‘…unless the stuff of the senses remains present, the mind has nothing to think with.’
(Arnheim 1969: 01)
Since I started teaching in 2012, I’ve begun to notice a disparity between the way grammar is presented in course books and the way the brain processes information, which suggests that learners could benefit from more extensive use of graphic representations of grammar patterns. My own learning experiences, my classroom practice, and the writings of other practitioners illustrate the benefit of graphic frameworks, and suggest that teachers should be encouraging learners to engage with, and even create, visual representations of information to aid learning.
In my own teaching I tend to take a communicative approach, with a focus on meaning before form, but I believe that many learners also benefit from explicit instruction and analysis of form, be it incidental or otherwise. When teaching grammar, I ordinarily take an inductive approach, but depending on learner needs, I usually allocate time for deductive presentation of rules or patterns.
When using course books, however, I am often disheartened by the dull, linear, static fashion in which grammar is presented in reference sections, perhaps because I frequently utilise visuals in my own learning. Research on learning styles indicates that no single method or book suits the needs of all learners (Lightbown & Spada 2013: 84), implying that a variety of approaches should be taken in the presentation of materials. And yet, grammar rules are consistently presented solely as written text, with little or no aesthetic, graphic support.
While such reference sections are formatted into different areas and use different fonts to highlight certain points, they are distinctly lacking in ‘graphics’, by which I mean the use of diagrams, shapes, and colours to support comprehension of the language form and meaning (see Illustration 1).
Illustration 1: Future Perfect – example of the use of ‘graphics’ in grammar references. Jade Blue 2016.
The complex particularities, practicalities, and possibilities of the language classroom has led to the autonomous, context‐sensitive, post‐method teacher who draws on their own experiences and beliefs to inform their practice (Kumaravadivelu 2009: 162‐184). But the complexity of the language classroom requires of teachers not only context‐ sensitivity and responsiveness, but also insight into a variety of classroom strategies that are considered generally effective for learning – a toolkit, if you will.
In identifying tried-and-tested strategies, Evidence Based Teaching (EBT) provides such a toolkit. While at first glance EBT sounds somewhat clinical, what appeals to me is not only that it is based on evidence, but also that it does not disregard the value of intuition.
One particular strategy of EBT is graphic representations (which involve learners creating personalised diagrams to represent what they are learning), which educational researcher Robert Marzano identified as increasing students’ achievements by more than two grades (Petty 2014:77). Very rarely, in day‐to‐day life, do we read anything that isn’t broken up graphically. If this is how we’re used to processing information, it follows that this is how we should be presenting information in the classroom. There is a wealth of different types of visuals, but for the purposes of this paper, I use the term ‘graphics’ to describe didactic, non‐mimetic visuals which aim to support learning and facilitate language-processing.
The educator James Britton refers to the ‘non‐verbal background of language’, suggesting that much effort is required in order for words to do justice to the speaker’s concept (Britton 1982:142): ‘A picture paints a thousand words’. The world of ELT is not short of imagery, but didactic imagery seems almost entirely neglected in grammar teaching materials. Perhaps this is due to a fear of misinterpretation. Like words, images are open to interpretation, particularly so in the realm of semiotics where cultural factors come into play. They risk muddying rather than clearing the waters. But misinterpretation is arguably a step in the right direction, opening up a dialogue through which to evaluate language, and better than a complete absence of understanding.
In thinking about the role of graphics in ELT, I began reflecting on my own teaching practice, and was able to identify several examples of how I was already utilising graphic representations. These include:
- Asking Business English clients to describe a process in their work, using the whiteboard to draw and organise stages. As the learner provides the information, they are required to be actively involved in the creation of the organiser.
- Using mind maps with learners on study skills courses, beginning with a brainstorming exercise on how to study and then organising learners’ ideas onto the whiteboard in the form of a mind map. This segues into the topic of mind maps as a study tool and discussion on how they can aid study (as a way of organising lexis and vocabulary, for example). Learners then create their own mind maps.
- Providing a ‘tree’ framework for review of vocabulary and lexis: learners collaboratively decide how to group and organise lexical items. This organiser then becomes a process as learners add more items throughout the course, building new onto existing knowledge.
Thinking about this led me to experiment further with graphic frameworks in my teaching, and I created several frameworks and activities to try with my learners:
- Comparison of lexical items: I created this framework (see Illustration 2) for a critical-thinking vocabulary activity that I’d used countless times before, but found that with the framework students were significantly more engaged and motivated, even going so far as to extend the task with further examples (see Illustration 3).
Illustration 2: vocabulary/lexis comparison framework. Jade Blue 2015.
Illustration 3: Completed vocabulary/lexis comparison framework (first experiment, hand drawn). Jade Blue 2015.
- Passive and active constructions framework (see Illustration 4): I designed this so that in a form-focused activity, learners could write active sentences in the first column, and transform them into passive sentences in the second. The idea was that the agent, or ‘do‐er’ of the action would always be in the box shaped like an arrow, aiding comprehension of the agent concept and highlighting and clarifying the relationship between form and meaning. While the framework was effective in achieving this, it needed redesigning to allow more space for writing (see Illustration 5).
Illustration 4: Passives framework. Jade Blue 2015.
Illustration 5: Passives framework version 2. Jade Blue 2015.
- When a colleague mentioned he was “teaching the third conditional” and needed an extra activity, I suggested he ask his students the following questions:
- What colour is the third conditional?
- What shape is the third conditional?
The responses were interesting and he relayed that learners were very engaged in discussion (see Illustration 6). To what extent the task aided learning is immeasurable, but encouraging learners to think about language differently – metaphorically, visually – must have some positive impact. By providing ‘a window back into our world’ (McCloud 2009), images aid comprehension on another, almost metaphorical, level. Graphic representations are by their nature metaphorical, and metaphors tap into something deeper.
Illustration 6: Third Conditional experiment with Stuart’s class. Jade Blue 2015.
- Countable and Mass nouns graphic (see Illustration 7): I’ve used this a few times, with both learners and developing teachers, to aid comprehension and have found that both respond positively to it as a clear representation of how we think about countable and mass nouns.
Illustration 7: Countable & Mass Nouns graphic. Jade Blue 2015
My Learning Experiences
As a teacher, my interest in the different ways visuals can be used in the classroom has developed from affective visuals, which enhance interest and motivation, to more didactic, retentional, and supportive visuals. When I did my TESOL diploma, I found that being in the position of a student myself enabled me to relate more closely to my learners. I became more conscious of noticing and developing the ways in which I was learning, and sought to develop strategies to support that learning. The visual representation and organisation of information were an integral part of this ‘deutero learning’ ‐ learning to learn (Bateson 1972:167).
In researching this topic, I kept a record of my thought process ‐ informed by reading and practice ‐ represented and created graphically in a Japanese notebook. There was a strong visual element to the way I used this notebook, applying to my own work what I’m advocating learners should be encouraged to do. It was during this process that its true value became clear to me: the very act of drawing something triggered a connection with earlier thoughts and observations, building a network of concepts and ideas. The unfocused and creative element of my representing something graphically – ‘diffuse thinking’ as opposed to ‘focused thinking’ (Girling 2015) — allowed my brain time to relax, during which I was still thinking, but without the pressure or stress of it feeling like ‘work’. ‘Ceasing to focus on a project gives [the] brain unconscious permission to get to work’ (Burkeman 2015).
‘We draw not to transcribe ideas from our heads but to generate them in search of greater understanding’ (Sousanis 2015:79). This was a significant point in my journey of discovery, and highlights the value of learners creating their own personalised representations.
So what are the implications of all this for learners, and how, as teachers, can we make use of it all?
David Heathfield claims that ‘what people learn from a story is not what happens in the story but in their response to it’ (Heathfield 2014:16). The same can be said, I believe, of any information – including the pedagogic grammar of a language. A graphic representation of a concept is a form of response. Where note-taking is passive, note- making is active, thereby aiding learners’ cognitive processing. Graphics have a role in both, but I’d argue more so in note-making.
In grammar instruction I’m not suggesting the use of graphics without words, but neither the use of text alone, as this dismisses ‘what stands outside of its linear structure’ (Sousanis 2015:59). Word and image are intrinsically linked. As the Kiki and Bouba test demonstrates (see Illustration 8), we ‘instinctively find, or create, a pattern’ between shape and sound (Geary 2009). In the context of graphic organisers for grammar-focused instruction, anchorage is fundamental. Without it, visuals may add to the affective element of language learning, but fail to fulfil any of the other roles.
Illustration 8: The Kiki and Bouba test.
Given the recognised benefit of graphic representations, and given that grammar is deemed by so many in the ELT industry to be of such importance, why is it that the grammar reference sections of course books are still presenting information in such a linear, dry, static way? It seems to me there are several ways in which the presentation of grammar could be improved (see Illustrations 9 and 10)
- use graphics to represent grammar in a more didactic, supportive way
- leave space on the pages for learners to create their own personalised visual representations
- encourage teachers to consider more deeply how language is conceptualised and the implications of this for learners
- suggest that teachers consider, where appropriate, using questions such as ‘what colour / shape is…’ to stimulate thought and discussion
‘…there is a cognitive dissonance between the highly constrained linear presentation of information in classrooms as text blocks and the multidimensional mapping of mental models that the brain‐mind naturally performs when processing and crafting information into knowledge.’
Illustration 9: Preliminary design for grammar reference page,
(to include questions for consideration and further notes on form and use). Jade Blue 2015.
Illustration 10: Preliminary design for grammar reference page. Jade Blue 2015.
Jade came to ELT from a background in theatre arts and now works in the UK and Germany as an English language teacher, Business English trainer, and teacher-trainer. Jade writes an ELT blog, has been published in Voices and has recently contributed to a Routledge publication on Reflective Practice in ELT.
Arnheim, R. (1969) Visual Thinking. London: University of California Press. p1.
Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to an Ecology of Mind. London: The University of Chicago Press. p167.
Britton, J. (1982) Shaping at the point of Utterance in Prospect and Retrospect. London: Heinnemann Educational Books. p142.
Burkeman, O. (2015) Five Reasons Why We Should All Learn How to Do Nothing. Available from: <http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/jan/09/five‐reasons‐we‐should‐all‐learn‐to‐do‐ nothing> Accessed November 2015.
Finn, C. (2005) In Brockman (ed) What we Believe but Cannot Prove. London: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd. p125.
Geary, J. (2009) Metaphorically Speaking. Available from: <http://www.ted.com/talks/james_geary_metaphorically_speaking?language=en> Accessed December 2015.
Girling, K. (2015) Learn in your Sleep, Business English UK 2015 Conference (International House, London. 06.06.2015)
Heathfield, D. (2014) Storytelling with our Students. Surrey: Delta Publishing. p16
Hyerle, D. (2009) Visual Tools for Transforming Information into Knowledge. California: Corwin Press. p12.
Kumaravadivelu, B. (2005) Understanding Language Teaching: From Method to Post‐method. New York: Routledge. pp 162 – 184.
Lightbown, P. & Spada, N. (2013) How Languages are Learned. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p84.
McCloud, S. (2009) The Visual Magic of Comics. Available from: <http://www.ted.com/talks/scott_mccloud_on_comics?language=en> Accessed November 2015.
Petty, G. (2014) Evidence Based Teaching: A Practical Approach. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p77.
Sousanis, N. (2015) Unflattening. London: Harvard University Press. pp54‐79.
Swan, M. (2012) Thinking about Language Teaching: Selected Articles. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p129.