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English Language Learners K-12 RTI/MTSS

Four Ways to Use Visuals when Teaching English Language Learners

Katie Cotrano
Written By Katie Cotrano
On May 19, 2020
7 minute read

If you were to walk into my high school Language Arts classroom mid-unit you might see students working in cooperative groups using good old-fashioned butcher block paper and markers. You might also see them using their iPads and design apps to “draw” their thinking about a text we’re reading or a topic we’re studying.  Some of the crafty activities we’re doing might seem designated for elementary grades, but visuals in the classroom benefit students of all ages, and the use of visual tools for constructing knowledge is particularly fitting for today’s smartphone generation of learners who are virtually always engaged.  Learners are looking for visual stimulation, and when they are provided opportunities to transform their ideas into images, they can make stronger connections and achieve deeper levels of understanding with the material and their classmates in a format that is engaging.

After learners have had the opportunity to construct their thinking visually, they have a greater understanding of what they want to say about the subject or text, which then leads to improved reading, writing, discussions, test performance, etc.  In this blog, I will focus on how visuals benefit English Language Learners in the classroom, but these tools and activities would also support students with RtI plans, or any students who have been identified to have a preference for visual learning.


Graphic Organizers

Graphic organizers are by no means a novel idea in the field of education. However, these ‘oldie but goodies’ are powerful tools to improve literacy.  English Language Learners can be overwhelmed by the complex process of language development, and they benefit from the multisensory approach of graphic organizers: seeing information on the graphic, hearing it from the teacher, and writing it on the organizer.  In order to promote interactive learning with these tools, I first model for students how to use them—this step is critical for success.  When used properly, these organizers are not simply fill-in-the-blank worksheets, but rather scaffolding tools with clear objectives to help students break down a task into manageable steps.

I have used many of the most common graphic organizers--Venn diagrams, concept maps, KWL charts, character diagrams, anchor charts—to target the specific reading skills we’re practicing.  Reading comprehension visuals help students read more closely and summarize what they have read because they encourage students to pause and think about important information in the text, and they help students organize their thoughts.  These formative assessments help me to diagnose learner strengths and weaknesses with reading skills—sequencing, decoding, comprehension, vocabulary, inferencing—and they are helpful tools to gauge students’ progression over time.  Sometimes I will measure a reading skill in both the ELL’s primary language and secondary language to see if there are differences between the two, and to identify and remedy gaps in understanding.

Graphic organizers are helpful with progress monitoring, providing a better understanding of student comprehension of concepts. These visual tools allow teachers to get into our students’ minds as they are constructing what they are learning; we can see what and how students are thinking before they have to perform on a summative assessment like an essay or test.  With access to a visual representation of the student’s thinking, I can remediate misunderstandings or misconceptions before the student is evaluated.  Continuous assessment--through direct observation, checklists, anecdotal notes-- allows me to monitor how students are understanding and applying what they’ve learned, and this feedback informs the direction of my whole-class and individual instruction.  Once students use these tools to organize and analyze their thinking about the material, they ultimately synthesize information they have learned more effectively than if they did not have a visual tool.  When I compare progress of my ELLs with and without the use of visual tools, undeniably, the data reveals my students reach greater levels of achievement when they have had opportunities to construct their knowledge visually.  Also, teachers could have students compile their work in a portfolio so that they can see their improvements, and they can monitor their own learning through self-rating scales and checklists, all of which motivate the learner. 

Of course, graphic organizers can be used to help students on individual and group levels in the classroom, but when districts implement the use of graphic organizers across disciplines and grade levels, they are likely to experience more success because students become familiar with the format.  Providing teachers opportunities to collaborate and make decisions about which graphic organizers are most valuable for their students across grade levels and content areas will result in more consistent practice and less confusion for the students. If multiple teachers are using a variety of organizers, learners—particularly those with special needs or language barriers—could be overwhelmed, but a handful of agreed upon tools that can be tailored to individual needs and ability levels (while also being strongly tied to the curriculum) will allow students to become proficient with these formats.  These visual tools also support reading and writing across the curriculum programs in school districts.


Graphic Novels

At first glance, graphic novels might be disregarded as silly, comic book reading. However, any serious reader knows the value of these books, and their potential to reach a wide range of students. When I was a student teacher, I taught my first graphic novel, Maus by Art Spiegelman, a story about his father’s experiences in the Nazi concentration camps. This teaching experience opened my eyes to the value of these books.  This genre of writing engages students intellectually and emotionally, and the visual format provides helpful clues for readers.  The language load is lightened for ELLs, the colorful images engage the readers, and the different font styles put emphasis on context clues that help ELLs draw inferences.  These books reduce the heavy language load of traditional novels, but also provide students the opportunity to practice the same reading skills that are required to read a novel.  

Along the same vein of graphic novels, storyboards are an engaging assignment for students to visually demonstrate their understanding of a text.  Storyboards challenge students to summarize what they have read as well as identify key information about plot sequence, characters, setting, and themes.  I like to do storyboards in cooperative groups because this format allows me to gauge learner understanding through classroom observation.  Again, students use a scoring rubric or checklist that details the goals of the assignment, and I walk around the classroom providing helpful feedback to groups, while also informally collecting data on individual students.  In observation of cooperative learning groups, I can measure what ELLs can do independently or with the assistance of their peers.  I always write this anecdotal information down (so I don’t forget) and I keep that data handy to tailor individual instruction.  I also use this information to form reading groups based on reader strengths and weaknesses.  Also, if you’re in a 1:1 technology district, there are educational websites wherein students can create these storyboards digitally.  Students really produce some engaging graphics that are enjoyable to read.


Drawing to Understand

Drawings are another way to help students break down challenging texts.  Edgar Allan Poe’s writing is tough for many high school students, but his academic language can be particularly difficult for English Language Learners.  Visual activities provide ELL students more support for comprehending a classical writer such as Poe.  When students “draw” select vocabulary or even a few descriptive paragraphs from one of Poe’s short stories, the images help the students think about the language in an accessible format, and they ultimately help students bridge the gap to higher-order thinking about themes, inferences, patterns, and concepts.  ELLs need opportunities like this to practice language skills, and I have found that this activity decreases learner anxiety and increases confidence and reading comprehension skills.  Once students see how text can transform to images, they become aware of the relationship between text, images, and thinking, and they are better prepared to use those visuals to perform more complex tasks.  Again, I always accompany an assignment like this with a scoring rubric or checklist that details expectations for the student. 

A fringe benefit, visual assignments such as these allow students with artistic skills to shine.  Of course, these students might be recognized in an art class—if they are enrolled in one—but I have found that these activities are beautiful opportunities for students to recognize and appreciate the gifts and talents of their peers. That student who might not be the most assertive in class discussions has a chance to show his or her talents and feel recognized and successful.  And there are so many technology apps and software programs available to digitally design these drawings.


Performance-Based Assessments

Each year, my Language Arts students study literary symbolism, and a performance-based assessment of that unit is a creative project wherein students design a mask that symbolically represents them.  Students choose colors, images, and designs that reflect their interests, personalities, bad habits, cultures, aspirations, talents, life experiences—the possibilities are endless. After students design their masks, they write about their symbolic choices and finally, share their masks with their peers in a speech.  I also use a scoring rubric for this project so students clearly understand the learning objectives.  This is not just a simple arts-and-crafts project, but an opportunity for assessment of learner understanding of the concept of symbolism, and an opportunity for students to really get to know one another better in a format that is visually engaging.  Students learn about the goals of their peers. They learn about losses their peers have suffered. They learn what matters most to their peers.  They learn about different cultures.  And what an opportunity for ELLs to share their culture with their peers, another important support for those students.  Once again, this activity reduces the heavy language load of traditional writing assessments for ELLs, and provides me valuable information to get to know my students as individual learners.  The creative masks are displayed in my classroom for the remainder of the year. An added bonus, this activity gets kids thinking about “who am I?”, a question that quite honestly, never gets old.


These are just a few visual tools and creative activities I have found particularly helpful in supporting English Language Learners in the classroom.  What strategies have you used to engage these learners?

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