The use of high interest visuals to support literacy improves student engagement and retention of vocabulary. Australian scholars, Marietta Rossetto, a lecturer on languages and effective strategies for learning,
and Antonella Chiera-Macchia, a specialist in language curriculum writing and development, investigated the use of comics to improve the writing of secondary students in a beginning Italian class.
Their article, "Visual Learning is the Best Learning," explains that students were introduced to images and typical phrases from a familiar cartoon series,
. After watching a video of the series in Italian, students worked in small groups to create their own comics in Italian. Students were highly engaged in the writing project, working cooperatively in Italian, without resorting to use of dictionaries to translate phrases. The students used their collective knowledge to produce coherent stories; some even reported that they were thinking in Italian while working on the task. The study concluded that "the combination of written and visual texts, through a popular culture entry point, in this case, comics, can engage learners."
magazine, librarian Megan Schliesman supports the use of this medium. Her article, "So Many Books…So Little Time," states that "comic books...and graphic novels can engage young readers in multiple ways, enriching their understanding and comprehension, as well as their fluency in terms of both traditional and visual literacy."
In "Image as Language," Susan Britsch of Purdue University provides guidelines for teachers working with English language learners to use photographs for content learning, second-language development, and image-reading, since "language is not learned through words alone."
These strategies are transferable to all language learners, since words – whether in English or in a world language, whether written or spoken – "constitute highly abstract systems of representation."
According to Britsch, we think in visual images, not language symbols, since "vision developed before words."
However, written text is the primary way language is conveyed in the classroom, with images relegated to the status of mere illustration. This poses challenges for new language learners and ignores the learning styles of visual or kinesthetic learners. Britsch notes that images are now being repositioned in both screen and printed pages to a place of equivalent importance to that of the language text.
The use of images in language learning can increase the proficiency of students beyond their existing capabilities.
Michael D. Bush, in his article "Facilitating the Integration of Culture and Vocabulary Learning," reinforces the importance of visual input, referencing an observation made by the poet Simonides around 500 B.C. that "words are the images of things."
As support for the use of pictures to strengthen vocabulary, Bush quotes the seventeenth century writings of John Amos Comemius, who stated, "Words should not be learned apart from the objects to which they refer."
Images also increase the cultural awareness of students in foreign language classes. The use of authentic materials builds "cross-cultural understanding by integrating language learning with the learning of culture."
As the article shows, American students learning the French word
may have the image of store-bought, factory-produced soft sliced white bread, resembling nothing like the fresh-baked, hand-made, crusty, crunchy
a French student would buy at the local
. Teachers should create a library of up-to-date authentic images for vocabulary support to avoid translation and to give students a current cultural framework of the countries studied. As Bush states, "by using images to provide context, meaning would be present to facilitate learning."
Learning Styles and Millennial Learners
My focus on visual learning and literacy in building vocabulary and engagement for my French students is based on my assessment of them as primarily visual learners. Language learning involves complex skills, student engagement, and motivation. Lack of success in language classes often occurs when teaching does not align with student learning preferences. According to Richard M. Felder in "Learning and Teaching Styles in Foreign and Second Language Education," students experiencing a mismatch of learning styles "tend to be bored and inattentive in class, do poorly on tests, get discouraged about the course, and may conclude that they are no good at the subject and give up."
This description applies to a number of my middle-school students, especially the boys. Inattentiveness leads to off-task English conversations, disruptive behavior, and interruptions of learning for all students. Effective instruction should be balanced between information presented visually and material presented through written or spoken explanations to reach all students regardless of the preferences of the instructor. Felder suggests teaching new material in relatable contexts, balancing concrete information (grammar) with conceptual information (contrast and compare), balancing structure with open-ended conversational and cooperative activities, and making liberal use of visuals to illustrate and reinforce the meanings of vocabulary words."
The importance Felder places on visual support aligns with research on millennial learners. In "Essentials for Engaged 21
-Century Learners," author Virginia Jones writes that "millennial learners absorb and process input in nonlinear ways and rely heavily on visual cues to process the input."
They scroll through images, click though websites, multitasking while they carry out assignments. However, while millennial learners may "excel at producing results in a very literal manner…they do need time, support, and guidance" to explore material in a deeper, more abstract and creative way.
Using authentic visual and audio content, such as YouTube videos, virtual tours, and interactive websites, will allow students to be immersed in the culture and language, creating, collaborating, and communicating as they learn.
Importance of Art Education
In "Visual Thinking Strategies = Creative and Critical Thinking,"
the authors Mary Moeller, Kay Cutler, Dave Fiedler, and Lisa Weier demonstrate how art is used to promote memory and improve critical thinking. The communication skills of students at Camelot Intermediate School in Brookings, South Dakota were strengthened using visual thinking strategies (VTS) while discussing art.
VTS uses three simple questions to focus student observation and thinking about an artwork: "What is going on in this picture?" helps students consider the artwork in an open-ended manner; "What do you see that makes you say that?" requires students to support their observations; and "What more can you find?" suggests that students look more deeply to find features in the image to contemplate and discuss.
"VTS encourages storytelling as students attach actions or experiences to the characters in the image, thus animating the art," a process that has beneficial effects on student writing.
The writing process improves "because students spend time thinking about their ideas."
Critical thinking improves as students employ
inductive and deductive reasoning to make decisions about the artwork. They examine evidence in the paintings, make connections to prior knowledge, and explore possible causes and effects for choices made by the artist. Teachers have also noted improvements in students who normally struggle to work in or speak in front of a group. Using art and VTS has enabled those students to share their ideas and appreciate the varied opinions of their classmates.
Further support for using culturally significant French art to foster engagement and vocabulary learning is found in "Art and Memory: An Examination of the Learning Benefits of Visual-Art Exposure."
The research in this study conducted by Rosier, Locker, and Naufel at Georgia Southern University suggests that "art education can benefit students' education by increasing their learning and memory."
Although exposure to the arts is considered beneficial by most Americans, arts programs are not considered an educational priority and are often subject to budget cuts. Subjects, such as English and mathematics that can be assessed in standardized tests, are emphasized in our schools. However, as shown in this article, exposure to the arts improves students' attitudes toward school and develops skills shared with the sciences: observation, envisioning, reflection, expression, and exploration. English language learners involved in arts-education programs showed more improvement "in mathematical achievement and language learning than those who were not involved in arts-education."
Involvement in these programs "may have provided more opportunities for students to actually apply mathematical concepts, as well as become comfortable with expressing themselves in English."
The researchers at GSU concluded that engagement in visual art and creativity (drawing or viewing artwork) benefits verbal memory and processing.
Boys and Literacy
There is a disproportionate ratio of boys to girls in my school. Of twenty-four students, my French classes typically have fewer than five girls. With such a disparity, I need to adjust my teaching style to the support learning styles and interests of the many boys in my classes.
Even though twenty-first century skills emphasize collaboration, digital literacy, critical thinking, and problem-solving, reading and writing achievement are still of prime importance in the classroom. In their article, "Boys' Hidden Literacies – The Critical Need for the Visual," Rowsell and Kendrick note that "practices that embed literacy (e.g. play, art, video games)" are not valued at school "because teachers do not define these activities as literacy."
This is how my students spend their free time! The article describes how reluctant writers, through the use of illustrations, developed and improved their abilities to create narrative. Students used images as their source of inspiration and the starting point of their storytelling; details in the illustration transform into adjectives in the text. Developing written assignments that "blend words with image" could increase student interest and motivation while exploring narrative voice and purpose.
This interplay of image and text has implications for world language classes, as engaging students through the use of high interest images could elicit description and elaboration in both spoken and written French.
Flashcards, PowerPoints, images from clipart, textbooks, and examples of authentic text and images from French websites and media sources are all regularly used to introduce and review vocabulary based on my students' preference for visual over linguistic cues. However, once new words are introduced, there comes a point at which note-taking becomes necessary, when students have to transform the visual into text. Using the techniques described by Rowsell and Kendrick, could student notebooks become more like illustrated graphic novels and, thus, more motivating and engaging for my students?