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August 2020 - Year 22 - Issue 4

ISSN 1755-9715

A Case Study on Nonverbal Communication in EFL Classes in the Indonesian Context

Rida Afrilyasanti teaches at Taruna Nala Senior High School. She has published two books entitled Digital Storytelling as an Alternative Learning Media for EFL Learners and Learn English with Merah Putih Emas.

Yazid Basthomi is a Professor of Applied Linguistics at the Department of English, Faculty of Letters, Universitas Negeri Malang. Having interests in genre analysis, intercultural education, and digital culture, he is currently coordinator of the publication division of TEFLIN.



In this study, the nonverbal communication used by five Indonesian EFL teachers with different ranges of teaching experiences was evaluated. The study later found out that nonverbal communication surely bring some positive impacts for the teachers as well as learners when both parties have the same interpretation of the nonverbal cues used.

Nonverbal communication is inseparable from verbal communication. How our body moves, how and where we stand or sit, how we speak, and what expression we make are all nonverbal messages that in some ways are far more convincing than spoken word (Feldman and Rime, 1991). In his study, Gallo (2007) has identified that people tend to communicate nonverbally: 7% of communication involves actual words and the other 93% is nonverbal. He further states that 38% is vocal nonverbal signals such as pitch, speed, and volume of one’s voice and 55% of the nonverbal is visual such as body language and eye contact (Gallo, 2007).

Nonverbal communication in teaching and learning, especially in a foreign language context is very demanding, because nonverbal communication contributes to the students’ comprehension and understanding of concepts. Nonverbal communication helps to reach the aim of teaching, and develop teaching quality and methods (Pan, 2014). By employing nonverbal communication, teachers can more easily win the students’ attention so that they can focus on the subject matter.

In employing nonverbal cues in teaching, however, not all the teachers’ nonverbal cues are completely understood by the students. This happens as much about body language is defined by culture. Some people greet with handshakes, some hugs, and others kisses. Some consider that it is fine to point others using their index finger but some do not. Reiman (2007) has explained that these cultural expressions are dictated by “display rules”, the specific expectations every group has about body language. Nonverbal communication also involves the possibility of misunderstanding when it is misused and/or misinterpreted (Elfatihi, 2005; Lustig & Koester, 2006).

This paper aims to provide a brief analysis of the nonverbal communication used by teachers within their interactions with the students. Specifically, it touches on the use of nonverbal communication in EFL classes in the Indonesian context.

As nonverbal communication is bondless and there is no dictionary of nonverbal communication like in verbal communication, there must be some limitations in order to easily analyze the phenomena. Therefore, in order to answer the research questions, Darn’s (2005) article on the aspects of nonverbal communication will be used as the platform in describing the varieties of nonverbal communication used in the Indonesian EFL classes. In Darn’s (2005) study, it is explained that less than ten percent interpersonal communication involves words there are also varieties of nonverbal types or devices such as kinesics (movement), proxemics (space/physical distance), haptics (touch), oculesics (eye-contact), chronemics (time) & silence, vocalics (vocal set and qualities), sound symbols, adornment, and posture, which either replace or accompany verbal communication.

The purpose of this study is to discuss the importance and use of nonverbal communication in EFL classes in the Indonesian context. It highlights and analyzes nonverbal communication in terms of its various types and functions. This qualitative study involved five Indonesian EFL teachers with different ranges of teaching experiences. The participants responded to qualitative interview questions.

In order to enrich the data, observations of nonverbal cues performed by the teachers were also done. The participants’ nonverbal cues were analyzed based on the following nonverbal aspects: kinesics, proxemics, haptics, oculesics, chronemics & silence, vocalics, sound symbols, adornment, and posture (refer to Darn, 2005). In order to provide detailed reflections of the participants’ responses, a constructivist grounded theory approach to research was implemented so that the findings display direct representations of the data produced by the participants.

A total of five EFL teachers from Indonesia participated in the study. Of the sample, three teachers were female and two were male. Those teachers ranged in age from 23 to over 50. Three of the sample had a bachelor’s degree and two had obtained a master’s degree. Of those with bachelor degrees, two had teaching certificates and one did not. Meanwhile, of those with master's degrees, one had teaching certificate and one did not.

The teachers had some teaching experiences. Their experiences ranged from novice teachers with only two years of experience, to experienced teachers with over 30 years of experience. All of those five teachers had been teaching in senior high schools in which the ages of the students ranged from 16 to 18 years.


Findings and discussion

This section presents the results of data analysis along with some discussions.


The Importance of nonverbal communication in EFL classes

The teachers involved in this study said that gestures would help them in presenting language items such as grammar and vocabulary. The teachers admitted that their gestures help their students understand language items better. Some of the responses regarding the use of gestures in emphasizing teachers’ explanation on the language items are presented as follows:

Teacher I: “I tend to act out to present new verbs for my students. It helps them understand the meaning of the words more quickly and easily.”

Teacher II: “When I teach descriptive text, I prefer to start with vocabulary games and I use a lot of gestures. I point out certain parts of my body, pictures or objects around the students… and I think that really works.”

Many previous studies such as Behjat (2014), Shi & Fan (2010), and Sukirlan (2014) have come up with the similar findings on the importance of nonverbal cues in classroom interaction. Those are to help the students with inadequate target linguistic resources to communicate their message, to avoid being artificial and boring, and to encourage students to take active participation, which consequently enhances the level of their retention and understanding.

The teachers observed demonstrated a wide variety of nonverbal communication either consciously or unconsciously. However, when the teachers were explaining about concept and meaning, most of them consciously used various nonverbal cues along with their verbal explanation. They admitted that their nonverbal cues really accommodate their intent to help the students get the concept and meaning.

As depicted in the results of the interviews as well as observations, it can be construed that nonverbal communication can help improve the teaching practice and the learning process. Furthermore, the use of gestures is a good solution to solve misunderstandings. One of the examples is the use of pictures, movements, and gestures to explain the concept of time signal in English sentences.

Picture 1. Gestures and Pictures Along with the Explanation of Time Signal in the English Language

Nonverbal communication plays a significant role in classroom management. There are some kinds of nonverbal communication that can be used by teachers to guide the class into doing what they want them to do (Barabar & Caganaga, 2015). One of the examples is using gesture. Scrivener (2012) mentions that teachers can put their hand cupped behind the ear to instruct the students to listen, raise hand or clap to stop noise, shake head or index finger to show that the answer or the students’ behavior is not right. Furthermore, Pan (2014) explains that nonverbal behavior can be used as a teaching strategy in classroom management. Teachers can use tempo, eye contacts as well as other nonverbal behaviors to control the classroom and reduce teachers’ talking all the time.

These are what the observed teachers claimed about the use of nonverbal communication in their classrooms.

Teacher I: “When there is a disruptive behavior during my lesson, I will usually just stop my explanation, stand still and look at those who are misbehaved. I do not say anything. The students will soon notice and be quiet.”

Teacher III:”I commonly clap my hands to get my students’ attention or indicate that the time is up and that the students must submit their work right away.”

Teacher IV: “When I put my index finger in front of my lips, my students understand that they must be quiet and listen to me. Then, when I nod my head, the students understand it as agreement or correct answer.”

From those three reflective reports, it can be concluded that nonverbal communication is used to improve the classroom management method as well as set certain activities. With the help of the teachers’ body language, the teachers can encourage good behaviors of their students and solve types of problems or disruptive behaviors.

The results described above support Darn’s (2005) explanation that nonverbal communication is essential and brings positive implications for the teacher and learners when both parties have the same interpretation of the nonverbal cues used.


Nonverbal communication in Indonesian classes

In this study, from the results of the interviews, we found pieces of evidence that support Darn’s (2005) statement that teachers have to make sure that our students understand our codes. It would be useful for teachers to check whether or not the students understand our nonverbal cues. Yet, there are actually a number of nonverbal cues that the students have already understood due to the same cultures the teachers and the students share.

Some examples of the nonverbal communication that are commonly used inside the classroom are:


Moving around the class when teaching could show attention.

Putting thumbs up was used to praise or say “good job.”

Pointing the student using the pointed finger was considered impolite.

Answering the teacher’s question using gesture (nodding to say “yes” or shrugging and head shaking to say “no”) could be considered impolite if it was not accompanied by verbal communication.

Smile was frequently used in Indonesian classes to appreciate students’ work, in humorous situations, to alter boredom or uncomfortable atmosphere.

Students raised their palm or index finger to ask permission to both, ask and answer questions.


It was considered okay to approach closely to the students to check their work (in Indonesian context, there is not rigid rules in spatial separation).


Soft tap on the student’s shoulder could make the students’ alert and encouraged.

It was considered polite and respectful to kiss the teacher’s hand while hand shaking.


Teacher must be able to share his/her eye contact to the all the students in the class.

Teachers used eye contact to seek for the students’ responses, whether they understand, are confused or bored.

In Indonesian context, for the students, moving his/her eyes all around when being asked by teacher was considered impolite.

Students would take their eyes far away when they could not answer the question.

Students would also do eye contact while the teacher was explaining to show giving attention.

Chronemics & Silence

After giving questions to a student, letting him/her to remain silent for a long time could be considered offensive and discouraging.

Teacher’s silence and standing still were to indicate that the students must stop their noise and start paying attention to the teacher.


High tone was commonly used when the teacher gets angry or reminds/warns the students.

Sound Symbols

Teacher must tell the students how much they can tolerate the use of sound symbols.


There were different rules in clothing, jewelry, and hairstyle for each school.


In talking with teacher, students must not be in a “relaxed” posture in order to show respect and enthusiasm to teach. Students must also bow while talking with their teacher.

The data taken from our classroom observations and interviews showed that teachers used kinesics behaviors a lot more rather than other types of nonverbal behaviors. All of the five subjects constantly used hand and head gestures. They either consciously or unconsciously used movements along with their verbal communication and/or used them alone.

The teachers used movements to call the attention of the students. They admitted that pointing gestures to call a student is effective to invite students’ participation. Likewise, pointing gestures to highlight certain written concept or explanation makes the presentation more lively and convincing. The teachers also often used nonverbal feedback such as holding thumb up as a quick and simple action to show appreciation.

It is interesting to note that we also found that interpersonal communication is so much dictated by the participants’ faith (religion) and culture. This is actually in line with Rasyid’s (2015) findings. How the students shake and kiss their teacher’s hand every time they meet is the representation of Indonesian culture about politeness, which is known as sungkem in Javanese society.

Darn (2005) explains that nonverbal communication is so essential and that it should be employed by teachers in their classroom to help them communicate their message, assist the students get the concept and meaning, avoid being artificial and boring, and to encourage students to take active participation as well as positive behaviors, which consequently enhance the level of retention and understanding of the students. In this case, the teachers need to make sure that their students understand their nonverbal cues.



Barabar , A. & Caganaga, C.K. (2015). Using nonverbal communication in EFL classes. Cypriot Journal of Educational Sciences. 10(2), 136-147.

Behjat, F., Bayat, S., & Kargar, A.A. (2014). An investigation of students’ attitudes on teachers' nonverbal interaction in Iranian EFL classroom. International Journal of Language and Linguistics. Vol.2(6-1): 13-18.

Darn, S. (2005). Aspects of nonverbal communication. The Internet TESL Journal. Vol. XI(2): 1-5.

Elfatihi, M. (2005).  The role of nonverbal communication in beginners’ EFL classrooms. Retrieved on May 22, 2016 from

Feldman, R. S., & Rime , B. (1991). Fundamentals of nonverbal behavior. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gallo, C. (2007, February 14). Body language: A key to success in the workplace: Personal finance news from yahoo! Finance. Yahoo! Finance – Business. Finance, Stock Market, Quotes, News. Retrieved September 5, 2010 from

Lustig, M. W., & Koester, J. (2006). Intercultural competence: interpersonal communication across cultures (5th ed.). Boston: Pearson.

Pan, Q. (2014). Nonverbal teacher-student communication in the foreign language classroom. Theory and Practice in Language Studies, 4(12).

Rasyid, M. A. (2015). Interpersonal communication that inspires in EFL teaching. ELT Worldwide. Vol. 2 (2:) 33-44.

Reiman, T. (2007). The power of body language: How to succeed in every business and social encounter. New York: Pocket 68 Books.

Shi, Y. & Fan. S. (2010). An analysis of non-verbal behavior in intercultural communication. The International Journal - Language Society and Culture. Vol. 31, 113-120

Sukirlan, M. (2014). Teaching communication strategies in an EFL class of tertiary level. Theory and Practice in Language Studies. Vol. 4(10): 2033-2041.


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