others. Cooper (1995) noted that a good listener attends to the intent as well as the content of a message, reflects on and paraphrases what is being said, asks clarifying questions, elaborates and summarizes what is said, and gives and receives feedback.

Role of Language in Learning: According to Cooper (1995) and Hurt et al. (1978), the teaching-learning process is primarily a communication process. Any variable that prohibits effective communication can adversely affect learning. Norton (1983) adds that the teacher's communication style and skills have an extreme impact on students' motivation to learn and participate. Teachers who manipulate their communication style to fit the lesson and its content, as well as their students' needs, are more likely to create a positive attitude towards school and subject matter and, thus, positively impact student motivation and learning.

Communicating Effectively through Teacher Presentation: Joyce, Weil, and Calhoun (2009), provide an excellent overview of David Ausubel's advance-organizer (or expository teaching) model for organizing and communicating large amounts of information in a meaningful and efficient manner. This model emphasizes the "parallel between the way subject matter is organized and the way people organize knowledge in their minds (p. 250) and emphasizes the importance of presenting content hierarchically by beginning with the broadest, most general and abstract concepts before proceeding to the more specific and concrete concepts and facts. An effective teacher presentation should begin with a clarification of the aims of the lesson and then provide an advance organizer which contains introductory ideas that help "explain, integrate, and interrelate the material in the learning task with previously learned material" (Joyce, Weil, and Calhoun, 2009, p. 253). Advance organizers often contain examples and analogies and utilize terms and ideas that are familiar to students. When ideas are communicated in this way, "they become a structural map that students can use to analyze particular domains and solve problems within them those domains" (p. 251). Following the advance organizer, the content is communicated in a way that makes the organization "explicit to the students so that they have an overall sense of direction and can see the logical order of the material and how the organization relates to the advance organizer" (p. 257). The presentation should conclude with an attempt to anchor and solidify the new learning material by summarizing, clarifying, and reminding students of key points. Having students summarize the content in their own words, asking them for additional examples, or requiring them to apply the new material in some way are also effective ways to anchor the new learning.

Language Development: The development of language and literacy is considered the school's first and foremost responsibility. Teachers who understand language development and its implications for learning are more likely to make effective instructional decisions (Kohler, 1983). Strickland (1983) has identified the following areas of language development as essential for educators to understand and consider in teaching:

  • Language universals: The function of language, its developmental sequence, and components occur systematically across all natural languages.
  • Differences in language development: Many factors influence language development, and students vary in the rate at which they develop language;
  • Relationships between language and thought: cognitive theories such as those of Piaget and Vygotsky emphasize the important connection between cognition and the use of language;
  • Interrelationships: linguistic awareness, syntax, vocabulary, and the development of academic skills, especially reading and writing, are strongly connected.

Theories of Language Development: There are several theories that have attempted to explain language development. These include environmental theories that emphasize imitation and reinforcement, nativist theories that claim language develops because of an in-born capacity or "language acquisition device," and constructivist theories that argue language develops through the process of cognitive development as the child constructs language in the same way as other cognitive understandings (Bee & Boyd, 2010). Though no theory seems entirely satisfactory, a viewpoint that integrates ideas from the nativist and constructivist approaches may provide the best explanation (Bee and Boyd, 2010).

Communication Disorders: "A communication disorder impairs the ability to transmit or receive ideas, facts, feelings, and desires and may involve language, speech, or both, including hearing, listening, reading, and writing" (Hallahan, Kauffman, and Pullen, 2012, p. 267). Communication disorders include both speech and language impairments. Articulation disorders, the "abnormal production of speech sounds" (Smith and Tyler, 2010, p. 123), are the most common form of speech disorder and are often encountered in primary-grade classrooms. It is important to note, however, that children may not correctly pronounce all phonemes until they are seven or even eight years old (Smith and Tyler, 2010). Therefore, speech therapy may not be necessary for young children with mild articulation disorders. Other common speech disorders include fluency problems (stuttering) and voice problems. Language impairments include both delays and disorders.

Early identification and intervention are very important for children with speech and language disorders (Hallahan, Kauffman, and Pullen, 2012). Therefore, it is crucial for classroom teachers who are concerned about a student's speech or language to consult with special education personnel, including the speech-language pathologist, and refer the child for evaluation and possible special education services.

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Updated July 2012 by Edmund J. Sass