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The Picture Perfect Language Class

We need to be aware that not everyone likes to see a million words without any pictorial relief and not everyone can understand complicated oral instructions

Photo Credit : ShutterStock


Ritu, a fifth grader, made a very interesting observation when she said: “When I see a page full of words, my head spins!” Feel like closing the book and looking out of the window!”

I recall a time when at a workshop, I was calling out a set of instructions which the participants had to carry out.  One of the participants, a bright young Biology teacher, sat frozen. I asked, “What’s the matter?”  Quite agitated, he said,” Ma’am, I cannot understand unless I see!” I quickly wrote down the instructions and saw him smile.

Both remarks are quite pertinent to the language class. We need to be aware that not everyone likes to see a million words without any pictorial relief and not everyone can understand complicated oral instructions: audio with visual inputs are more easy to follow.  It was at a pedagogy workshop on how to make learning easy that I realized that words are as abstract as numbers are! A word only stand for something else.  It is not that ‘something else’.  Visuals- be they photographs, pictures or drawings are closer approximations of the real stuff and therefore, are more concrete and easier to understand than words which are abstractions of the real stuff.   What will a child who does not know English read ‘APPLE’ as? 

Are you more verbal or more visual? Do you remember faces or names? I have often been asked such questions and have felt rather confused? I don’t know the answer for I seem to be more at mid-point rather than at any one extreme. At times I do feel that the age old saying “a picture is equal to a million words” could be exaggerated but a good picture truly sticks in the head.  But don’t I capture visuals of words too? Don’t I remember words as a whole rather than as a series of letters?  Having said this don’t I also spell out words and hear them to check their spelling? Or do I write and see if their spelling is right?  I finally give up on deciding.  I seem to be a bit of this and a bit of that!

But the real question is are words and pictures the opposite of each other? Well not really unless you decide to separate them and keep them in tight compartments.  On the contrary, together, they are ever so powerful, each complements the other: a verbal – visual input is ever so powerful and lasting!  Aren’t logos and advertisements very good examples of blending words and pictures? 

Are not real life situations more visual than verbal? Take for instance the market place.  We see so many things out there.  How many of them do we buy after reading just their names? Don’t we want to see the ware?

Why then, is language teaching so predominantly verbal? Why is the word given all the importance and why are pictures just embellishments – bells and whistles- as tinsel is to a diamond! It is time that the language teacher unleashed the power of visuals ,  not only  to make language learning more interesting but also to include the visual right brainer and his / her learning style and to make the lesson more whole brained.  

There are many ways in which visuals can be used productively in the language class.  Let’s examine a few of them.

  • Graphic organizers where data is organized visually can be used to plan compositions and stories.  (insert suitable graphic)
  • Concept maps can be used to teach grammar (insert suitable graphic)
  • Webs diagrams can be used to record and remember words. (insert suitable graphic)
  • Stick diagrams can be used very effectively to teach grammar. (insert suitable graphic)
  • Pictures are very useful to drive home word meanings (insert suitable graphic)
  • Composite pictures serve as visual prompts to get learners to speak or write about something. (insert suitable graphic)
  • Comics with empty call outs can be used as interesting cues for aiding listening. They make listening comprehension activities ever so interesting too. (insert suitable graphic)
  • Vibrant illustrations, digital graphics, and videos bring stories to life and add relief to the abstraction of words.  They also create a compelling interest in the theme of the lesson and go a long way in serving as powerful memory aides. (insert suitable graphic) 

Besides these and other visual inputs, the language class can also whet the interest of learners in drawing and colouring.

  • Students can be used to imagine various scenarios and to illustrate them with suitable drawings 
  • They can be asked to illustrate book covers, compositions, bring verbal dialogues to life by transforming them into comics and to even draw and design attractive posters.  

Visuals serve as very powerful constructivist hooks.   Hooks on which the learner can grapple with new learning, be it a new word, a new grammar rule, or a story. A big box of crayons and sheets of drawing paper are welcome constructivist inclusions in what is considered as a book worm’s paradise – The Language Class room!

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Tags assigned to this article:
teaching language learning Audio visual

Dr. Vasanthi Vasudev

The spokesperson is an author for Pearson India

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