Many a language teacher will be well-acquainted with the affective potential of a well-chosen image in the classroom, while from the earliest stages of learning students will have become accustomed to the use of such learning aids as photos, drawings, timelines and other diagrams. Pre-university students will of course be familiar with the much-loved graphs and charts of the IELTS exam, and may even have enjoyed a map-navigating or diagram-labelling task in one of the reading and/or listening sections. Yet strangely enough, such cherished memories have about them the aspect of a chore when later recalled, and for many students in the EAP classroom visual literacy has an indeterminate and often subsidiary value in comparison to grammar development.
Fair enough, you might say, for language is the language of the language classroom. Not pictures. However, such sentiments offered me little comfort during the 2016 pre-sessional course, during the Micro Literature Review (MLR) thread of which both my own and many another plan came unstuck when time came for students to distil their weeks of personal research into a pithy visual mnemonic in the ‘visualisation’ stage. Regardless of the extent of students’ exposure to diagrams throughout the course, and in seeming defiance of the task’s supposed simplicity, I was not alone in my pedagogical consternation as the totemic influence of the much-modelled Smart Art ‘see-saw’ and ‘steps’ models (exhibit.1) saw said diagrams shoehorned into many an early draft.
Exhibit A: The ubiquitous ‘steps’ and ‘see-saw’ visuals.
This uneasy relationship ‘twixt word and visual evidenced by this oversight may come at a price. Since at least the mid-1980s a good deal of research has gone into clarifying the symbiotic relationship between text and image in education, with potentially beneficial diagrams often skimmed over by students who unconsciously see them as supplements to the written word – such is the wont of our logocentric paradigm – not as an enhancement. Building upon such research, Moore (1993) formulated a rigorous metacognitive process whereby students observe and establish conceptual connections between features of text and image, which he defined as ‘SLIC’, or as below:
- Summarise the aid (i.e. describe/discuss the features of the visual)
- Link the aid to the text (draw lines between the relevant sections)
- Image the aid (recall and reproduce the visual from memory)
- Check for understanding (confirm by comparison)
No great analytical sleight is needed to connect this model with the kinds of skills used in certain sections of IELTS, nor to the visualisation stage of the MLR. In fact, the former process could prove to be foundational to the MLR visualisation task, via the implementation of rudimentary activities such as matching textual descriptions to the models they represent (down to the word level): reproducing, annotating and even amending visuals from memory; proceeding from quantitative data (i.e. graphs) to qualitative e.g. the intensity of voice in an article, then identifying a respective space in a diagram. After sufficient exposure, students might even be equipped to peer review one another’s text and visualisation for conceptual appropriacy. It can hardly be deemed far-fetched to suppose that just as we deconstruct and (re)construct academic grammar from the noun phrase up, studying the ‘grammar’ of an image should be a similarly analytical, evaluative and valuable process.
Thus, in hindsight, my MLR issue appears to be a lack of scaffolding. Granted, students had seen, discussed and reviewed a number of visual models such as Bloom’s Hierarchy, the Fishbone Essay and any number of other pyramids and Venn diagrams. But whereas scaffolding for structured writing had been quite explicit, there appeared to be less of a bridge between exposure to an image and its productive counterpart. Attendant to this problem was, of course, that students took time to develop an understanding of the somewhat slippery conceptual status of the MLR, but essentially it was the lack of a conceptual bridge between the skills of recognition (e.g. reading scientific visuals), description and finally, creation.
Exhibit B: Bloom’s Taxonomy & ‘The Essay Fishbone’: understood but under-analysed?
However much or little one subscribes to theories such as Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences, there is little room for argument that some students have greater predilection for visual representation than others. I consider myself a ‘visual learner’ (as well as an incessant doodler) and a teacher who makes copious use of visual cues in class. As naturally as possible, I made use of image-based activities both revived and borrowed from colleagues:
- students drawing and mingling with a graph (or other suitable image) that communicated their mood, concept-understanding (see exhibit 3), sense of progress or the quality of their week (Thornbury, 2009) – while enquiring into and speculating on those of classmates
- using Google Images to elicit abstract concepts (e.g. noun phrases) from one another, without using said term in their search
- map reading/object location activities accompanied by verbal directions
- depicting the flow and structure of one’s own writing (or that of a classmate during peer review) in model form
- selecting and explaining a model with which they were personally familiar (e.g. Yin/Yang).
- selecting and discussing the most appropriate model for a given idea or concept, from among several provided
- tasking students with locating/devising and reporting on alternative representations of ‘familiar’ models such as Bloom’s hierarchy
Exhibit 3: Early Visualisation: The Graph of Understanding
Exhibit 4: Blossoming Awareness: Student-Sourced Alternatives to Bloom’s Hierarchy
As well as breaking ice in a ‘serious’ environment, these activities helped stimulate a nascent, seemingly fruitful critical engagement between student and image. However, the subsequent ubiquity of the ‘see-saw’ suggested that such activities were of limited value when employed exclusively as ‘warmers’, and that I had overestimated both the value of ‘teaching’ the many models on offer, as well as the simplicity of the visualisation operation itself. Essentially, I had failed to make students aware of the conceptual grammar of the images themselves.
I did have one (minor) epiphany during a particularly frustrating discussion, arising from students’ inability to discern why the see-saw wasn’t appropriate for their own work; one model surely being equivalent to another. Out of desperation I produced my lesson plan for all to see: a confusion of neon pink clouds joined by all manner of dotted lines, symbols and arrows. Fascinated (and bemused) they were, and fit for purpose it was deemed to be, but immediately interpretable it was not. Through considered questioning, I invited them to consider (among many things) the relevance of varying sizes, colours and directions to visible key words (i.e. lesson stage names) and the amount of time that we had spent on the signified activities. The plan lent itself well to questions and (happily) not at all to imitation. Many pennies dropped at once, and work began on an improved analysis of models recently studied, as well as more ‘appropriate’ (personalised) visualisations.
Exhibit 5: Example lesson plan (with additional annotation and algebra)
This is not to suggest that my used lesson plans should be for anyone’s eyes but my own, but they have – like Google’s data exhaust – served an important auxiliary classroom purpose i.e. to clarify the need for firm links to be established between text and model, if students are to enjoy the cognitive benefits that visuals have to offer. Among these are the facility for the concise summarising of large amounts of information (Moore, 1993). We might briefly recall the importance of architectural spaces called to memory as an aid to rhetoric in ancient Greece and Rome – the so-called ‘Art of Memory’. Like any language, image-building both requires and is a discipline. So instead of obfuscating EAP’s very distant kinship with IELTS, we might actually be well-advised to revisit and renew that bond.
Moore, P.J. (1993), Metacognitive Processing of Diagrams, Maps and Graphs, Learning and Instruction Volume 3, Issue 3, Pergamon Press.
Peeck, J. (1993), Increasing Picture Effects in Learning from Illustrated Text, Learning and Instruction Volume 3, Issue 3, Pergamon Press.
Rusbult, C. (1995) Visual Thinking in Education, http://www.asa3.org/ASA/education/teach/visual.htm (accessed 02-02-17)
Thornbury, S. (2009), Teaching Unplugged, Dogme in English Language Teaching, Delta Publishing