logo  ELT Concourse teacher training
Concourse 2

Visualisation

visualise

I prefer radio to TV because the pictures are better.
Alistair Cooke, journalist (and many others)

At some time or other, most people have been disappointed when they see a film or TV adaptation of a favourite book or radio programme.  The pictures rarely match the mind's eye images of how places, characters and creatures are visualised.
Here's another, more easily traced quotation:

Even though it directly stimulates only your hearing, radio fully engages the other four senses and the mind.  It’s not for the lazy.  Unlike TV, movies and even traditional print, where the pictures are thrust in front of your eyes, radio forces you to conjure up your own images to accompany the words you are hearing.  As a consequence, those pictures have more impact because of the effort it takes to create them.
Greg J. Stone, 2016

The link between the level of impact and the cognitive effort required by the listener is the noteworthy part of that.


theory

What's the theory?

There is good evidence that accessing data in both verbal and visual ways simultaneously enhances learning.

For example, Šmajdek and Selan (2016) report on a study carried out on the effects of visualisation on students’ ability to memorise a difficult written definition.  They hypothesised from the outset of the study that

... active visualisation will contribute to the students’ ability to memorise text in a statistically significant way.  This hypothesis is based on the assumption that the combination of verbal and visual experiences enhances cognitive learning.
(Op cit. :163)

and they reported that this hypothesis was confirmed by the experimental data.

caution

A word of caution

Out here on the web some pretty expansive claims are made for the power of visualisation including that it can affect our genetic make-up, make us more attractive to the opposite (or same) sex and lead to happiness, success and a fulfilling life.  Inter alia, it is claimed that Arnold Schwarzenegger would not have made a success of three careers without the power of visualisation.
No such claims are being made here.  Visualisation here is presented as an interesting and quite possibly useful classroom technique.  That's all, OK?


visualise

Doing visualisation exercises in the classroom

Neither feelings nor concepts, but images are the fundament of human cognition.
(Muhovič, 1998, p. 43, cited in Šmajdek and Selan, op cit.: 165)

A second word of caution:
Some people find that sitting in a classroom with people you may not know very well (or much like) with your eyes closed, listening to someone's voice is not a particularly comfortable experience.  Visualisation should therefore be handled with a little sensitivity.
Explaining its purpose and making it an easy experience, especially the first time, is very important.
Getting people into a relaxed state of mind before starting is important, too, and simple deep-breathing exercises can be used for that.

Visualisation is a practice or awareness-raising technique; it is not a substitute for teaching language.  What is claimed for it is that it is a powerful aid to memory, an engaging activity and a way of getting learners to notice language and make it personal.
This site uses images quite extensively (there are five on this page already and we aren't done yet) and the theory behind that is that people react to images well and can use them as an aide memoire on which to hang ideas, concepts and thoughts.

For example, if faced with a number of lexemes in a language you do not speak as your first, you may find it quite difficult to remember what they mean.  Adding a picture, the more emotive the better, makes words more memorable.  Most teachers are already aware of that and go to some trouble to find engaging visuals to set scenes, exemplify lexis and back up explanations of concepts.

One could, for example, explain the concepts below in words but simply showing the pictures to a class is likely to be more memorable and have greater impact (and it's a good deal quicker, of course):

homecoming home daring dare
astonished astonish consequences consequence
motivation motivation drowning drowning


stick on fence

Sounds

Clackety-clack

The value of visualisation is, so the theory goes, that the hearer has to make his or her own images to match the language input.
But the input doesn't actually have to be human language.  Here's a little visualisation exercise to practise three different sorts of things in English (and you can probably think of other areas to practise).  The questions can be altered to accord with the level of the class and what you want to practise.

Listening to this clip and imagine.
To practise tense forms To practise adjectives of emotion To practise verbs of perception
  1. Where are you?
  2. How long have you been here?
  3. Where did you come from?
  4. Where are you going next?
  5. What had you done before you arrived?
  6. How long have you been listening?
  1. How do you feel?
  2. Are you lonely?
  3. Are you fascinated?
  4. Are you excited?
  5. Are you feeling nervous?
  6. Do you feel relaxed?
  1. What time of day is it?
  2. What can you see?
  3. What can you hear?
  4. How does the ground feel?
  5. What can you smell?
  6. Can you taste anything?

Obviously, learners will be unable to do this until they have mastered the language forms they need but even before teaching, this sort of exercise can alert learners to what they need to know.  In that, it's a form of noticing exercise.
The key to this kind of exercise is that it lends itself much more easily to personalisation and the exchange of thoughts and ideas for a real communicative purpose.  It is interesting in itself to hear how other people answered the questions and compare that with your own perceptions.
Everyone will answer the questions differently and how people respond is almost entirely unpredictable.


chat

Language input to visualisations

The art of telling a good story or recounting an engaging anecdote is mostly to do with getting the listeners to visualise what is being described.
Successful raconteurs use the kinds of language they need to conjure pictures in their listeners' heads.  The best do it naturally; the rest of us need to try a little harder and that usually means working from a script.
Here's an example used to practise epistemic modality in the language of deduction (must be, might do, could be, couldn't be etc.) and some common perception verbs and adjectives.

Stage 1

Follow this script, speaking as far as possible quite slowly, calmly and clearly.  Try not to impose any of your own emotions and emphases.

Close your eyes, breathe slowly in and out and relax.
[Pause 15 seconds]
You are crossing a road in a small town and walking towards a large, old-fashioned house.  You have a bag in your hand.
[Pause after each question]
    What's in the bag?
    Is it heavy?
    Is there a lot of traffic?
    What time of day is it?
    What's the weather like?
    Are you feeling cold?
    Are you feeling relaxed or nervous?
[Pause 5 seconds]
Put your hand in your pocket and find the key.
    What does it feel like?
Take it out of your pocket.
    What sort of key is it?
    What could it open?
Walk up to the front door.  Put the key in the lock and turn it.  Open the door.
There is no sound.  The house must be empty.
    What can you hear?
    How does the house smell?
Open the first door on the left and go into the room.
    What can you see?
    Can you smell anything?
[Pause 5 seconds]
There's a big table in the middle of the room with some objects on it.  They all tell you something about who lives here.
There are:
Two empty cigarette packets
    What brand are they?
    What does this tell you?
Three detective story books
    What's on the front cover?
An English grammar book
    Do you know it?
    Why is it here?
A pair of reading glasses
    What do they tell you?
A laptop computer.
You sit at the table and open the laptop and switch it on.  The screen comes up with a half-written letter.  You start to read.
    What's the first line?
    Who is the letter to?
[Pause 10 seconds]
What do you do now?

You can extend this in any way you like, of course, but for a first time, that's probably enough.  It sometimes helps to read the script again to allow people time to gather their thoughts and imagine what they are seeing / hearing / feeling etc. in more detail.

Stage 2

Now:
Put the learners in pairs or small groups of no more than four.

Task 1:
The learners compare notes.  You can have a short worksheet for this as an aide memoire with the stages of the visualisation (road, weather, house, key etc.).
The focus is on how they felt and what things were like.
This stage can take quite a long time and you need to be on hand to help and support the learners with the target language.
Task 2:
The learners discuss what they found on the table.
With luck, this should involve some of the target modal verbs such as:
    Whoever lives here must be short sighted
    Whoever lives here might be studying English
    Whoever lives here must enjoy detective stories

etc.

Here's another, simpler visualisation designed to reinforce learning of household objects and places.

Relax.  Close your eyes and breathe deeply in and out two or three times.
Now you are at home.  It is 8 o'clock in the morning.
Go into the kitchen and look around.
    What can you see?
    Is there a table here?
    What's on the table?
    Is anyone in the room?  Who?
    What colour are the walls?
    What can you see out of the window?
Leave the room and go to your bedroom.  Close the door behind you.
Look around.
    What can you see?
    Go to the wardrobe.
    What colour is it?
Open the doors.
    What is the first thing you see?
Look under the bed.
    Is there anything there?

and so on for as many rooms as you like.  You can do this one room at a time over a series of lessons so that the learners don't get too tired and you can repeat it after you have revised the vocabulary you are targeting.
Something similar can be used for gardens, towns, holiday locations and work places.  Only your and your learners' imaginations will limit what you can do.

computer

Get your computer to read it to the class

You do not have to be particularly tech-savvy to copy this page into a word processor and get it to read the scripts aloud to the class.  Most decent word processing programs (and Adobe Acrobat Reader) can do that.  They tend to be slightly robotic and can't handle compound-noun stress but they have the advantage of being controllable for speed as well as being infinitely and unchangeably repeatable.
To make it easy for you, you can download both the scripts above as a single Word document or PDF document.
(For more on how to use the screen reader for Microsoft Word, go to https://support.office.com/en-gb/article/Using-the-Speak-text-to-speech-feature-459e7704-a76d-4fe2-ab48-189d6b83333c.
If you need a free text-to-speech add-in for Word, try http://www.wordtalk.org.uk/Home/.)

Your task is to come up with your own ideas for visualisation exercises and then to teach the lesson.


fitness

Personal uses of visualisation

Visualisation exercises are extensively used in sports training and other forms of coaching.  Athletes and others find that visualising, e.g., a diving or vaulting manoeuvre, a tennis, snooker, darts, baseball, cricket or golf shot and so on in detail can help them perform the action more precisely and effectively in real life.
This ability is enhanced if the player can also envisage where, when and against whom the manoeuvre takes place.
Sports psychologists know this.  Here's what one well-known and successful sports psychologist (Dr Steve Bull, cited in Bailey, 2014) is reported as saying:

The most important thing with imagery is using multiple senses, like sound, sight and smell.  What makes [a player] unique is his imagination.  When he visualises scoring a goal, he can feel his foot hitting the ball, the smell of the grass under his foot and the sound of the crowd.  This incredibly vivid imagery helps an athlete to prepare mentally, by improving their confidence, focus, clarity and speed of thought.  It helps them prepare for any scenario

He goes on:

There is a huge crossover between the demands of sport and business.  For example, if you visualise a big business presentation in real detail, you will prepare for everything from your best posture and body language, and how you will handle any feelings of anxiety, to the awkward questions that might be asked and how you will respond to them.  By the time you walk in there, you will feel much more confident.

The argument here is that there is no fundamental difference between a business presentation and many other verbal encounters including teaching and using a foreign language.  So, there is no reason at all why learners of languages can't employ the same methods to help them perform in language at any level.  Speaking is a difficult skill to master and one reason for that is there are three pressures:

  1. Time
  2. Preparation level
  3. Topic familiarity

(See the guide to understanding speaking for more detail.)
All three of these pressures can be reduced by visualising the encounter in detail beforehand.  It will also help learners to identify areas where they are not fully prepared so they can do a little research.
And there's no reason teachers can't use the technique, either.

Being able to visualise events is a skill in itself and comes with practice so learners should not be disappointed if they struggle at first.  That's normal and people need to practise doing it.  When you try to visualise an event, it helps to have some questions in the front of your mind:

  1. Where is this event taking place?
  2. Who are the other participants?
  3. What will you see?
  4. What will you hear?
  5. How will you feel?
  6. Who will speak first?
  7. What will that person say?
  8. What will you say first?

Here are some possible uses:

You can probably think of some more.



Links
the Delta section for the guide to using visualisation to prepare for teaching
understanding speaking for a guide to what makes it so difficult
speaking for EAP this guide is focused partly on giving a presentation and includes consideration of using visualisation to prepare
Word document or PDF document for the visualisation scripts


References:
Bailey, M, 2014, Sports visualisation: how to imagine your way to success, The Daily Telegraph, 22 Jan 2014 [available online (or was)]
Šmajdek, A and Selan, J, 2016, The Impact of Active Visualisation of High School Students on the Ability to Memorise Verbal Definitions, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia, Centre for Educational Policy Studies Journal | Vol.6 | No4 | pp. 163 - 186
Stone, G J, 2016, The Pictures Are Better on Radio, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/greg-j-stone/the-pictures-are-better-o_b_12074406.html [accessed July 2017]