TEACHER IMMEDIACY -- warming up the classroom and motivating students

by Barbara Waldern

After giving the TALK lecture and writing the article on relevant acivities for conversation classes for new EFL teachers, one question lingered on my mind: what does it mean to say warm up the classroom and make the atmosphere more conducive to learning? When asked this question by a new teacher during the lecture, it was difficult to answer it succinctly. I wanted to use the word “intimacy”. Oops. Instead, I said make it a sociable and enjoyable place, but is that really a teacher’s job? No, it is not. I myself warned new school teachers about the importance of preventing the children’s class time play time, though I instructed that learning should be fun for children in that they are interested and engaged in the learning. Teachers are supposed to get students more interested and try to boost their confidence so that they try and succeed in learning especially as it can be very stressful. When I asked the new teachers I was lecturing to think of appropriate teacher behaviors, we could not get much farther than smiling and coaxing or praising students’ efforts. I felt I needed to find a better answer to the above question and know how to articulate it for my own teaching and for the benefit of teachers whom I mentor.

I have since been pondering. This article presents my answer to the question, “What does it mean to say warm up the classroom and make the atmosphere more conducive to learning?”  In answering this question the best I can, I have been exploring two notions: teacher immediacy and a positive learning environment. These are important concepts to review and consider as a new semester begins and the teachers wants to get off to a good start, whatever the subject being taught. Teacher immediacy is the work to shorten the distance between the subject or skill of study and the emotions and minds of the students as well as the closeness among class members, which is to make the subject and the learning activities seem relevant and meaningful so that the students get more involved in the subject, classroom interaction, and the business of learning it. The goal of teacher immediacy is closeness, which means bringing the student closer to the subject and the learning of that subject. A positive learning environment is a set of classroom conditions including emotional states of teacher and students that make students feel positive about the subject, learning it and being in the class so that feel better and are better motivated to achieve more learning.

Teacher Immediacy

Velez and Cano (2008) published a fine article that delves deeply into the idea of teacher immediacy ( They explain how verbal and nonverbal cues of teachers coorespond to increased motivation of students. Teacher immediacy is a concept taken from implicit communication theory as expounded by Mehrabian (1981), they say. Implicit forms of communication carry emotions and attitude beyond speech, while explicit communication is conveyed verbally. If observers like the verbal and non-verbal cues, they respond more positively by engaging in interaction. The distance between the teacher and learner and among learners in the class, and the subject of learning in that class, becomes closer the more motivation there is to be in the class and with the teacher and students. Well trained and alert teachers know and use some verbal and nonverbal cues in their professional capacity to teach.

Verbal and nonverbal immediacy in teaching have been well researched. First, I list some tips for effective verbal immediacy in the classroom. Well chosen syntax is more effective, such as syntax expressing probability (will), ownership (my/our class) and inclusiveness (we). Phrases that communicate the follow messages are also particularly effective for teaching: praise for student efforts, humor, self-disclosure, willingness to engage students in conversation, and overall openness and willingness to meet and interact with students.

As for nonverbal immediacy, affective language signalling closeness, warmth and belonging helps to create a positive atmosphere conducive to learning. Velez and Cano explain further in the following quote:

The concept of nonverbal immediacy is based on the idea that teacher nonverbal behaviors will promote feelings of arousal, liking, pleasure, and dominance. These feelings are mediated through actions such as eye contact, body position, physical proximity, personal touch, and body movement. (1)


To define motivation, Velez and Cano draw from psychology, namely behavioral approach-avoidance and cognitive expectancy-value theory. The former correlates feelings of either comfort or apprehensiveness with the teacher (and we could say subject), as well as hope or fear with the teacher (and we could say subject, too) together with motivation. The more comfort and hope a student feels, the more motivated to try and learn, accept the teacher and be in class he or she will be. The second theory, cognitive expectancy-value theory, concerns expectancy for success and value in goals. When a student feels she or he can succeed and when she or he values the goal of completing and passing the course, the student becomes more enthusiastic. Therefore, the teacher needs to convey the importance of the subject and course completion. The teacher also needs to encourage students so that they feel they will succeed and complete the course satisfactorily. Velez and Cano tested out these theories with a research project and confirmed them.

A Positive Learning Environment

Learning environment can mean the place of learning, and places vary widely, or classroom/learning setting arrangements. Imagery, groupings, lighting, air quality and temperature, room size, number of students, the use of audioo-visual materials, décor and such all influence learning. They can be direct and indirect influences on learning. The students sense of well-being, belonging, and safety bears influence as does reward for learning and respect among the people in the classroom. Learning environment features and qualities that induce negative feelings and attitudes will inhibit learning. ( Writes Mary Firestone in her lesson, a negative learning environment can contribute largely to low student achievement, poor classroom behavior, student anxiety and even depression. ( Not only does the space need to be properly arranged, but the teacher’s facial expression, tone of voice and body movements can enhance or damage learning. A teacher needs to organize the classroom well and be consciously choose how to behave and speak in order to maximize learning.

The First Day of Class

The first day of class of the term is very important. The student does not just get informed about the class work, schedule and goals, and her/his responsbilities. The student makes contact with the teacher and sizes her or him up. The teacher has a chance to make a good impression and set the tone for the term. The teacher can start right away creating a positive atmosphere and motivating students to learn and complete the course successfully if verbal and nonverbal cues are consciously chosen and used well. The teacher’s professional motivation enhancing behaviors can make all the difference to FL learner, especially.


(1) p. 77, in Velez, J. J. and Cano, J. (2008). The relationship between teacher immediacy and motivation. Journal of Agricultural Education 49 (3), 76-86.

The author

Canadian Barbara Waldern is past President and twice past Vice-President of the Busan-Gyeongnam Chapter of Korea TESOL. This is her eighth year teaching in Korea and sixth working as an Assistant Professor at the Busan University of Foreign Studies. After graduating with a Bachelor Degree in French and English and attaining certification for TESL and TESOL, she taught English to immigrants in Vancouver, British Columbia. With a Masters Degree in anthropology and post-bac diploma in social policy, she was a  researcher in culture, French language education and education policy before going to Korea. She has presented and written academic and creative works many times.