Visual thinking is essentially using images to process, support and convey information. When we speak, we communicate verbally. When we show someone a picture, use an emoji, draw a diagram or doodle we add a visual element to our communication.
This makes our communication more engaging, intelligible and memorable. It also helps us to think more deeply about the information, which is perfect if we are trying to solve a complex problem or understand a tricky linguistic point.
There are many benefits to using visual thinking in the classroom. Most obviously, showing a picture is one of the best ways to show meaning. It can also help students to see patterns and connections in grammatical or lexical topics. For example, drawing a timeline to show the differences between present simple and present continuous can help learners to visualise and remember the differences in usage.
Another advantage is that visuals make learning more memorable. Students are more likely to remember key points if they have visual associations. Likewise, creating simple visual representations can help learners to interact more fully with the content, aiding comprehension as well as memory.
One of the main objectives of the language classroom is getting students talking. Using visual aids is a great way to facilitate conversation. Images, diagrams and graphic organisers can inspire and focus discussions in creative and motivating ways.
Here are some examples of activities you can use in the English language classroom.
Examples of visual thinking activities
Mind mapping is a strategy which supports learners to organise and represent information. The map is based around a central theme (e.g. food), and related ideas and sub-topics are added as branches (e.g. fruit, vegetables, dairy, meat).
It is a great way to take notes, brainstorm or organise ideas for a presentation or writing task. Student generated mind maps are a great way to help students interact with vocabulary, develop their study skills and visualise information.
Here’s an example you could use when brainstorming and categorising food vocabulary. I like to add visual representations within my mind maps to provide an additional memory aid, but you could use simple circles or squares. Draw it on the whiteboard, then ask students to copy it and add their ideas in the relevant areas.
You could also do this collaboratively, with students adding their ideas to one mind map on a whiteboard or flipchart. You could post-it notes to allow students to move their ideas around and re-categorise things as necessary.
If you are teaching online, you may want to try tools such as Jamboard, Miro, Mural or Mapulary.
There are many different types of graphic organisers. Essentially, they are a way to categorise information visually.
Here are some examples:
- Venn diagrams use overlapping circles to show differences and similarities.
- Flowcharts use arrows and other visuals to show the steps in a process or plan.
- KWL (Know, Wonder/Want to know, Learn) charts are tables with three columns. In each column, students write what they Know about a tip, what they Want to know about a topic and what they Learned.
- One pagers. These are one page visuals which help students to summarise information. They are great for reflecting on a task or categorising information. They might use drawings, boxes or other frame as sections for different types of information.
The beauty of graphic organisers is that you can use them for anything. You can also use your whiteboard and ask students to copy them, which reduces preparation times and means you can tailor them exactly to your students’ needs.
Here’s one I created to help students organise their vocabulary notebooks. You’ll notice that I’ve used a picture frame to create a designated section for students to add their own drawing:
Sketchnoting is a means of taking notes using simple doodles, connectors (e.g. arrows) and text. The technique can help learners to focus their attention and create notes which are visually appealing and memorable.
It is based around the idea that simple drawings are a communicative tool rather than art. The drawings are simple and based on international icons. Sketchnoters learn to draw each icon as part of their developing visual vocabulary. Just like learning any language, it takes time to practise and learn key icons. Knowing how to draw a few confidently can transform notes from overwhelming text to fun, creative and engaging summaries.
Here is a sketchnote I created for the British Council BBELT conference. Look closely at the icons. You’ll notice that they are mostly made up of circles, squares, triangles and lines. The people are ‘n’ shapes to express gender neutrality and keep the drawing quick and simple.
Why not try copying some of the icons from this sketchnote into your notebook now?
Visual thinking can be as simple as showing students a picture or a video. Encourage them to think critically about it by asking a variety of questions:
- Describe the picture: What can you see?
- What are the people in the picture thinking?
- What happened before/after?
- What does this image remind you of?
- Complete the sentence: I wonder why... / I feel...
- Conditionals: What would happen if...
You can also follow up by asking students to create a dialogue, blog post, diary entry, video or presentation inspired by the visual.
Overall, visual thinking is an excellent addition to the English language classroom. Developing students’ visual literacy through analysing pictures, drawing, using and interpreting diagrams and even discussing international iconography is a great way to boost engagement, critical thinking and creativity.
How do you incorporate visual thinking into your classroom? What activities have you used? We’d love to know.