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Author: Anita Bamberger, EAL specialist

When considering the Chinese language, the Chinese proverb ‘a picture paints a thousand words’ is apposite. Chinese is a complex language of symbols, strokes and pictures, where each picture can mean several words.

Images are a universal language and their power in the classroom shouldn't be underestimated. In this article we look at:

  • visualisation to inspire/start learning​
  • the use of emojis
  • visual resources

​Visualisation to inspire and start teaching

"Being able to manipulate visuals is key to learning, but under-appreciated as a skill in the education system” (Creasey, 2018). Creasey talks about Professor Dan Schwartz's research that “pages of school textbooks are punctuated with maps, diagrams or visualisations”. He comments that the reason for these representations is that they “help people to understand and see the structure of things”.

Professor Schwartz explains that the creation of visualisations should be the start of a whole new teaching process, one that enables the students to “experience the nature of the problem before you tell them the solution”, as “the key to getting them to use their knowledge in new situations”.

For example, if a teacher wishes to indicate how an author sets up a concept, followed by a crisis and a denouement, a visualisation of the narrative would be a clear and vivid way of representation. Using a visualiser to project these images onto a whiteboard would then encourage the use of them by the students.

Using images to assist with simple communication

Another good example of communication through images can be found in the use of ‘emojis’. In emojis, feelings and ideas are expressed in a lively and fun way, using icons. They were invented by a Japanese man, Shigetaka Kurita, who translated 176 ideas – including people, places, emotions and concepts – into 12-bit symbols.

The word emoji comes from the Japanese 絵 (‘e’, picture), 文 (‘mo’, write) and 字 (‘ji’, character). Japanese characters, or ‘kanji’, are largely based on Chinese ideograms, meaning that the language's writing system is already highly pictorial (online magazine CNN Style 22/5/18). Emojis remained largely confined to Japan for over a decade, but have now become the first international global pictorial language for communication.

More traditional forms of images have of course been used for decades, such as the ‘no smoking or naked flames’ sign and toilet and transport signs. These are universal images, able to assist visitors in a foreign country where language would be an issue. For EAL learners, they provide a literal symbolic representation of words, which can assist in communication in instances where lengthy text may not actually be necessary for simple communication or to add clarity or signify meaning.

​Visual resources

Recently, a company called Mrs Wordsmith created a vivid English storyteller’s dictionary. This dictionary is great for EAL learners, as well as for learners with a specific learning disability (SLD): the images are fun and colourful and provide a clear visual representation of the vocabulary. A complex idea can thus be portrayed with a simple picture.

The Learning Village's approach

The Learning Village ( provides its entire programme by teaching through images. This assists learners with any home language through this universal language of visuals and those not confident with reading, perhaps due to adjusting to a new script or low-level literacy in the home language. All these visual tools are useful for beginner-intermediate EAL students for communicating more basic expressions and words as well as curriculum language as well as providing starting points for more advanced learners.

Communication through images is a powerful resource for every classroom.


CNN Style (2018).

Creasey, S. (2018) Spacial Thinking, TES Magazine.

National Geographic (2017) Your Brain, A User's Guide: 100 Things You Never Knew, National Geographic Magazine.

Schwartz, D.L., Blair, K.P., Tsang, J.M. (2016) The ABCs of how we learn, 26 scientifically proven approaches, how they work, and when to use them. W.W. Norton and Company.

Further learning - Blog

Parents and child
Created: Mon 14th Oct 2019

"Parental involvement is invaluable for any new arrival in transition. The learner’s family may be the only group of people who truly understand their transition. The parents may have very little understanding of what happens in an English-speaking school or the approach you have to education. Parental involvement will help you to understand more about the child’s life as well as build a valuable rapport and level of trust between all parties.”
(Scott, 2012)

Created: Mon 13th Jan 2014

It is Friday morning; the Head teacher comes to tell you that on Monday morning you will have a new student arriving who does not speak much English.  How can you give a successful welcome for that student given the time frame?

Boy cupping hand to ear listening
Created: Wed 12th Apr 2023

Despite legitimate claims that EAL students devote over half of their time to listening when functioning in English (Nunan, 1998), this is often not reflected in the time that we dedicate to the four main skills in the classroom. In fact, Nation (2009) states that listening is arguably the least understood and most overlooked of the four skills in language teaching.