Is your voice in control? What sound does your voice make? What kind of impression does your voice make? Lesley Hendy explains how the way you move can affect the quality of your voice. You will also discover more about how to use the acoustics of a room to your advantage and how to vary the tone and pitch of your voice to increase your vocal ‘tool box’.
When working with teachers on their voices, classroom management is always an issue. Young people’s listening skills appear to be a common problem and teachers struggle to make themselves heard in some classrooms. Difficulties in class management can result from the lack of knowledge teachers have about the effect of their voice on their pupils. A voice and body that appear uncontrolled can often lead to uninvited chatter and ‘irritating misbehavior’.
Posture and body language
Your posture whilst you are teaching can have an impact on the richness of your voice and the way it projects in the classroom. As well as considering the impact that your body position has on your voice, you can also use body language to give messages to the children as you teach and therefore rely less on your voice, removing some of the potential strain. Here are some tips.
1. It is important not to lift the chin up or push your face forward, as this affects the position of the larynx. Teachers do have a tendency to push their face and neck towards the back of the room. We erroneously think those at the back will hear better! In fact it raises the larynx and makes your voice thinner and more difficult to hear.
2. When turning to write on a whiteboard, avoid talking at the board. Turn to address the class and tell them your intention before re-turning to write it up. Unless you have an extremely powerful and well-articulated voice, pupils will not hear what you are saying when you are facing away from them. Also resist writing and twisting to talk to the class at the same time, as this puts your larynx under great pressure.
3. Too much movement while you are speaking makes what you are saying difficult to process. A good principle to follow is: stand still to speak and move in the silence.
4. To gain pupils’ respect, don’t just rely on your voice. You also need to look the part. Always try to occupy your space so that your presence in the room demands attention. To do this, make sure your stance gives you the most grounded base.
5. Your feet should be in alignment with your hip bones (those bones that stick out when you sunbathe). Placing a clenched fist between the knees usually gives the right width for the feet. You also need to have relaxed shoulders. Lift up your shoulders to your ears, round them backwards and melt them downwards to release tension.
6. Consider whether your body language could be sending out the wrong messages. Arms folded over the chest, legs crossed at the ankles, weight over to one side, arms clasped behind the back or tension through the body, can give signals to those watching that you speak for a prolonged time. Your body should never give the impression that you are not in charge.
7. You can help yourself by already being in a classroom before the pupils enter. If you are lucky enough to have your own room, always make sure you are there before the class arrives. Allowing pupils of whatever age to colonize the space first makes it their territory. It is far more difficult to gain their attention and it puts more pressure on your voice if you have to enter the room after the class has taken up residence.
8. When using gestures, make sure they have a focus. Hand movements with your elbows tight against your waist lack authority. Flapping hands cause confusion. Whenever possible, make your gestures are from the shoulder. If you are pointing something out on the whiteboard/chalkboard or on a wall chart, your hand should be strong and focused on what you want the students to see.
9. Think carefully about where you stand in the room. Try to avoid standing or sitting for long periods of time in a position where you cannot see the whole class. Standing silhouetted against a window also causes problems. This is not always easy if you teach in a classroom with two or three window walls, but even those of us who do not wear glasses will to some extent lip-read. Most people, including youngsters, find it easier to hear when they can see the whole of a person’s face. Very young pupils in particular need to read expression as well as hear what you are saying.
All of the above tips will directly or indirectly impact on the use and care of your voice.
Environment and acoustics
It may be worthwhile to take time to look at your teaching environment and the acoustics of the room(s) in which you teach. Some spaces are difficult to speak in, e.g. classrooms with too much glass, metal chairs and tables scraping on synthetic flooring, echoing corridors, PE and games situations, laboratories, swimming pools and computer suites. In swimming pools, for example, the chemicals used to clean the water may irritate the vocal folds. Chemistry labs have similar problems, as does the ozone-laden air surrounding a bank of computers. Felt-tip pens for whiteboards, or chalk used on chalkboards, can also have adverse effects on a person’s voice. In these types of conditions, it is sometimes quite a strain to speak for a prolonged time.
Is the room you teach in very dry? If it has blow-air heating, not only can the air become very dry, but also it will create dust that is constantly circulating. You must make sure that in these conditions you are well-hydrated. It is recommended that professional speakers should drink two liters of water per day. As you are a professional voice user, think carefully about the amount of water you drink (or do not drink) during the day.
The acoustics of rooms vary according to their space and design. The existence of too many windows not only causes environmental problems (too hot in summer, too cold in winter), but the glass itself has an effect on the voice. Talking while facing a window makes the sound ‘shatter’ and difficult to hear. Try standing in your room and talk towards the window. Change your position so that you are facing a wall and notice the difference in sound.
Some rooms will have a ‘ringing’ quality, whilst others are ‘dead’ and uncompromising. This depends greatly on the furniture, the wall and floor coverings and the height of the ceiling. Assembly halls, gyms and any other large space will have their own acoustics. It is often true of very large spaces that there will be several areas where the acoustics change. This is especially true if it is an old hall with a very high ceiling and arches. As suggested above, go into the space and investigate the ‘ringing’ and ‘dead’ areas. If you are having problems in a hall, changing where you stand might solve the problem.
In all these spaces it is more effective to slow down your speech rather than speed it up. Pupils become disruptive if they cannot process what you are saying. As Rogerson and Dodd1 (2005) observe:
‘In the presence of impaired voice quality the reprimand you have a greater vocal ‘tool study indicates additional processing loads are box’. The use of a slightly harder tone present and processing time for prior analysis is, as a result, likely to be increased and quality impeded.
…Children exposed to impaired vocal presentation will therefore be disadvantaged, as normal integration processes will be interrupted.’
We must never underestimate the effect that the voice has on the listener. It does matter.
Use of tone and pitch
It is not only our physical presence that is important. Pupils are also affected by the sound we make. As has already been suggested, voice quality is very important for the processing of information. Martin and Darnley2 (2004) state:
‘Voice quality and vocal profile contribute in large measure to an individual’s identity… Voice quality is very influential in the impressions that individuals give and receive.’
So what kind of impression is your voice making? Do you overuse a high-pitched, hard-toned, shouty voice or is your voice in control? What sound does your voice make?
A person with an untrained voice will often resort to using ‘throat squeeze’ to make the voice louder. (Throat constrictions can take several forms but the most common is the ‘throat squeeze’. This is caused by the misuse of pressure in the throat muscles, thus causing a narrowing of the airway. The lack of connection between the sound and the breath is the most common cause.) This kind of voice production eventually can lead to nodules and voice loss. The throat (pharynx) and the mouth ability to change shape, giving an infinite number of possibilities for the adjustment of sound. But too much tension in the larynx and the tongue leads to the loss of sound and its variety.
A properly-placed voice conveys control and authority. Each voice is different, as each has its own natural pitch. This is the note around which your voice is tuned, very similar to a tuned musical instrument. As Hendy3 (2005) observes: ‘Each person has a unique basic sound to their voice that depends greatly on the shape and size of the resonators and the general positioning of the tongue.’
To make your voice louder, instead of pushing from the throat, use good breath support and never raise the pitch. Pitch and loudness have no correlation. We talk about ‘raising the voice’ to be heard but this will only lead to a tightening of the voice and vocal problems.
By developing an interesting tonal range (eg a softer, friendlier tone when eliciting answers in Q&A sessions or a harsh tone to reprimand) you have a greater vocal ‘toolbox’. The use of a slightly harder tone (what could be described as a matter-of-fact voice), when giving instructions, means that pupils will be given vocal clues to what is expected. Using a small upward glide when giving instructions helps to keep the ear of the listeners engaged. In other words, they hear ‘there is more to
come’. A falling glide indicates to the ear that you have finished. You need to develop a tonal range that never gives away that you do not mean what you say.
Are you opening your mouth wide enough to be heard? Are you missing the consonants off the ends of words or trailing away at the ends of sentences? Pupils cannot process words or sentences that lose their endings. You need to pay attention to your formation of vowels and consonants. It is often the lack of a correct consonant at the end of a word that leads to confusion. Consonants can only be formed if the tongue is flexible and agile, the lips are mobile, the jaw has the ability to release and the nasal passages are clear and open. Teacher talk is greatly enhanced by using a variety of pause, pace and inflection. Rapid speech excludes variation and is very difficult to understand.
Think about good examples of speaking that you have recognized among professional voice users, on radio or television for instance. This does not include actors, who operate in an artificial situation, not using their own words. Are there any role-models among your colleagues? Whose voice is comfortable to listen to and makes you want to hear more of what they have to say? Do they have the same effect in all circumstances?
Think carefully about why this is so and increase your awareness of the effects –good and detrimental – that a speaker’s voice can have on the listener. We must learn to listen to our own voices and to pay attention to our body language. TEX
- turn and face the class before you speak
- drink two liters of water per day
- develop an interesting tone range
- slow your speech in large rooms
- use good breath support and never raise the pitch
- open your mouth wide enough to be heard.
- Rogerson, J and Dodd, B. (2005) ‘Is There an Effect of Dysphonic Teachers’ Voices on Children’s Processing of Spoken Language?’ In Journal of Voice, Vol. 19, No 1, pp.47-60
- Martin, S and Darnley, L. (2004) The Teaching Voice second edition, Whurr Publishers
- Hendy, L (2005) ‘A Voice for Life’ series. In The Primary English Magazine, Vol. 10 No. 3, pp.15-17
For further information about voice training visit: www.voicecare.org.uk.