Conceptualising Language: Learner Generated Visuals

Many teachers recognise the value of and utilise visuals in their classrooms, in order to illustrate something (the easiest way to explain the meaning of ‘elephant’ is perhaps to show a picture of one), to enhance interest and/or motivation (accompanying a text, for example), to attract and direct attention or show something difficult to convey in words (such as timelines to help explain tense and aspect), to help less able learners and to facilitate memory.

But rather than being sourced or created by the teacher, Learner Generated Visuals are designed and created by learners as a means of recording, evaluating or exploring language.  Visualisation can facilitate positive engagement with a text and increase a learner’s ability to comprehend and retain information.  Tomlinson (2013) describes how helping L2 readers to visualise more leads to ‘unique cognitive and affective consequences that heighten the reader’s experience’.  It is one of the most effective means of achieving understanding, interpretation, representation, retention, and recall.

Learner generated visuals range in type from timelines to infographics to simple illustrations, but also include more metaphorical representations that explore how the learner conceptualises language.  Perhaps the two most accessible mediums for this are pen and paper (for drawing) and Cuisenaire rods (for building mini-sculptures or representations).  Let’s look at some activities as examples.

Conceptualising Grammar

Working with a partner, consider the following questions:

What does the past perfect progressive look like?

  • What colour is it?
  • What shape is it?
  • Why?

Use pen and paper to represent your ideas visually.  Don’t use any words on the paper.

Participants usually approach this task in one of two ways.  Some spend time thinking and discussing ideas before deciding on and representing their answers on paper.  Others answer the questions immediately and intuitively before going on to consider their justifications for their choices.  Both approaches are equally valid, and it is in the ensuing dialogues and comparisons that participants really start to explore their understanding of both the language and its underlying concepts.  The following are examples of responses from English language learners, and teachers on training courses in the UK.




Sentence Structure

Cuisenaire rods are small wooden or plastic blocks in a variety of lengths and colours.  While originally designed as a mathematical learning aid for children, the rods have numerous uses in the ELT classroom and act as a powerful visual and interactive tool for learners.  One such use is to help comprehension of sentence structure.

Working with a partner, use Cuisenaire rods to ‘write’ the following sentences, using only one rod to represent each word:

  • I am a teacher
  • I am not a teacher
  • Am I a teacher?
  • Yes, I am.
  • No, I’m not.


Conceptual Sculptures

Working with a partner, use Cuisenaire rods to build a sculpture to represent ‘learning’.


The act of drawing or creating something differs from just looking at someone else’s image.  The process is inevitably more time consuming, resulting in more processing and evaluation time for the learner. Engagement is active rather than passive, interpretations are personalised, and learners are utilising their imagination as part of the process.

As we start to consider our personal concepts of the language, we start to build patterns and connections which run deeper than solely a focus on meaning and form.  These patterns and connections may sometimes seem arbitrary, but that doesn’t negate their value as we try to build connections.  They may be very personal responses – a student once described an English wall-chart she had as a child, on which the word Tuesday was accompanied by illustrations of lemons and so for her the English word Tuesday would always be yellow – but in sharing and discussing these responses the personal becomes shared: an exploration that triggers thoughts, ideas and observationsDifferent people inevitably conceptualise language in different ways, and thus discussion and reflection can lead to critical thinking: as learners share their interpretations, each is encouraged to consider different perspectives.   All of these differences lead to more memorable learning – which is, after all, what we’re seeking to achieve in our classrooms.

Additionally, when we’re representing something graphically, we’re using the brain creatively, but also in an unfocused way – ‘diffuse thinking’ as opposed to focused thinking (Girling 2015).  As with cooking or walking, for example, the unfocused and creative element of representing something graphically 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).  This is when the brain is really processing things.  And it needn’t be about copying what’s in your head: it’s as much about finding out.  The very act of drawing triggers connections in the mind.  As scholar and art critic Nick Sousanis describes, ‘we draw not to transcribe ideas from our heads, but to generate them in search of deeper understanding’.  And if the focus of a task is on this process of discovery, as opposed to a finished ‘product’, then artistic skill is not a pre-requisite for learners to benefit from drawing.

‘we draw not to transcribe ideas from our heads, but to generate them in search of deeper understanding’


Nick Sousanis, Unflattening. Harvard University Press 2015:79

Encouraging learners to create their own, personalised, visual representations can be a powerful way to explore and evaluate language, enhancing interest and motivation as well as aiding retention, processing and comprehension.  As sociologist Mary Follett (1930) described, ‘concepts can never be presented to me merely, they must be knitted into the structure of my being, and this can only be done through my own activity’.


Burkeman, O. (2015) Five Reasons Why We Should All Learn How to Do Nothing.  Available from:  <; Accessed November 2015.

Follett, M. (1924) Creative Experience. Eastford: Martino Fine Books.

Girling, K. (2015) Learn in your Sleep, Business English UK 2015 Conference (International House, London.  06.06.2015)

Sousanis, N. (2015) Unflattening.  London: Harvard University Press.  pp54-79.

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


  1. Dear Jade, I have just come across your beautiful post. It is very timely for me, as during the lockdown time this spring I have been working on visualizing/making small pictures as my micro-skills to develop. I respect and admire teachers who are also artists (or artists who are also teachers?) Thank you for the inspiration, and the practical classroom ideas.

    My favorite is the one on using Cuisenaire rods to build/make/illustrate concepts and ideas.

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