Visuals in language learning

The Power of Visuals


Who is this man? Where is he? What’s he feeling why?


Did you search for descriptive words? Did you think of situations occurring in the world today, like the refugee crisis in Europe? Did your feel for the man?


Images are incredible effective in language teaching:

A picture paints a thousand words


Visuals stimulate the brain directly, so there’s no need to use words to get a message across. Even in Mixed classes all students will be able to start thinking about topics that pictures inspire.


Visual literacy is something we already have. Children read what they see around them from birth, soon recognising symbols. In pre-literate societies pictures were used to tell stories and allow a quick key to who was being portrayed, so the man with all the arrows in his body was easily recognised as Saint Sebastian

and the smallest child in Western society easily recognises these



There are billions of pictures – something for everyone. Even if teachers don’t have access to clip art and all the wonderful tools of the internet, newspapers, magazines, leaflets all provide great images.


They encourage use of language in a meaningful way by encouraging students to imagine, make connections and express their own ideas, allowing for personalisation.


They arouse curiosity.


BUT as teachers we have to ensure we ask the right questions. We can begin by asking students what they see, but it’s important to tap into higher order thinking skills by asking questions that allow students to do more than name things they see.


e.g. Look at the picture.

1. What fruits and vegetables can you see?

2. Which ones do you like?

3. Which are good for you, and why?

4. What can you cook with them?

5. Which grow in your country?


We already ask students to use high order thinking when we ask them to rank (e.g. look at these 10 jobs, which are the most/least dangerous, which are the best/worst paid, which would you most/least want to have) and predict (Look at the pictures. What do you think the text/story will be about?)


We can also encourage students to use other high order thinking skills like


·         applying         

·         analysing

·         seeking information

·         recognising similarities & differences

·         transferring knowledge

·         comparing

·         sequencing

·         making decisions

·         solving problems

·         creative thinking


It’s interesting to see that the UK National Curriculum Report, 1988, lists the following attitudes as ‘important at all stages of education’:


Curiosity, Respect for evidence, Willingness to tolerate uncertainty, Critical reflection

Creativity and inventiveness, Open-mindedness, Co-operation with others

It would be great to see these attitudes constantly encouraged and developed in all classrooms around the world.


So back to food. Here are some examples of other questions we could ask the students to get them thinking. Notice that the range of answers they could give is huge. They just need to be able to explain what they say.

·         You are inviting a famous sports star to dinner. What would you serve?

·         Why are fruits and vegetables good for you?

·         Make a list of what your group has eaten today. How would you rank it in terms of healthiness (from 1 to 10)? Why?

·         Imagine you live in the year 2115. Describe a typical meal.

·         Peter has decided to only eat only fast food three times a day. What do you think will happen to his health?

The more challenging the question, the more it stimulates thought and requires more sophisticated language to answer it.


Video is the next step on from pictures

Many course books now come with videos and YouTube and other websites have a huge range of short effective videos on many topics and it is another powerful tool in the language classroom as

·         Teens are used to it

·         Visual literacy is paramount

·         Listening without seeing is very hard and unnatural

·         It’s a catalyst to other language work

·         There’s an opportunity to challenge stereotypes and learn about the world

·         As children grow their curiosity about the world increases


After watching and doing tasks based on videos in class, students can do further work (alone or in groups) in class or for homework. Homework is great for extension work as students don’t all have to be doing the same thing.

·         Students can make own videos (use smart phones)

·         Research topics they find of interest to them

·         Look at other videos online as homework

·         Read about the topics

·         Discuss themes

·         Do projects

·         Give presentations


We must remember as our learners move from being children to teenagers…

Students’ attention shifts to content areas such as philosophy, sociology, politics and psychology, at least as far as their more general questions are concerned.

Meta-cognition becomes an important focus of students’ attention.

Their language becomes more intellectual.

Kieran Egan


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