Instructional theory

Communicating, for an instructor, is an essential skill. Improving communication skills depends on an understanding of the process. In this chapter we look at the elements of the communication process and the barriers to successful communication.

Basic elements of the communication process

Communication takes place when one person transmits ideas or feelings to another person or group. Its effectiveness is measured by the similarity between the idea transmitted and the idea received19.

The basic process of communication is composed of three elements:

  • The source – sender, speaker, writer, instructor, transmitter, etc.
  • The symbols – words, signs, actions, music, etc.
  • The receiver – listener, reader, student, etc.

These elements are interrelated, and that which affects one influences the others. If a listener has difficulty in understanding the symbols a speaker is using and indicates confusion, the speaker may become puzzled and uncertain, losing control of ideas. Communication effectiveness is diminished. On the other hand, when a listener reacts favourably, a speaker is encouraged, and force is added to communication. Communication is a complicated two-way process.

The source

The effectiveness of a person acting in the role of communicator is related to at least three basic factors.

First, their ability to select and use language influences their ability to select meaningful symbols for the listener or reader. For example, if you want to teach Greek it's useful to know the Greek alphabet.

Second, communicators consciously or unconsciously reveal attitudes about themselves, about the ideas they are trying to transmit, and about their receivers. These attitudes must be positive if they are to communicate effectively. They must indicate that they believe their message is important. Communicators must make it clear to their listeners or readers that they believe there is a need to know the ideas presented.

Third, successful communicators speak or write from a broad background. Communicators must exercise great care to make certain they communicate ideas and feelings that are meaningful to their receivers. Often a speaker or writer will depend on a narrow, highly technical or professional background, with its associated vocabulary, which is meaningful only to others of a similar background.

Reliance on technical language to express ideas often impedes effective communication.


At its basic level, communication is achieved through the use of simple oral and visual codes. The letters of our alphabet when translated into words are a basic code. Common gestures and facial expressions and body language form another20. Words and gestures may be projected in isolation, but ideas are communicated only when symbols are combined into meaningful wholes as sentences, paragraphs and chapters. Each part is important for effective communication.

Communicators must carefully select ideas if they are to convey messages which receivers can react to and understand. They must determine which ideas are best suited to starting and concluding the communication, and which ideas clarify, emphasise, define, limit and explain – all of which form the basis for the effective transmission of ideas from source to receiver.

The development of ideas culminates in the choice of medium best suited for transmission. Most frequently, communicators select the channels of hearing and seeing. Occasionally, the channel of feeling, by touching or manipulating, can be used effectively. The most successful communicator, however, uses a variety of channels.


Communication succeeds only in relation to the reaction of the receiver.

When the receivers react with understanding and change their behaviour accordingly, then – and only then – has communication been effective21. To understand effective communication, at least three characteristics of receivers must be understood19.

First, the receiver's ability to question and comprehend the ideas that have been transmitted. Communicators can capitalise on this by providing an atmosphere which encourages questioning. Communication is most effective when the feedback loop is available to obtain further clarity to ensure the message is correctly received.

Second, the receiver's attitude, which may be one of resistance, willingness or passive neutrality. Whatever the attitude, communicators must gain the receiver's attention and then retain it. Generally, the more varied the communicative approach the more successful they will be in this respect.

Third, the receiver's background, experience and education define the target at which communication must be aimed. Communicators must assess their receiver's knowledge and use that assessment as a guide for selecting techniques for transmission. The major barriers to effective communication are usually found in this particular area.

Barriers to effective communication

The nature of language and the way it is used often lead to misunderstandings. These misunderstandings stem primarily from three barriers to effective communication:

  • Lack of a common core of experience
  • Confusion between the symbol and the thing symbolised
  • Use of abstractions.

Lack of a common core of experience

Probably the greatest single barrier to effective communication is the lack of common experience between communicator and receiver. Communication can be effective only to the extent that the experiences – physical, mental or emotional – of the people concerned are similar22. Words do not transport meanings from speaker to listener in the same manner as a truck carries bricks from one location to another. Words never carry precisely the same meaning from the mind of the communicator to that of the receiver.

Consider your own experience as a communicator. Recall telling someone of your experiences on holiday. Although you tried to describe the experience vividly, you may have felt that the receiver didn't get the full picture of your holiday. Words, spoken or written, do not transfer meanings; they are merely stimuli that a communicator uses to arouse a response in the receiver. The nature of the response is determined by the receiver's past experience with the words and the things to which they refer20. These experiences give the words their meaning – which is in the mind of the receiver, not in the words themselves.

Words cannot communicate meaning unless the listener or reader has had some experience with the concepts or objects to which the words refer23. Consider the effect of your communication if your listener had never been on a holiday.

Confusion between the symbol and the thing symbolised

Words are simply representations. They represent anything that exists or that is experienced. Consider language as a map. A useful map accurately represents some specified territory; language should correspond to the objects or concepts that it represents. Like a map that contains errors, a statement that contains inaccuracies implies a relationship that does not exist.

Use of abstractions

Concrete words refer to objects that we can experience directly. Abstract words, on the other hand, stand for ideas that cannot be directly experienced, for things that do not call forth mental images in the mind of the receiver. For example, assuming a similar core of experience, if a communicator is discussing a particular fighter aircraft and refers to it as the stealth-fighter, the listeners immediately get a mental image of this aircraft (clearly the accuracy of that image will be affected by experience). The name stealth-fighter represents a concrete reality that can be seen, heard and touched. If, however, the communicator uses just the words fighter aircraft the listeners do not necessarily form a specific mental image of the stealth-fighter because there are a number of aircraft that fit that description. If the communicator uses just the word aircraft, the term is so abstract that the listeners cannot form a mental image of the stealth-fighter at all.

Abstract words do not bring forth specific items of experience in the minds of receivers. Although abstractions are convenient and useful, they can lead to misunderstandings. When abstractions are used in communication, they should be linked with specific experiences through examples and illustrations. The level of abstraction should be reduced wherever possible by using concrete and specific words24. In this way the communicator narrows and gains better control of the image produced in the mind of the listener or reader.

The teaching process