You Don't Say -- And That's a Good Thing

Mike Artell


The authors share ideas from their experience helping kindergartners participate in writing before they can write. These involve writing notes, making lists, labeling, and writing class poems.

Recently I was chatting with some friends and, as so often happens when people have had a couple glasses of wine, the conversation soon turned to kinesics, proxemics, paralanguage, haptics, chronemics, and oculesics.  O.K., so maybe those words didn’t actually come up in the conversation, but all my friends and I employed those elements of non-verbal communication as we chatted. A few definitions might be helpful.

Kinesics is better known as body language¾such as folding our arms when someone says something with which we disagree. Proxemics deals with the distance between people as they communicate, as well as the environment in which the conversation is taking place. In addition to the tone of voice we use when we speak (e.g. harsh, sarcastic, etc.), paralanguage also deals with sounds we use to communicate without necessarily using complete words, like a deep sigh when we’re skeptical of something that’s been said.

Haptics deals with touch. Do you recall seeing the old Seinfeld show and the way Elaine would shove someone away when that person said something that shocked her? That’s an example of haptics in action! Chronemics is the elements of time that we use as we speak (the speed at which we speak, our pauses, etc.) and oculesics includes the ways we use our eyes as we glance towards or away from a speaker or vary the rate at which we blink as we converse. Parents of pre-teens are likely familiar with the variation of oculesics which manifests itself as their child’s exasperated “eye roll.”  As a children’s book author and illustrator, I’m invited to visit many schools each year. Typically I speak to groups of 150 or 200 elementary school children at a time. Usually when I take the microphone and stand in front of the children, everyone becomes quiet. But on those occasions when I do not feel that I have everyone’s attention, I’ll simply say, “Let me see everyone’s eyes.” The children’s response is usually immediate. That’s another example of oculesics.

Many people have heard that most communication is nonverbal. Some may even be familiar with the research done by Albert Mehrabian in the area of nonverbal communication (Mehrabian & Wiener, 1967; Mehrabian & Ferris, 1967). But most people are not aware of the contribution of those nonverbal elements to their normal conversation. This is especially true of teachers when they read aloud to children.

For convenience, I’ll use the term teacher in this article to refer to any adult who is reading aloud to children in a classroom or library, although that adult might be a teacher, a library media specialist, a school administrator, or even a guest reader from the community. And rather than use the clumsy his/her or he/she each time, I’ll alternate the masculine and feminine pronouns. If you’re a person with pronoun sensibilities, there’s no need to write to me about my failure to write his/her or he/she each time. Alternating pronouns is the approach that Writer’s Digest magazine takes, and that’s good enough for me.

One of the first and most important points I stress in my book Rock Your Read Alouds is that teachers must keep in mind that every read aloud is a performance. A teacher should not merely “remember” that idea¾he should keep it in mind. Every read aloud is a performance. During a typical read aloud, the children are (mostly) quiet and seated, and the teacher is at the front of the group with all eyes on him and on the book that is being read aloud. This is much like the way people watch a movie, a concert, or a play. And as with those other forms of entertainment it’s important for the teacher to keep the audience’s attention and interest by using as many performance elements as are appropriate.

During a read aloud, teachers commonly rely on a change of voice to add interest to the story. A teacher will lower her voice when assuming the role of a grumpy giant or speak in a high falsetto voice when reciting the words of a tiny little mouse. That’s important and helpful, but there’s so much more a teacher can do. To make the read-aloud experience memorable and meaningful to a child, the teacher also needs to tap into all the nonverbal communication tools available to her. A teacher assuming the role of a grumpy giant may be grumpy without speaking right away. She may

  • frown and look around the room,
  • squint her eyes or cock an ear as if listening for distant sounds,
  • puff up her chest,
  • rub her chin as if thinking, or
  • some combination of the above.

The story will suggest which actions are appropriate.

Using non-verbal communication effectively will likely require practice, preparation, and patience and patience. The practice part is the easiest.  We have all had lots of practice using nonverbal communication skills. When we tell someone (child or adult) that something they did or said was “awesome,” we often add depth to our comments by reinforcing what we’ve said with a high-five or a fist bump followed by a simulated explosion. If you’re having a quiet conversation with someone in an unfamiliar place and you hear a strange sound, you may interrupt the conversation by raising your hand palm forward to indicate that you want the other person to stop talking. Then you may turn your ear towards the general location of the sound while staring at some undefined point in the room. All that nonverbal communication adds a greater depth of meaning than simply saying, “Please be silent for a moment. I heard an unusual sound.” These things come easily to us because we’ve practiced them so much.

The preparation part is more difficult because it requires a teacher to invest that most valuable resource¾time. For maximum effect, the teacher should always be familiar with the book/story in advance. That seems obvious, but it’s not always possible due to the demands on a teacher’s time and the vagaries of the school day. Nevertheless, being familiar with a story in advance of the read-aloud will make it much easier for the teacher to plan when and where to apply the non-verbal performance elements most effectively.  Without being familiar with the story in advance, a teacher will have to rely on improvisational skills to apply the non-verbal elements at the most effective time. If the teacher is an experienced improvisational speaker, that won’t be a problem. But most teachers are forced to do enough improvising during a normal school day without creating more of those situations for themselves.

It’s natural for us to employ nonverbal skills in our normal conversations, but teachers often fail to keep in mind that a read aloud is a conversation. It’s a conversation between the author of the book and the listeners, with the teacher acting as the author’s proxy. Let me encourage you to give the author some help. Remember to use all your communication skills when reading aloud to children. You’ll discover that you can communicate a lot without saying anything at all.

Mike Artell is a former class clown who, through no fault of his own, became a multi-award-winning children’s book author and illustrator. Mike has written more than 40 books, most of which he also illustrated. His book Petite RougeA Cajun Red Riding Hood was named 2009 Read Aloud Book of the Year by the National Association of Elementary School Principals. In addition to speaking at major literacy conferences each year, Mike visits more than 50 schools across the U.S., Europe, and Asia where he shares his innovative techniques for thinking, writing and drawing more effectively. Mike’s newest book is titled Rock Your Read Alouds (2017, Capstone Publishing). Complete information about Mike, his books, and his personal appearances is available at


Artell, M. (2017). Rock your read alouds. Makato, MN: Capstone Publishers.

Mehrabian, A., & Wiener, M. (1967). Decoding of inconsistent communications. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 6, 109-114.

Mehrabian, A., & Ferris, S. R. (1967). Inference of attitudes from nonverbal communication in two channels. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 31(3), 48-258.