IATEFL 2012: Developing visual literacy in ELT

Just got out of a talk by Ben Goldstein on “The digital image: developing visual literacy in ELT”.  Ben teaches an MA TESOL module on materials design at the New School.

Interestingly, my experience of the talk started with my overhearing an older gentleman (maybe 60?) moaning that if he heard the word “technology” one more time in this conference, he was going to leave.  He was very unimpressed with the plenary by Steven Thorne on World of Warcraft, saying “we’re supposed to be educating people in values, not killing people. Absolutely disgraceful.”  Makes me wonder what he’s doing sitting here, about to listen to a talk on digital images…. but anyway.

(Post-session update: found out who he is!  Turns out he’s a big name in TEFL.  Shame on me for not knowing his face.  I’ll leave it there…)

Here’s how the session went down…

Visuality is the ability to critically decode and encode visual texts.  This is central to new literacy practices.

If you google “apple”, you get the tech logo.  If you google “apples”, you get pics of real apples.  Our digital world is not that separate from our ‘real’ world nowadays.


Metaphor can be a very powerful thing.  From metaphors, we get mental images.  (At least, those of us without certain mental/psychological conditions such as Asperger’s do.)

Images traditionally:

– prompt language production

– make linguistic concepts easy to grasp

– act as speech cues/flash cards (e.g. A is for Apple)

– play an integral part in many classroom tasks, e.g. information gaps like ‘Spot the Difference’

But there are other uses of images, not just based on description.  The examples above are quite passive – he wants to encourage students to interact.

Often an image fills a white space on a coursebook page, but teachers/students don’t do enough with it.

But images can also:

– help us personalise and localise material

– act as a springboard for discussion or the centerpiece for a task (not be secondary to a text)

– engage learners on an imaginative and affective level, getting them engaged and motivated for particular tasks

– enhances critical thinking and intercultural awareness

He shows us some examples and asks us to think about how we might use them in class:


Our ideas: look at the commonality of hands in the images; discussions of class (what jobs are the hands in the pictures doing); discussions of age (what stages of life are these people at); story-telling (what else can you imagine about the people ‘behind’ the photos from their hands?); discussion of dreams and ambitions (e.g. have a family, build your own home), etc.  There’s no black-and-white answer – students’ answers are valid providing they justify them somehow.  Students could then create their own collage of their ambitions, etc.

A good technique when using image: making the familiar unfamiliar!

Nowadays, in the digital age, there are new image types, new ways of reading images and text, new ways of communicating through image, new scope for image creation and curation and new sources and destinations for images and text.

Typical example: people using smart phones to very easily take, annotate and send images to others:


Another example: informationisbeautiful.net to create ‘infographics’.  The example he shows us is about distractions from work:


Getting students to analyse infographics like this can be interesting.

Another example: the journey of a tweet – we lose track of what we post on twitter!  This can be problematic…


Positive perception of all this: ownership; democratisation.  People can bypass official institutions, compete with profesionals, critique the mainstream.  It’s empowering.

Negative perception: dumbing down.  The cult of the amateur.  Home-production can undermine expertise.


These new digital visual media can parody themselves!  An infographic making fun of infographics:


Important to remember: some sites touted as useful for our profession ARE NOT REALLY USEFUL.  Some are complicated, visually unappealing, difficult to use, syntactically too complex for many learners… he suggests ‘Snappy Words‘, a free visual online dictionary, as an example of this.

Your Paintings‘ website is collecting photos of all the paintings in museums all over Britain.  People are encouraged to tag them, so we can easily share artworks.  But, Ben asks… who’s tagging them?  And why?  Some services like these raise questions.

People may credit the producer of a digital device with the success of what they create with it:



Some project examples:

1. Premier Connections project by British Council: using PowerPoint as the digital tool, teenagers had to find connections between their football team/their town and a London football team/town.  Ben shows us a charming video created by a teenager trying to accomplish this project – he basically subverted it and created a reasonably long video full of jokes about how he couldn’t find many connections between the two cities!  Yet in the process of looking, he produced many interesting images and plenty of English.  Here are a couple highlights:



2. Hewlett Packard’s ad about personalising your computer – what does your computer mean to you?  The brand ad finishes with “The computer is personal again.”  Students used the format to create their own video ad (ending the same way) about what their computers meant to them.  Here are some highlights (sorry no video so you can’t hear the voiceover):


Ben continues by talking about tools and tasks.  Tools are all well and good, but let’s not forget the task!  We need to analyse the relationship between the two.  Does the tool enhance the task, or distract the learner from it?  Does the task with the tool generate language?

He did some research into this with his MA students, involving Wordle, Glogster/Blurb, 1000 Words, Photofunia, Vizlingo and Scoop.It.  His students tried tasks with and without the technology to analyse the use/effectiveness of these tools.

The verdicts:

Wordle – the tool was used to create a word cloud for prediction about a text.  It aided and enhanced the task.

Glogster – It took a long time to do and the paper and pen version might have been equally as effective in the classroom.  The process – and its language richness – might have been more important than the product.

Photofunia – Fun but completely useless pedagogically.  Novel but trivial.

Vizlingo – It creates a video image with one subtitled word (kind of like a moving flashcard?).  Verdict as per Photofunia.

He plugs the following, which promote the sharing and accessibility of images.

http://flickr.com/photos/eltpics and http://takeaphotoand.wordpress.com


The ‘flipped’ classroom and the ‘connected’ classroom are buzzwords of the day.  Images are highly relevant here.

Moral of the story: we need to…

– embrace the visual in our materials and classroom practice.

– encourage learners to create, interpret and interact with images actively.

– engage learners with images both in an out of the classroom.

…and something else which I missed.  Sorry.  Slides go so fast!

He ends with a quick plug for his book, “The Big Picture.”


About Laura Patsko

Teacher trainer, language learner, language teacher, linguist, researcher. Not necessarily in that order.


  1. That’s totally excellent, Laura!!! I feel like I was there myself. Thanks so much for taking the trouble to create such an informative summary.Now I wonder who that prominent older TEFLer could be, who obviously has his head buried firmly in the sand. How many famous ostriches can there be in the world of ELT? You couldn’t give us another clue could you? ;))

  2. Laura Patsko

    Glad it helped you! Afraid I honestly can’t remember the name of the older TEFLer… oops! But I’ve since heard he’s not all bad, whoever he is. 😉 Just doesn’t like tech much!

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