Visualising grammar in use

Koki Shimazu

Kokis Shimazu is an award-winning English Language teacher from Japan, and he’s back with the fourth and final article in his grammar series! In his last post, Koki spoke about his own experiences of learning and teaching English grammar. This time, he’s talking about the importance of visualising grammar in use.

There is a wug and there is another one. Now there are two wugs.

Jean Berko Gleason concocted a mysterious and small animal, called a wug (a pseudoword).The Wug Test is one of the most famous investigations into the use of plurals (and other grammatical features, including inflectional morphemes) and how they’re acquired by English-speaking children. Gleason’s wug test successfully illustrated that English speaking children know more than just the things that they have learned from others. Interestingly, though, this same rule-based approach could not be applied to Japanese speaking children – this is because Japanese is an agglutinative language with a mechanism that’s far removed from English verbal inflection. In Japanese, the concept of a binary contrast between regular and irregular does not exist, and this presents a major problem to any Japanese student who is trying to learn English. As a teacher of English to Japanese speaking students, it’s therefore really important to narrow the gap between the two languages. One really helpful weapon in a teacher’s armoury is the use of visual aids…

Visualising thoughts

As humans, we instinctively visualise our thoughts prior to producing any output in the form of language. Similarly, when we internalise and process language, we also tend to visualise. Even when we were kids, regardless of the language we used, we digested visual information – though the names of the objects that we digested would have varied depending on where in the world we were from.

When you were younger, you probably found that the names of concrete objects were easier to understand than the abstract ones. Convention suggests that a good way to teach and reinforce objects is to use a clear table. If you, like me, enjoy going that one step further, I’d advise that you create visual representations and make your students practice with these. If the objects are animated on the screen, the method of teaching will be even more effective.


When teaching articles, which are said to be one of the most difficult grammatical features for a Japanese speaker to acquire, I always represent words visually. One classic way of checking your students’ understanding of plural and singular is to show them pictures of animals on a keynote or powerpoint presentation. Then, animate and increase (or decrease) the number of the objects on the screen and ask them to count  – as with the wug test. After repeating this a few times, elicit the students’ visualisations and see how they describe different cats. Do the same for musical instruments. If your students are like mine, they will come up with similar visualisations to one another. Visualisation really does help to teach most aspects of grammar.

Visual aids

Obviously, text that’s accompanied by a visual aid helps to communicate meaning more clearly. Digital natives are exposed to a variety of visuals on a daily basis and, if you use moving images, students do not just learn the content, but they also simultaneously grasp the unspoken rules of social situations. Visualisation has an infinite number of possibilities, and utilising these can maximise the scarcest learning resource.

If you’ve enjoyed this article and want to read all of Koki’s grammar series, why not start at the beginning with his first article? It’s all about the value of a good grammar reference book!

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