Redesigning Grammar: Graphic Frameworks in Grammar Focused Instruction

Jade Blue

‘…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.


Why Grammar?

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.

Why Graphics?

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.


Classroom Explorations

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.

Redesigning Grammar

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.’

(Hyerle 2009:12)


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: <‐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: <; 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: <; 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.

The Image Conference to be Held in Lisbon


We are delighted to announce that the 6th edition of the Image Conference, the annual conference of the Visual Arts Circle, is being held in Lisbon, Portugal on 13th and 14th October in collaboration with APPI, the main Portuguese English teachers’ association. The event will be held in Escola Secundária Eça de Queirós. Leading experts and practitioners in the use of images in language learning will share their experiences, insights and know-how and provide participants with an excellent opportunity to enhance their competence in the innovative, critical and creative use of images in language education.

Registration is now open.

Speaker proposals for talks and workshops can be submitted until 31 August 2017 by filling in the Call for Papers form.

All proposals for the Image Conference must be related to the use of images in English language teaching and learning. Topics can include:
• images
• video
• film
• gaming
• art
• mental imagery.

We look forward to seeing you at our innovative conference in beautiful Lisbon.

What if?


What if? is a short animation written and produced by Anna Whitcher and Kieran Donaghy with support by EMC design. The video aims to encourage teachers and students to reflect on the increasingly important role of film-making in our educational system and schools. As the moving image is rapidly becoming the primary mode of communication all over the world, it is necessary for students not just to be able to ‘read’ the screen – to be able to analyse, interpret and discuss film texts – but also to ‘write’ the screen – to create their own films. When students create their own short films and videos they improve their language skills and communicative competence, as well as developing skills such as collaboration, decision-making and creativity, which are in demand in the modern-day workplace.

We call on all teachers and their students to make a short film, and send it to us at or .The best film will win a copy of Kieran’s bestselling methodology book Film in Action.


What If? from Visual Arts Circle on Vimeo.


Let us know what you think of the film in the comments below.

Why my grandmother didn’t want me to be an artist: Art as text, caves and flickering.

by Emma Louise Pratt


Image Chauvet Cave:

In this article I explore what art as text can mean. I also present a couple of examples that you might actually find interesting to explore with your students.

A couple of years ago, a wise friend gifted me the curiously named “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” (Herzog, 2010). This beautifully made documentary is about some of the oldest surviving examples of visual art we have today – in the cave of Chauvet in France. The drawings are over 30,000 years old.

I’d never seen the cave and I was so transfixed by what were for me, images so fresh and so simultaneously direct and complex that I felt tears prickle at the corner of my eyes. I’m a mum, and easily moved to tears one could argue, but moved I was. Moved, not only as a painter and drawer, but also as a person. Our ancestors reached out to me over 30,000 years through these drawings that looked like they could have been made yesterday.

The arts are intricately woven through the fabric of our daily communication. Our world is enveloped in these visual, aural, kinesthetic, and performance based communications that are as old as speech itself. Visual communication in forms of artifacts and images have been found dating back 100,000 years.

The community in that cave would have watched as the images took shape around them. How many people participated in making them? What did it mean for them? Did they share stories about the animals they had drawn as the flames of the hearth cast dancing shadows up the walls and across the images, making them dance too? Whatever they talked about, those images surrounded them in their life, in that cave. They would have accompanied children as they lay down to sleep, slipping stealthily into their dreams.


30,000 years later, in a small New Zealand town…

One day, out of the blue, Grandma came to visit me at the museum where I worked organizing education and public programmes.

“Grandma come in. Look around!”

“No thanks love, I’ll wait for you at the door.”

She never came in. We had a chat outside and then she went off shopping.

In many cultures today, the “fine arts”, despite many attempts to break down perceptions, are often pigeon-holed and associated with a somewhat elitist world. My grandparents were never comfortable in a gallery. Museums were possibly a little more accessible. The arts in general baffled and intimidated them. They viewed them all with suspicion, with their revolutionary political views, or alliances with “society” and patrons. The arts were out to make them feel stupid. The arts were found inside uncomfortable places, places that were irrelevant to them. So they remained outside. Art School was the last place they wanted me to go.

Unlike my grandparents, I had another cultural experience of the arts.I was lucky enough to live some years in a community that was predominantly Māori. The arts were woven throughout daily life to such an extent, that one couldn’t see where one “art” ended and another began. The arts belonged to everyone and they were an important wider text for reading what was going on. The ability to decode them formed part of the multi-modal and multi-dimensional literacy required to meaningfully navigate that culture.

Tattoo as a multi-dimensional text

As an example of this multi-dimensional quality, I will use the case of the tattoo. In New Zealand, tattoo is a sacred art form. Recently, a member of the New Zealand parliament, the Labour MP for Hauraki-Waikato Nanaia Mahuta, took part in a traditional moko (tattooing) ceremony that paid tribute to both the former Māori queen and the current king. It was held at his marae (tribal meeting place), called Waahi Pā. She had a tattoo put on her chin, which is a traditional place for Maori women to wear a tattoo. The following story has been adapted from an article by Mihingarangi Forbes (2016), Māori Issues Correspondent for Radio New Zealand . I have added translations of Māori concepts:


Ms Mahuta is the niece of the late Māori queen, Te Arikinui Te Atairangi Kaahu, and a close relation to the current Māori monarch, KingiTuheitia.

Over the weekend, she and fourteen other women had lines of lineage etched into their chins, called the “moko kauae”, by four well-respected tohunga (Tā Moko–tattoo experts).

Her reasons for doing it and what it represented for her were many: “…my walk in life and kind of the way I want to go forward and make a contribution. That’s the main thing for me.”

While having the moko etched into her chin, she thought of those who’d worn them before her.

“My tupuna [ancestor] – the one that comes to mind was Piupiu, my great-grandmother. She was a strong woman in her own right, a contemporary of Te Puea [Princess Te Puea Herangi, CBE (9 November 1883 – 12 October 1952) a Māori leader from New Zealand’s Waikato region]. So, on my Maniapoto [tribe] side I draw a lot of strength of character from there, and my Ngāpuhi [tribe] side, so she came to mind immediately.”

The design, which is unique to her, also replicates patterns from the wharenui [meeting house], called Tane-i-te-pupuke-at, the marae [official meeting place of a tribe], where the ceremony took place.

And it was someone very close to Ms Mahuta who inspired her to take part.

“Actually my daughter was the one that put the challenge out there so I embraced the challenge and she saw it and said ‘Mama, I love your moko [tattoo], I love your moko'”.


As you can see, this tattoo isn’t just a text on her chin, an art work separated from other things to be read. Time and timing, space and place, carving, building, tribal ground, community, kinship, connection, ceremony, meditation, honour, recognition, duty, humility. These concepts, seen and decoded in a Maori context, make the tattoo, her moko kauae, a text that reaches out and joins into much more than itself. You need to be literate in all the parts of that ecosystem to understand that tattoo.

There has been a lot of debate over the years of cultural appropriation. That is when someone, more commonly from a colonizer state, takes the cultural artifact of another group and makes use of it for themselves. Think of how the Mexican flower skull, used for ancient celebrations during El Día de los Muertos, has become a fashionable Halloween costume. As a New Zealander, I see “tribal tattoos” frequently on the arms and legs and backs of people here in Europe. They are found on unknown arms, all mixed up and decontextualized. A Maori tattoo artist would say that this type of “Maori Tribal Tattoo” is no longer a tribal tattoo of theirs. It is profaned. Appropriated. A meaningless set of squiggles.

The questions to ask are:

  • Is a Maori tattoo still tribal art if it hasn’t been done by a Maori artist?
  • What about a non-Maori artist respectfully following the protocols. Is it a Maori tattoo? Is it “traditional”? Does this mean an art form can only be done by someone who has the genetics of the people who traditionally perform or make it?
  • What if the design is changed and no longer reads “correctly”? Does it matter?
  • Or if a traditional men’s leg tattoo from the Pacific, considered a sacred thing, is printed onto some Nike lycra leggings for women?


Yes, lots of tough questions. But this is what the arts create. Provocation and questions. It is a text that flickers shadows from its hearth in the cave, making everything seem suddenly different.

Art as Text?

I can see art theorists waggling their fingers in the air and bursting their buttons to argue against my calling art a text. So, yes, I’ve called art a text, and we’ve looked at how art in some cultures forms part of a wider literacy about the world around them and is used in certain fixed ways to convey messages and meaning. I’ve also raised questions about appropriation of culture and arts practice. So yes, alright, now it’s your turn art theorists.“What about the place of interpretation?”, they ask.“Why can’t someone take what they see and give it a new interpretation?”

Artists, and conceptual artists in particular, in the 20th and 21st Century, though there are examples from earlier, have worked to overturn standard canons and to explore possibilities of tension and struggle between a cultural practice and experiment with making new meaning. This brings us to the arguments between images and written or aural/oral text. What makes a text a text?

Text. It’s become a very popular word since the 1950s according to Google definitions. The word in our world of English teaching has come from the branch of linguistics known as Text Linguistics,and, as a concept, has evolved from just considering sentence and word to also considering  a text’s setting, i.e. the way in which it is situated in an interactional, communicative context as well as cultural context.

But the issue with art is that it loves to evade being pinned down as soon as we’ve pinned it. It will often take an existing “text” and invent something new with it. And here’s a big question for you:  Should art “say” anything at all? Should it “speak”? When the lights go out in the gallery, does it continue to speak? Or does its existence in front of you mean that it is you who makes it speak? Enough. We’re heading perilously into the depths here. The arts don’t always “speak” to us as verbal language does, it doesn’t explain or talk, but instead offers other possibilities.

“Images, like texts, have a rhetoric of arrangements which signify, but there is no syntax that articulates their parts and binds them into a whole.” (Dillon, 1999)

 “All images are polysemous; they imply, underlying their signifiers, a ‘floating chain’ of signifieds, the reader [is] able to choose some and ignore others.”-Roland Barthes. (as cited in Dillon, 1999)

Polysemous means to have many meanings. Signifieds are the concepts expressed by a sign. The Spanish philosopher Emilio Lledó (2000)  argues that the written text is an echo. We lose part of its meaning the author intended with time and space. But it’s a good echo for the most part. The power of the arts is that it loves its ambiguity. It takes its “floating chains” of signifieds and plays.

Mining the Visual World

American artist Fred Wilson broke ground when he presented his exhibition“Mining the Museum: An Installation” (Return of the whipping post: Mining the museum, 2013) in Baltimore, Maryland, USA, 1992 . The exhibition took place in an historical museum where the artist explored and presented the collections according to very different criteria to what had been used before. The new juxtaposition of one object to another purposefully created tensions. There was very little written interpretation, but what there was added a new tension between written text and image. His aim was to reshuffle our assumptions. Calling it “Mining the Museum” was play on words in itself, as it was also inferring that he wanted “to make the museum mine”. Unlike my grandmother, who never went past the reception desk, Wilson went in and owned the place. What was successful about what he did was in the way he interpreted and presented the collections of the museum was that it was suggestive and provocative, but wasn’t fixed or moralizing. Image can do that. Its polysemous nature means it can show but not always“tell”.

Consider this visual “text” below.


Consider its context. A typical history museum in Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society

  • How do Museums typically categorize objects?
  • Who collected these objects and put them in a museum?
  • What is the history of the area where this Museum is?
  • Who typically makes decisions about what is displayed in a Museum? Whose point of view might it embody?
  • Consider who the artist is: Fred Wilson is an American artist. He describes himself as of “African, Native American, European and Amerindian” descent.
  • How does the artist’s identity inform what and how you see this exhibition?


Now read the Museum “Label” for this exhibit: “Metalwork 1793-1880.”

What information is normally on a museum label? How is the artist playing with the idea of “Labels”? The written text and visual “text” create a powerful tension and work because of their simplicity. What do the dates refer to?

Here’s one more image taken of this exhibition. Look carefully at what you see and consider both the traditional categorizations and the artist’s new one:

Museum label: “Cabinetmaking, 1820-1960”


This is what makes the arts complex and endlessly thought provoking.  As I have described, in many cultural contexts, the arts form an intrinsic part of language ecosystems. Back in the Chauvet cave, visual art wasn’t separated from everyday life. It reflected it, and informed it. However, thousands of years later, my grandmother couldn’t have felt more separated from it. We’ve seen how muddy things get when artists take cultural norms of communication and invert, challenge, or appropriate them, bringing outside ideas in, and being informed by different times and circumstances. They challenge us to consider the fixed state of things by unfixing them. It’s an uncomfortable state at times, I’ll admit, but we’re dealing with a world of texts that flicker and move, some more consciously than others. We are multi-modal and multi-dimensional in our communication. We have been so for more than 100,000 years.


The new problem facing us is the quantity of visual material we digest daily is like nothing seen in human history. My children, had they been born in the Chauvet cave, would have contemplated those images as they formed and were added to over time. The images they looked on would have reflected the world directly outside the cave, speaking to them of what they knew. And they would have been some of the few images they ever saw.

Today, we hardly have time to register what we’re seeing before it’s gone. And even if we do give time to really “see”, how can we meaningfully interpret anything, given the little time invested in learning to negotiate these “floating chains” of meaning? To be continued….





emma-louise-pratt-in-studio-paintings-show-november-2016-new-zealandInvolved in all aspects of ELT since 1999, Emma began her teaching career working in museum community education projects. Emma is currently Director at Frameworks Education Group and founded ELTcampus in 2014, an online learning platform for teacher development. The TEFL Preparation Course was shortlisted for an ELTon in Innovation in Teacher Resources. She edits, designs and writes for the ELT Today newsletter and its monthly podcast.

She works in teacher development for CLIL, has an interest in the application of teaching artistry in LT, is a practising visual artist and member of the Visual Arts Circle for Language Learning.

Personal Website:
Twitter: @prattemmalouise @eltcampus



Visual Literacy in the Language Curriculum


To inaugurate the website of the Visual Arts Circle we have invited Dr. Sylvia Karastathi of New York College, Athens, Greece who has a PhD and post-doctoral studies from the University of Cambridge, to write about the increasing important role of visual literacy in English language teaching.


Few language teachers can claim that they never use still or moving images in their lessons; yet, this standard practice is rarely touched upon in teacher training curricula on the assumption the way to introduce images into lessons is self-evident. This short article starts by introducing some key ELT resources on using images in the classroom; it then goes on to argue that we need to approach images not simply as an aid but as a key component of “multimodal communicative competence”.

The Status of the Image

In his 1966 ground-breaking study The Visual Element in Language Teaching Pit Corder made the useful distinction between “talking about images” and “talking with images”, differentiating between physical description and personal response. Since then, practical books such as Andrew Wright’s Pictures for Language Learning (1990), Jamie Keddie’s Images (2009), Ben Goldstein’s Working with Images (2009) and Peter Grundy’s et. al. English Through Art (2011) have suggested a wide variety of engaging activities that exploit the power of still images in the classroom and demonstrate their potentials to facilitate language learning. More recently, principled uses of the moving image in the classroom have become the focus of discussion in ELT with publications such as Ben Goldstein and Paul Diver’s Language Learning with Digital Video (2014) and Kieran Donaghy’s Film in Action (2015).

Images have long been a source of instructional material in English language teaching. Used traditionally with young learners in the form of flashcards and posters, images are nowadays easily available through digital technologies for all level classrooms. According to Wright (1990) pictures contribute to student interest and motivation, arresting the attention of even the most disengaged student; they are emotionally engaging and they offer opportunities for the expression of feelings and experience without having a right or wrong answer (9). Images build context, promote multi-sensory learning, and “reactivate target language” (Keddie 2009:9). Yet, although the ELT community largely agrees on their multiple benefits for language education, their systematic inclusion and exploitation tends to disappear in advanced level and exam classes (Wright, 1990:2).

Since they are thought to facilitate the learning process, it is interesting to look at how images are used in coursebooks. Through an analysis of the function of images in three intermediate ELT coursebooks aimed at young adults and adults, David Hill (2013) finds that over half of the pictures (photos and drawings) are used only for purposes of decoration.[1] This is a waste of effort on the part of the publisher and a wasted opportunity for learner and teacher. Of course, Hill adds, experienced teachers would use decorative images, nonetheless, to arouse learners’ interest by encouraging them to talk about the picture and how it could relate to their own lives. As Hill finds out, the pictures that are attached to activities are used for fairly low-level language practice, and he concludes by stating that: “coursebooks seem to offer very few opportunities for students to use pictures to stimulate their own inner meanings” (Hill, 2013:165). Recently, however, there has been a trend towards a more critical and creative use of images in coursebooks – for example in Life (National Geographic Learning), Eyes Open/Uncover (Cambridge University Press) and The Big Picture (Richmond) – which is a positive development and shows that there is movement towards the more deliberate usage of images

The discussion so far reflects a particular view of the function of images in the classroom: that of the occasional use in the form of a visual aid, which is there to enhance the practice of language skills or to enliven the teaching of grammar and vocabulary. The rest of the discussion seeks to explore how the approach to images in the ELT classroom is beginning to change in view of a literacy revolution known as multiliteracies pedagogy.

Multiliteracies Pedagogy

The emergence of visual culture in the 21st century has brought students in daily contact with numerous image-texts in contrast to the predominance of print texts or oral texts that used to dominate educational contexts of the past. Increasingly “educators have looked at other sign systems such as those used in music, art, or film that could be used by students in a variety of subject areas” (Begoray, 2001:202). This complexity of semiotic systems that students of today need to learn to decode also demands multiple and new forms of literacy.

A pioneering group known as the New London Group came together in the 1990s to propose a new set of priorities for literacy education now known as “a pedagogy of multiliteracies”. They proposed that the shifts in meaning making and representation that affected the sectors of “work, citizenship and personal life” in our era needed to also lead to changing attitudes to literacy teaching and learning (Cope & Kalantzis, 2009:166). Two concepts emerged as priorities: multilingualism and multimodality. According to the group, the forms of contemporary meaning are “increasingly multimodal, with linguistic, visual, audio, gestural and spatial modes of meaning becoming increasingly integrated in everyday media and cultural practices” (Cope & Kalantzis, 2009:166). To address these changing communication needs a pedagogy of multiliteracies is needed, where students would learn to “read and write multimodal texts” (166). Within the framework of multiliteracies pedagogy, visual literacy has emerged as an important priority for educational curricula.

What is Visual Literacy?

Being a multifaceted and interdisciplinary concept, visual literacy is not easy to define. Used for the first time in 1969 by John Debes, the term has gained significant critical currency, and a widely-accepted working definition of visual literacy states that:

In the context of human, intentional visual communication, visual literacy refers to a group of largely acquired abilities i.e. the abilities to understand (read), and to use (write) images, as well as to think and learn in terms of images.

(Avgerinou, 2007:46)

According to an earlier definition, when we talk about visual literacy we talk about “the active reconstruction of past visual experience with incoming visual messages to obtain meaning” (Sinatra, 1986:5).

The graph below shows four important aspects of Visual Literacy


Figure 1: The Components of the Visual Literacy (VL) Theory (from Avgerinou & Pettersson, 2011)

Despite the problems of definition, it is generally accepted that “visual language is a complex code that must be learned for true comprehension”, and that “the VL [visual literacy] skills are (a) learnable, (b) teachable, and (c) capable of development and improvement” (Avgerinou & Pettersson, 2011:8&9). These propositions constitute an important argument for the introduction of visual literacies skills into the curriculum; and indeed the new literacies manifesto has been highly influential, becoming the basis for the revision of many national curricula.

Curriculum Design for 21st century – Viewing and Representing

The recognition that visual literacy needs to be integrated into the curriculum is not really news for curriculum designers. The influence of Howard Gardner’s (1993) theory of multiple intelligences (MI theory) has led to the recognition that instructional material should cater to different modalities, and should provide a variety of input in order to maximize learning. In the language divisions of education ministries in Canada, USA, Australia, and Singapore, for example, curriculum planning has moved on to the integration of two new skills next to the traditional language arts of reading, writing, listening and speaking; skills that promote multimodal literacy and make it an official part of the curriculum: viewing and visually representing.

According to Deborah Begoray of the University of Victoria, the Canadian common curriculum framework states that:

Viewing is an active process of attending to and comprehending visual media such as television, advertising images, films, diagrams, symbols, photographs, videos, drama, drawings, sculpture, and paintings.

Representing enables students to communicate information and ideas through a variety of media.

(Begoray, 2001:202)

Examples of visually representing can include: a semantic or concept map, a graph or chart, photographs, computer-generated icons, drawings.

Similarly in the revised English Language curriculum of Singapore, the traditional productive and receptive skills have been augmented with the two new skills of viewing and representing. And these are integrated with “Listening, Reading, Speaking and Writing to take into account the importance of developing information, media and visual literacy skills in the teaching and learning of EL” (English Language Syllabus, 2010:16).

The learning objectives in the integrated reading and viewing skills include: students need to be able to “construct meaning from visual texts (e.g. pictures, diagrams, charts, icons, maps, graphs, tables)” (33), and “identify and analyse techniques (e.g. colour, pictures, sound effects) used in written and visual texts to achieve a variety of purposes” (39).

Multimodality and ELT

Although TESOL professionals have been using images with great effectiveness and enthusiasm, Gunther Kress, Professor of Education at the Institute of Education of University of London, somehow provocatively declares that they have not yet embraced the opportunities of the literacy revolution to address an expanded notion of communication that is multimodal:

Nearly every text that I look at uses two modes of communication: (a) language as writing and (b) image. Yet TESOL professionals continue to act as though language fully represented the meanings they wish to encode and communicate.

(Kress, 2000:337)

Another researcher adds that “in fact it is necessary to redress the notion of support altogether in ESOL instruction such that the visual and the verbal can exist in classrooms reconfigured as multimodal complexities” (Britsch, 2009:712-713).

These two voices from a leading journal in the field, TESOL Quarterly, encourage teachers and teacher educators to reconsider their views of communicative competence. As the concept of literacy is expanding to move beyond the three Rs reading and writing and arithmetic, and indeed beyond print to include the digital, the visual and the multimedial, educational systems and the TESOL world are starting to address these new literacy needs, and acknowledge that students need skills to evaluate and interpret still and moving image texts. Talks in TESOL conferences, address the use of iPads, films, digital storytelling, interactive whiteboards, GoogleMaps and so many other digital media. It is indeed exciting the way ICT has been embraced by the ELT community, as a useful tool that promotes engagement and new learning opportunities. But, although much attention has been given to digital tools which produce mainly visual media, visual literacy is largely ignored in TESOL conferences, often subsumed under the focus on digital literacies, revealing the overall misinterpretation of its changing role in the ELT field.

The acceptance of a variety of forms of multimodal communication are evidence that we are indeed thinking intensely about the visual in the ELT world, but are we still thinking of it as support or aid? Then perhaps it is time to see it moving to center stage.

Visual Literacy Micro-Skills

As the new skills are introduced into the curricula of the future, how can we develop our own and our students’ viewing abilities? And what does knowing how to view mean?

As with other skills, a helpful first move is to break viewing down to micro-skills. In order to hone our viewing abilities we need first of all to observe carefully. We can inspect, notice, visualize in our mind’s eye, analyze compositional relations, think about detail and ground, and then perhaps subsequently write a detailed description of our observations; this writing of a description often transforms itself into an intuitive interpretation and imagination.

According to research by Avgerinou (2007), who is the editor of the Journal Visual Literacy, eleven visual literacy abilities have been identified:


  1. Visualization
  2. Critical Viewing
  3. Visual Reasoning
  4. Visual Discrimination
  5. Visual Thinking
  6. Visual Association
  7. Visual Reconstruction
  8. Constructing Meaning
  9. Re-Constructing Meaning
  10. Knowledge of Visual Vocabulary & Definitions
  11. Knowledge of Visual Conventions

In this new literacy paradigm teachers need to receive training in visual literacy and media production. Indeed, it is suggested that teachers need to develop their own viewing and representing skills. We tend to think that being a good teacher is about having good oral skills, of being an effective speaker; and voice is indeed extremely important, but it seems that we additionally need to be “skillful in the visual domain” (Begoray, 2003:192). Aspects of visual literacy training need to be included in the syllabus of pre-service and in-service teacher training courses if we want to empower teachers in an era of multimodal communication and enable better collaboration with their students.


Currently, in schools across the world, students are expected to interpret and present complex visual ideas, using a variety of multimedia applications without serious direct instruction. If it is true then that our world is full of powerful visual images that continually bombard our students, it is important to teach them to resist the passivity, apathy and numbness they might feel toward the visual, and instead help them analyze the rhetorical techniques and meaning making mechanisms in operation in visual texts – that is, to make them active viewers. The fact that the nature of contemporary communication has changed into a multimodal one, would lead us to rethink the construct of communicative competence. According to Royce “TESOL professionals need to be able to talk and think seriously about multimodal communication because they need to help learners develop multimodal communicative competence” (2002:192).

By approaching images not merely as an aid, or support, but rather as a significant component of the experience of communicating in a foreign language, we help students slow down, look closely, reflect and take ownership of the image through writing, speaking and creating. These are all empowering practices that cultivate the 21st century skills of viewing and visually representing, which our students are going to need as citizens, future employees and life-long learners.

In order for ELT teachers to be able to understand multimodal communication and help their learners develop multimodal communicative competence there is an urgent need for pre-service and in-teach training in the role of multimodality and visual literacy in language education.


Works Cited

Argerinou, Maria D., and Rune Pettersson, ‘Toward a Cohesive Theory of Visual Literacy’, Journal of Visual Literacy, 30:2 (2011), 1-19.

Avgerinou, Maria D., ‘Towards a Visual Literacy Index’, Journal of Visual Literacy, 27:1 (2007), 29-46.

Begoray, Deborah, ‘Through a Class Darkly: Visual Literacy in the Classroom’, Canada Journal of Education, 26:2 (2001), 201-17.

———, ‘Integrating the Literacies of Viewing and Visually Representing with Content Reading’, in Integrating Multiple Literacies in K-8 Classrooms: Cases, Commentaries, and Practical Applications, ed. by Michael C. McKenna Janet C. Richards (Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2003), pp. 190-209.

Britsch, Susan, ‘Esol Educators and the Experience of Visual Literacy’, TESOL Quarterly, 43:4 (2009), 710-21.

Cope, Bill and Mary Kalantzis, ‘“Multiliteracies”: New Literacies, New Learning’, Pedagogies: An International Journal, 4:3 (2009), 164-95.

Corder, Pit, The Visual Element in Language Teaching (London: Longman, 1966).

Debes, John, ‘The Loom of Visual Literacy: An Overview’, Audiovisual Instruction, 74:8 (1969), 25-27.

Donaghy, Kieran, Film in Action (Surrey: Delta Publishing, 2015).

English Language Syllabus 2010 (Primary & Secondary). Ministry of Education Curriculum Planning and Development Division (2008).

Goldstein, Ben, Working with Images (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

Goldstein, Ben and Paul Driver, Language Learning with Digital Video (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

Grundy, Peter, Hania Bociek and Kevin Parker, English through Art (London: Heibling Languages, 2011).

Hill, David A., ‘The Visual Elements in EFL Coursebooks’, in Developing Materials for Language Teaching, 2nd Edition, ed. by Brian Tomlinson (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), pp. 158-66.

Keddie, Jamie, Images (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

Kress, Gunther, ‘Multimodality: Challenges to Thinking About Language’, TESOL Quarterly, 34:2 (2000), 337-40.

Royce, Terry, ‘Multimodality in the TESOL Classroom: Exploring Visual-Verbal Synergy’, TESOL Quarterly, 36:2 (Summer 2002), 191-205.

Sinatra, Richard, Visual Literacy Connections to Thinking, Reading and Writing (Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas, 1986).

Wright, Andrew, Pictures for Language Learning (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).


[1] The coursebooks analysed by Hill are:

Inside Out by S.Kay and V.Jones, Macmillan Heinemann, 2000.

face2face by C. Redstone and G. Cunningham, Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Outcomes by H. Dellar and A. Walkely, Heinle, Cengage Learning, 2010.

Hill chooses to ignore instructions about using the image given in the teacher’s book.


Dr. Sylvia Karastathi is a teacher educator and lecturer in TESOL at the Department of English Language and Language Teaching at New York College, Athens, Greece.  She holds a PhD from the University of Cambridge, where she wrote a thesis on contemporary literature and visual culture, and an MA in Modern Literature and Culture (University of York). She has published in the field of word and image studies in The Museal Turn (2012) and The Handbook of Intermediality (2015) and her current research focuses on visual culture and visual literacy in language education.