Visuals to support L2 learning

Jade Blue

Teacher Trainer, Jade Blue, discusses how visuals can be used as tools to facilitate language learning and the variety of methods available for teaching L2 learners.

What are visuals?

The term ‘visual’ is connected with seeing or sight. ‘Visualisation’ is the process of using one’s imagination to picture something in one’s mind, whereas ‘visual’ usually refers to an actual picture or image, on paper, canvas or screen, for example. But as well as a photographs and paintings, visuals include cartoons or comics, maps, pieces of film, charts, diagrams, tables, and so on. It also refers to page layout or the aesthetic organisation of a text. In education, visuals are often used to make an article or a talk easier to understand or more interesting, but they are also an invaluable tool for the facilitation of language learning.

How can visuals support learning?

In terms of L2 learning, visual material can be used in a variety of different ways and with a range of different aims. Professor in Literacies and Language Education Maria Papadopoulou observes that the use of visuals can enhance language learning by bringing the real world into the classroom, presenting a task or a situation in a more authentic way and making learning more interesting and context-based. Visuals can be:

Jade Blue - examples of visuals











TESOL professor Brian Tomlinson describes how visualisation during the reading process facilitates positive engagement with the text, increasing the learner’s ability to comprehend and retain what they’re reading: visualisation leads to ‘unique cognitive and affective consequences that heighten the reader’s experience’ and is one of the most effective means of achieving understanding, interpretation, representation, retention, and recall (Tomlinson 2013).

When we look at an image, we engage the mind in a different way, we understand something different from that which we understand through words alone. As cartoonist and comics theorist Scott McCloud (2009) says, images provide ‘a window back into our world’, and so they aid comprehension on another, almost metaphorical, level. As Papadopoulou describes, ‘they speak directly to students holistically and emotionally’. However, in order for visuals to enhance learning, students need to be engaged with meaningful activities with them. It is not enough to simply ‘see’ something.

In order to help teachers and other professionals use visuals to enhance learning, Clark and Lyons produced a taxonomy of the communicative functions of visuals and the psychological learning processes that visuals must support in order to meaningfully engage learners with visuals.

Learner Generated Visuals

The act of drawing differs from merely looking at someone else’s image. Scholar, art critic and cartoonist Nick Sousanis says ‘we draw not to transcribe ideas from our heads, but to generate them in search of deeper understanding’ (Sousanis 2015). At their simplest, Learner Generated Visuals are visuals designed and created by learners – as opposed to the teacher – as a means of recording, evaluating or exploring language. Types range from timelines to infographics, but also include more metaphorical representations that examine how the learner conceptualises language (Blue 2016). The unfocused and creative element of representing something graphically – ‘diffuse thinking’ as opposed to focused thinking (Girling 2015) allows the brain time to relax, during which we’re 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).

Jade Blue - functions of visuals

Graphic Organisers

One type of learner generated visual is Graphic Organisers – flexible frameworks designed to help the learner organise words and represent the relationships between ideas. These frameworks encourage learners to think critically and justify their choices about how they might choose to organise information in a particular way, and so promote critical thinking and deeper learning. They are meaningful for learners as they encourage the noticing of relationships between concepts. Knowledge is stored in both linguistic and visual forms, and the use of graphic organisers in classrooms has been shown to increase students’ achievements by more than two grades (Petty 2014). Some examples of different types of graphic organiser:

Jade Blue - mind map visualMind Maps

Allow learners to organise information and identify relationships: between vocabulary and lexical items; ideas and concepts. Mind maps can be linguistic or topic based and allow flexibility for the learner to build them as they generate more ideas.

Jade Blue - target visualTarget Diagrams

Can be used to show differences in size or proximity: learners identify what is most / least important, for example in discussing environmental issues, personal values, family relationships, etc.

Jade Blue Venn diagramVenn Diagrams

Provide a framework for brainstorming, showing and discussing similarities and differences or grouping qualities of something.


Jade Blue XY ComparisonsXY Comparisons

Like Venn Diagrams, used to identify similarities and differences, but more structured so as to encourage a minimum number of ideas. Used for language items (e.g. meaning, register, pronunciation similarities and differences), topics, concepts or ideas.

Jade Blue Crossed ContinuumsCrossed Continuums

Encourage learners to consider variations by marking the position of qualities on a scale, e.g. cheap to expensive; sustainable to unsustainable; formal to informal.


Jade Blue Flow DiagramFlow Diagrams

Used to describe processes, e.g. in a student’s work or a specific subject. Create space for additional language to express relationship ideas, such as connectors (as a result; before moving onto).

Interested in learning more?

More articles are available by Jade Blue, click to view the selection.

Further reading:

  • Avgerinou, M. D., & Pettersson, R. (2011). Toward a cohesive theory of visual literacy. Journal of Visual Literacy, 30(2), 1-19.
  • Clark, R. C., & Lyons, C. (2010). Graphics for learning: Proven guidelines for planning, designing, and evaluating visuals in training materials. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Burkeman, O. (2015) Five Reasons Why We Should All Learn How to Do Nothing. Available from: <>
  • Girling, K. (2015) Learn in your Sleep, Business English UK 2015 Conference (International House, London. 06.06.2015)
  • McCloud, S. (2009) The Visual Magic of Comics. Available from: <>
  • Petty, G. (2014). Evidence Based Teaching: A Practical Approach. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p77.
  • Sousanis, N. (2015) Unflattening. Harvard University Press.
  • Tomlinson, B. (2013) Seeing what they mean: helping L2 readers to visualise. In Tomlinson, B. (ed.) Materials Development in Language Teaching. (2nd edn) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp 357-378

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