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Lesson Plan

Nonverbal Communication: Reading Body Language

Lesson Plan Type Standard
Estimated Time 1 day
Grade 9th-12th Grades
Author Stacy Thomas-McGee

Overview  •  Standards  •  Instructional Plan  •  Documents



Two to three video clips that are school/age appropriate through which students can make interpretations about conversational content from watching body language alone.  Nonverbals need to be strong enough in each clip to allow student predictions about plot, character emotions/attitudes, and relationships.  It also helps if movies are old enough that students are likely to be unfamiliar with them.  Teachers can choose their own clips, but here are some good examples:

1. Girls Just Want to Have Fun (2-minute opening scene of student giving a class speech - played by Sarah Jessica Parker)

2. Joy Luck Club (2.5-minute clip of family having dinner - daughter brings home boyfriend for the first time; played by Tamlyn Tomita and Christopher Rich)

3. Shadowlands (2-minute clip where college professor visits student at his apartment/dorm about stealing books).  There is more than one movie with this title.  You are looking for the life story of C. S. Lewis starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger.


This activity itself is meant to be a hook lesson to introduce nonverbal communication before moving into a larger unit on delivery.  Tell the students that they are going to be playing a game, and you want to see if the class will win.  Be excited about this being a competition.  Explain the rules: They will watch a series of brief movie clips without sound.  Their challenge is to figure out what is happening entirely from nonverbal communication/body language & other visual cues from the characters and their surroundings.  Can they:

  • Describe the main character(s): personality, hobbies/interests, emotions in the moment, etc.?  Who are these people?  How can they tell?
  • Guess what is being said or the topic of conversation?
  • Determine the relationship between the key characters or how they feel about each other?

Tell the students that they must be able to support their guesses with nonverbal details from the video clips (such as specific gestures or facial expressions).  After the class discussion, you will replay the video with sound to see if they were right (or how close they got).  If they guess accurately, they win the game!

Before beginning, ask the students to raise their hands if they have seen the movie from which you are about to show a clip.  If any student has seen the movie before, tell them that they have to sit out that round of the game.  They don't want to be a spoiler.  In these situations, those few students who already have seen the movie are playing on the side of the teacher, meaning they get to sit back and watch the others guess while being in the know.  Once the others are done guessing, you'll let these students judge if the class has won the game and then explain the movie (but only if they can refrain from spoiling the discussion).  If you pick old enough films (or independent films), this cuts down on this situation.

Lesson/Guided Practice

1. Make sure all sound/volume is on mute before starting the first video clip, or the activity will not work.  Instruct the students that they also must be silent while watching the video clips.  There will be plenty of time to talk after viewing. 

2. Play the first video.  For streaming Girls Just Want to Have Fun start at 25 seconds and play until 2:20 (based on Amazon times).  This is the opening scene of the movie.  (YouTube also has this clip.)

3. Discuss student observations.  Teacher should have specific moments/gestures from the video that he/she is prepared to highlight and ask about if students don't bring up themselves.  It can be helpful to preview some questions with the students before watching to give them something specific to look for while viewing the clip, especially on the first one.  Remind them that they must support all their answers with nonverbal details from the movie.  Discussion ideas for Girls Just Want to Have Fun:

  • Does the main character seem prepared for her presentation?  How can you tell?  (Answer: No.  She is very fidgety and nervous.  Ask the students to describe all the ways they can tell she is nervous/unprepared from her body language.)
  • What do you think she might be talking about?  (It is OK if students aren't sure at this point.)
  • Does the girl seem to know her classmates very well?  Are they friends?  How can you tell?  (Two girls in the front are gossiping and making fun of her.  Teacher has to intervene.)
  • What about the girl in the back of the room?  How does her behavior change from the start to the end of the clip?  Are these two girls friends?  (The girl in the back is played by Helen Hunt.  She is completely disengaged from class and off task at the beginning, but the speaker grabs her attention by the end.  Students will usually say that these two girls aren't currently friends but are probably going to become friends.  The reason they usually give for guessing that they aren't currently friends is that if their friend was up giving a presentation then they would pay attention and not goof off.  The teacher can ask this question directly if not offered by the students: How would you behave if your friend was up speaking to the class?  What would you be doing?  Is the girl in the back acting that way?  Also, ask what nonverbal things does the girl in the back do to show that her attention has been grabbed?  How do you know that she has started to pay attention?  Answer: she makes eye contact/looks forward and smiles.)
  • Can you figure out one hobby of the student speaking based on her body language?  (Answer: The girl makes a ballet pose with her feet out of nerves.  She is a dancer, so it is not surprising that she would default to a comfort position when feeling uncomfortable speaking in front of an audience.  This is a good question to give to the students before watching.  Tell them they need to look for body language that gives away one of her extracurricular activities.)
  • The camera scans the girl's full body to show her uniform.  Do you notice anything about her clothes or how she wears her uniform?  What might that tell us about her or her family?  (Answer: Her skirt length is down to her knees.  Shirt is neatly tucked.  Everything is neat/ironed.  You can ask the students what this might tell us about her parents since it is rare for a kid to be the one to hem or iron their clothes.  In the movie, the main character's father is a military man, which she mentions in her speech.  She comes from a strict, conservative family.)
  • So, if the speaker is unprepared for her assignment, doesn't seem to have a lot of friends in the room, and comes from a strict family that would expect more from her in terms of her school work, what might she be talking about?  Why do you think she isn't prepared for this speech?  (If one of your students hasn't already guessed the answer, this will usually get somebody to the idea that maybe she is a new student.  This is the case.  The teacher has asked her to introduce herself to the class as the new student to the school.  So, this is an impromptu presentation where the speaker didn't have time to prepare.)

4. After the discussion, replay the video with sound so students can see how accurate they were in their predictions.  The clip from Girls Just Want to Have Fun is good for getting students to pay closer attention to their own body language when speaking - focus is inward on self as the presenter.  The next clip from Joy Luck Club is good for getting students to pay attention to others and the nonverbal cues around them - focus is outward on audience.

5. Put the sound back on mute and play second video clip.  For streaming Joy Luck Club begin at 43:40 (when couple is coming up the stairs for the dinner party) and end at 46:15 (when the dinner is over).  Based on Amazon times.  (YouTube also has this clip.)  This scene begins with a little girl running up the stairs to announce the arrival of the couple.  Start the video clip after this child is off screen as she does not contribute to the discussion and will become a distractor if shown.  Discussion ideas for Joy Luck Club:

  • What is happening?  (Answer: Students will quickly say that the girlfriend is bringing her boyfriend home to meet the family.  Have the parents met the boyfriend before?  How can you tell?  There is a formal handshake when they meet, which isn't common when greeting familiar family and friends.)
  • Let's list out all the mistakes made by the boyfriend at dinner and then go through each of them.  (Answer: 1. He gulps down his wine and pours a second glass; 2. He scoops off a large portion of a group dish meant for the whole table and then picks out the shrimp for himself before passing it around; 3. He fails at using chopsticks; and 4. He pours soy sauce all over another group dish, insulting the cook.)
  • If his only mistake was the chopsticks, do you think this would be forgivable?  Which of his mistakes appears to be the worst to the family?  (Answer: The soy sauce.  Family members gasp when he pours it on the food.)
  • Does he seem aware of the mistakes he is making?  Do you think he is being disrespectful on purpose?  (Answer: Not really.  He is smiling and being friendly.  He remains positive in his body language throughout the whole scene.  So, if he is well-intentioned, then why is he behaving this way?  Students usually will say that he doesn't know the culture, which is a reasonable answer.  Teacher also can ask how it might feel to meet your significant other's parents/family for the first time even if from the same culture.  This can be stressful and cause somebody to get inside their own head because you obviously would want to make a good first impression.  The nerves make you try too hard and get in your own way, producing the opposite effect from the one desired.  If you ever find yourself in an unfamiliar situation where you are nervous and not sure how to behave, how can you avoid making a lot of mistakes?  For example, how could the boyfriend have figured out not to pour himself a second glass of wine?  This requires paying attention to the nonverbal cues in your surrounding environment.  Other people's body language can be your guide.  In the movie clip, everybody else at the dinner table had only taken a small sip of their wine and all stare at the boyfriend when he gulps his drink.  This should tell him to slow down and not pour a second glass if he were being attentive to the body language of those around him.  Reading your audience helps you adjust when presenting yourself.)
  • Is the girlfriend aware of the mistakes her boyfriend is making?  (Answer: Yes.  She is looking down into her rice bowl trying to avoid eye contact with family members.)
  • Are these mistakes why the mother dislikes him or did she dislike him from the start?  (Answer: This bring students back to the beginning of the clip.  The mom seems to dislike him from the start.  How can we tell?  Teacher can discuss fake vs. genuine smiling.  How do we know if a smile is fake?  It is hard to smile authentically with a closed mouth.  The mother's lips are pierced tightly together when she smiles and her eyes are glaring/cold.  This is important to contrast with the next question/last part of the clip.)
  • How does the mom feel about the last dish that she brings out to the table?  (Answer: She is clearly proud of it.  How do we know it is special?  It is brought out last.  She carefully walks it out and delicately presents it to the dinner guest.  There is almost a cradling aspect to how she is holding it.  She also smiles genuinely at the boyfriend for the first time all night when presenting it.  How do we know this smile is genuine?  Her mouth is now open and her eyes are bright.)

6. After the discussion, replay the video with sound so students can see how accurate they were in their predictions.  Before replaying, the teacher may want to explain the following to the students to aid in understanding of the clip: This clip is a memory or flashback of the girlfriend.  She is going to tell us what happened through a voice over as she recalls the events of that night.  She will say that she tried to prepare her boyfriend for the dinner by teaching him "the Emily Post of Chinese manners."  Emily Post is famous for writing books on good manners and how to behave at dinner parties.  So, the girlfriend tried to prepare her boyfriend and then talks about all the ways that she failed in the voice over.  After watching with sound, this clip from Joy Luck Club lends itself well to follow-up discussion.  Ideas:

  • We now know why the boyfriend poured soy sauce on that last dish.  Why did he do it?  (Answer: The mom when presenting the dish says to him: "This dish isn't salty enough.  It is too bad to eat.  But, please have some."  He pours the sauce on it trying to help out based on what the mother has said about the food.  This is a case where verbal communication and nonverbal communication are in conflict or contradict.  How was the boyfriend supposed to respond?  He was supposed to say: "Oh, no.  This food is delicious."  Teacher can ask students if they've ever been in a situation where somebody's words didn't match their body language.  Examples: You ask a depressed friend how they are doing and that friend says in a low, sad voice while slumped over with eyes on the floor: "I'm fine."  Clearly the friend isn't fine despite his/her words.  Or, when somebody is fishing for a compliment like the mom in the video clip: Your friend just got a haircut and says, "I'm not sure if I like it.  It think it looks bad."  What kind of response is probably expected?  Not: "Oh yeah, you look terrible.  What did that hairdresser do to you?  It's awful.  I'd want to wear a sack over my head."  Your friend probably is looking for reassurance that they look good and their new haircut is actually nice.  So, which is more honest: the verbal or the nonverbal communication?  It is easy for words to be dishonest.  It is much harder to lie with your body language.  One of the reasons paying attention to nonverbal cues is so important in reading a situation correctly.)

Independent Practice/Assessment

7. Depending on the amount of discussion generated by the class, there only may be time in class for two video clips, and the activity may end here with the final takeaway being from Joy Luck Club about why reading nonverbal cues is so important.  This is meant to be a one-day activity, so OK to stop lesson here.  For assessment/closure, students could be provided with an exit ticket where they are asked to explain the importance of nonverbal communication in their own words.  (See exit ticket example under documents.)  However, it is helpful to have a third clip ready depending on the pacing of discussion, which can vary from period to period.  Remember to put the sound back on mute.  For streaming Shadowlands begin at 49:55 (when the older man played by Anthony Hopkins is walking through the entryway to the younger man's apartment).  Avoid saying "professor" and "student" because you then give away the game.  End the clip when the older man leaves at 51:55 (based on Amazon times).  YouTube also has the full movie.  Start time for clip on YouTube is 48:55; end at 50:50.  This last clip is hard, and teachers may prefer to find a different movie.  One benefit to the clip, though, is that students have never seen this film.  So, even if you had a kid who had to sit out the first two rounds because he/she had seen the other movies, they will be able to play this round.  Let the students know that you are not going to guide the discussion as much as the other clips, and they probably won't figure out what is being discussed.  The students take this as a challenge.  Let them know that it is OK if they get wrong the content of the conversation they are about to watch.  They can still win by guessing as to the emotions and personalities of the characters even if they cannot figure out why these two people are interacting or what they are talking about in the scene.  After watching the scene on silent, you can have the students get in pairs or small groups to independently answer these questions while teacher circulates around the room and then have the groups share out their conclusions.  It would be helpful to have the questions printed on a slip of paper to give each group for their discussion and for jotting down notes (see Shadowlands questions under documents).  Tell them that the group with the greatest support from the video (specific nonverbal details) is the game winner.  Discussion ideas for Shadowlands:

  • Does the young man know the older man is coming to visit him?  (Answer: No.  His face clearly has a surprised expression when he opens the door, which he only cracks to check who is knocking.)
  • Is the young man happy to see the older man?  Is he a welcomed visitor?  (Answer: No.  The young man reluctantly opens the door and never invites the older man to sit down.  Instead, the older man stands with his back up against the door and never removes his coat.  They are both uncomfortable.)
  • Can you describe the young man's personality or tell us anything about his life based on his body language and his environment/surroundings?  (Students will often say that he seems sarcastic or defensive.  What about his nonverbal communication makes you think that?  Also, some may notice that he is wearing a scarf indoors.  What does that tell us about him?  Maybe he is poor and cannot afford his electricity bill?  Some may notice that his room is full of books and/or that his room is super small.  What does that tell us about him?  They might guess from this that he is a student.)
  • Can you make a guess as to what these two men are talking about?  Why do you think the older man is there?  What do you think is the tone or attitude of their conversation?  (Students will sometimes say the younger man seems defensive or is trying to explain something.  Ask them why they think this.  His rapid hand gestures while looking at the floor/avoiding eye contact can lead to this conclusion.  Students commonly guess that either A. the older man is a detective investigating a crime or B. the older man is a relative/father who hasn't seen the younger man in a while.  While neither is correct, there are elements that make these guesses close, which is explained below.)

8. After the discussion, replay the video with sound so students can see how accurate they were in their predictions.  Sometimes students are disappointed that this conversation isn't racier (not Sherlock Holmes type stuff).  The professor is C. S. Lewis when he was teaching at Oxford ... you can ask the students if they have ever read The Chronicles of Narnia.  The movie is the story of his life.  In this scene, he is visiting a student who has failed to show up for class for quite a long time.  The professor has recently seen the student in a bookstore stealing books and decided to visit him to check if he needed any financial help with school.  The young man is defensive, tries to explain his actions, and tells the professor that he doesn't need his help.  If your students guessed that this was a crime investigation, in some ways that isn't far off.  While the older man isn't a detective, he is going to the younger man's house about a crime: stealing books.  If your students guessed that he was an estranged relative, that isn't far off either.  While the older man isn't the younger man's father, he is an authority figure in the young man's life who hasn't seen him in a long time and who is trying to reconnect with him/rebuild their relationship.  The young man is trying to defend himself: Explain his passion for reading to justify him stealing books.  You will probably need to point out to the kids what they got right because sometimes what is literally happening in the scene makes them not realize that they still read the body language quite accurately.


As mentioned above, students can be asked to explain the importance of nonverbal communication in their own words or the reasons they need to pay close attention to body language.  This could be in the form of a written exit slip that they hand the teacher on the way out the door (if finishing after Joy Luck Club) or a final question they are asked to discuss in their small groups (if finishing after Shadowlands).  Example exit ticket is available under documents.

Additional Discussion Notes

As part of the class discussion, the teacher may point out that movie directors are highly aware of how nonverbal cues create impressions of people.  It is how they build their characters, rightly or wrongly.  It can become stereotyping.  For example, in a lot of teen movies: How do we know who is the smart girl? Some typical indicators are that she wears glasses, wears less fashionable clothes, and her hair is usually pulled back/up instead of styled down.  None of these things actually have anything to do with somebody's intelligence but they have become easy nonverbal social cues in films that movie directors rely on to quickly help the audience know their characters without needing much elaboration.  Another example: How do we know the bad boy?  He might have piercings, wear a leather jacket, etc.  The movie The Breakfast Club is a classic example of this character typecasting through nonverbal cues.  Movie directors couldn't effectively employ such tactics in their films if the audience wasn't jumping to the judgments they are anticipating.  While it would be ideal if we were always judged by our internal character rather than external cues, the real world doesn't always work this way.  Understanding the influence of nonverbal cues allows individuals control over how they want to be perceived.  This is why somebody might wear a business suit to a job interview or a debate tournament, even though clothing doesn't actually improve your qualifications for a position or make your logic any more sound.  It also can make us aware of the dangers of jumping to conclusions about others before truly getting to know them.  Deeper understanding of nonverbal communication, then, both empowers and cautions us.

Follow-Up: Additional Independent Practice & Other Resources

  • Round Table Impromptu Speeches: A good follow-up to this lesson is to have students do round table impromptu speaking circles the next day with peers to evaluate each other's nonverbal communication when put on the spot similar to the speaker in Girls Just Want to Have Fun.  See speaking prompts and further instructions under documents.  The goal is for the students to help each other identify what are their nervous habits: cracking knuckles, looking at the floor, pulling on their clothes or fidgeting with jewelry, shuffling their feet, etc.  How this works: put students in small groups of 3-5 people.  Given each of them a slip of speaking topics that should be easy to prepare off the top of their head.  Examples: If you could have any superpower, what would it be and why?  If you could vacation anywhere, where would you go and why?  If you could have dinner with a famous person, who would you choose and why?  What would you want to eat for your last supper and why?  Each student should get at least three choices.  Have them each pick one topic from their slip.  Give each student a notecard, and put on a timer for 2-minutes to let them brainstorm what they want to say.  Once time is up, have them each stand up and present their speech to their group in turn.  The peers are to give feedback after each speech as to what nonverbal habits they noticed.  Instruct the students that it is OK if they are nervous or fidgeting today.  The goal is to figure out what are their unique nervous habits so that they are more aware of them in the future.  It is hard to improve as a speaker without first noticing what might be unconscious nonverbal behavior.  It is also good to review constructive methods/tone for giving feedback before starting.  This continues the independent practice for the students of noticing the nonverbal communication around them as peer observers/critics while also encouraging them to focus on their own areas for improvement in body language when presenting.
  • Ted Talk has a great video entitled "Body Language Shapes Who You Are" by social psychologist Amy Cuddy.  The video explains how body language not only impacts how we perceive others and how they perceive us, but it also can change how we feel about ourselves.  For example, a strong posture can have an emotional impact on a person, making you feel more powerful and confident.  Smiling may actually help us feel happier.  Amy Cuddy says that while our minds and emotions can change our body language, our body language may also be able to change how we think and feel.  We may be able to fake it until we make it in terms of things like presenting ourselves with confidence.