Picture This! Understanding reading texts via visualization


(courtesy of teachingmyfriends.blogspot.com)


Have you ever felt like you’re watching a movie in your head while reading a book? I feel that way all the time. In fact, when the the pace increases, I find my eyes racing through the words, aspiring to keep up with the rapid-movie in my head. Interestingly, I realized that the movie never fails to help me understand the story line.

I thought of drawing from this experience while planning a reading lesson for my Business English students, and little did I know that visualization was actually one of the 6 reading strategies. Apparently, “proficient readers spontaneously and purposely create mental images while and after reading” (Keene and Zimmerman, Mosaic of Thought). As an avid reader myself, I wouldn’t say that I purposefully create mental images, but rather, it just happens! (and I remember how excited I got when the Hippogriff (Harry Potter) I visualized looked exactly the same in the movie!) . If you’d like to try it out in the classroom, literacy consultant, Cathy Puett Miller, has suggested 5 simple steps on how visualization techniques can be nurtured (You can read more about it here).

I found many resources on the internet on visualization as a reading strategy, but every article focused on General English. The question is, can we use visualization as a reading strategy for Business English articles?

Before proceeding further, let me give you an overview of my learners and the challenges they face when transitioning from secondary school to college / university. These challenges were the basis for me to design this lesson.


Module Taught : Academic Reading and Writing in Business English

Learner Background : 90% of the learners came from Malay medium government schools in Malaysia, which plainly means that the English language that they’re accustomed to in school is a far cry from what they’re currently being exposed to / expected of at the university. Yes, of course they’d be familiar with simple genres of academic writing ( argumentative, compare and contrast) but nothing compared to what is expected of them now (350 words vs 800 to 1000 words.  Get the drift?) I’ve more than often, observed their looks of distress, intense concentration and wrinkled foreheads while poring over their complex reading materials. Not to mention the looks of exasperation when they ask me “Ms, what does this mean? Why is it so difficult to understand? What do they mean when they say…….” and I can’t help feeling sorry for them. The complexity of the text, the corpora of vocabulary as well as business and corporate concepts can take months, or even years, to grasp. And it doesn’t help that, although Malaysians have the highest literacy rates in South East Asia, only 3% of the reading population read books compared to newspapers which yielded a whopping 77%! (published in The Star tabloid, 18th April 2009).

Their challenges: Within a length of 3 months, learners are expected to understand, master and produce different forms of academic writing (argumentative, summary, literature reviews, research reports) which incorporate appropriate lexis and well-developed ideas, read pages and pages of articles and research papers brimming with difficult jargon from the world of business, finance and economy. The challenge increases when this is expected within a set time limit. Such injustice from an education system that sets unrealistic high evaluative standards!

So that’s when it probably struck me : if I can show them a way in visualizing their text, they might be able to understand it better.

Again, this lesson might seem a little too easy for a Business English level, but it was a deliberate attempt to show learners that making meaning out of academic text isn’t as daunting as it may seem. All they need to do is practice visualizing it in their minds! The basis of this lesson was to get learners to draw their representation of the summary of each paragraph.



Pre-Reading Activity 

1. Display the following Powerpoint Slide. In groups of 3 : a) guess the title of the text   b) what might the content of text be about? Why do you think so?

2. Get two groups to exchange and compare the answers from their group discussion.

During Reading activity

3. In pairs, get learners to, first, read the entire text to get a general idea. The text can be found here.

4. Next, for each paragraph, get learners to draw a picture (in the given space) that best represents the paragraph.

5. Request learners to cut the pictures out carefully, and exchange their set of pictures with that of another pair.

6. With partners, request them to match the new set of pictures to the paragraphs.

7. Request learners to check their answers with the pair whom they exchanged their pictures with. Discuss the reasons for both correctly and wrongly matched pictures, as well as the reasons for doing so.

Post-Reading Activity

7.  Request 2 pairs to get into a single group, and discuss the following questions together.



My learners liked the little change in activity. It helped them wind down, and also realize that reading can be fun, even if it’s a Business English text. The text I selected for this activity was easier than the ones they’re usually exposed to in class.  Again, this was preplanned, as I wanted them to start simple when visualizing text. If they consistently practiced text visualization, I believe they’d be able transfer this skill to texts that are more difficult.

Another important point to note is that text visualization helps learners to shift from the paradigm of reading word to word and sentence to sentence to a more holistic reading practice, as they’re compelled to visualize the overall idea of the text. Learners comprehend better when they employ visualization to interpret the bigger picture (Cubukcu & Eylul, 2007).

I also think that visualizing the bigger pictures facilitates when the text needs to be read within a time limit (and this especially helps when tasks require learners to provide a critical discussion on specific concepts within the text).

And to end the discussion….

One of my learners posted this as her facebook status : “Today we did drawing in our English class”, followed by a snapshot of the activity.



I found the following resources very useful and informative for further reading (click on the titles below):

Curious about reading strategies?

Visual Imagery in Reading

An Investigation of Reading Strategies

A comparison of metacognitive reading strategies used by EFL and ESL learners

A study on the use of cognitive reading strategies

Experiential Learning : The Human Knot

One of the classes that I’m teaching right now is entitled “Communication Skills” but the primary objective is to help learners develop public speaking skills. It’s more of a lecture-style class (much to my chagrin) . There are chapters from a book to be covered and assignments are designed for learners to present their speeches / presentations in the class. This is my first experience of this sort, as I’ve always taught language proficiency courses. Initially, the idea of so much TTT was causing a lot of unease inside me. It’s energy AND time consuming plus the whole idea of going ön and on was not-at-all appealing.

But of course, being a part of a tertiary institution with set educational standards (which I really give my hats to) and systems of conventions that have functioned successfully, I was, in no means, intending to rock the boat. So what I did was infuse communicative and self-learning tasks whenever and wherever possible AND tried engaging learners in discussions during my presentation sessions.

(Which reminds me that I need to get a powerpoint remote control to become mobile!)

Well, anyway, I noticed that learners really enjoyed these sort of lessons the most and were quite oblivious to the fact that learning actually took place!

Very much in contrary to how they behave during presentations (can you share your thoughts with your partners? –>> whiff of voices here and there, some on whatsapp ticking away and I still am figuring out how can I get EVERYONE to focus in class) – eventually I had to resort to calling out names.

Now, coming back to the topic. I’ve always loved to have classes that encourage autonomous and experiential learning. When I say autonomous learning, I’m talking about having learners to work together and teach themselves to figure things out. The thought processes that take place at this point of time greatly contributes to understanding and learning.

Experiential learning is something else altogether as well. In my previous post, I spoke about an educator who inspired me with a similar technique. I’m sure you’d have summed up that experiential learning means learning from experience. If you’re interested, the following websites have some useful information on experiential learning:

Defining Experiential Learning – Wikipedia

What is Experiential Learning? – James W. Gentry

So what did I do then? I played the Human Knot Game. I honestly think it’s an amazing game that can be used for different learning objectives. Very adaptable, fun, interesting, and engaging. You can read up more on this game and how to go about it at the following websites:

The Human Knot – Holden Leadership Center

How to play the Human Knot

The human Knot – Youtube

a) The areas that were supposed to be covered during class were –> definition of communication, types, effects, effective communication and the communication process.

b) All tables were moved to the corners and sides of the classroom to have an empty, working space.

c) Learners were then briefed and guided step by step to get into the Human Knot Game. This is how it looked during the most challenging part of the game (picture below). In fact, I tried to lure them into giving up, but they stood their ground!!


d) Eventually, they gave up ( due to fatigue) but with a heavy heart, for sure!

e) It was then time for reflection. Learners got into groups of 4, and discussed the following post activity questions:

  • Describe your experience of being a part of the human knot. How did your team communicate with one another and what challenges did you face?
  • How would you define communication?
  • What are the types of communication that took place in your ‘knot’?
  • Who were the senders and receivers in your group? What kind of qualities did they have?
  •  What kind of noise / interference did you experience in the process of untangling the human knot?
  •  Based on your experience, what are the strategies for effective communication to take place?
  •  Describe lessons that you’ve learned during this activity that can be used in your daily lives.


f) Learners then had to present their discussion to the classroom, where further discussion and feedback ensued between everyone.


There are several observations that I made from this activity:

– Unintentionally, my lesson was actually based on David A. Kolb’s experiential learning theory (as illustrated below). I didn’t manage to get step 4 done though, due to time constraint.


– The Human Knot Game can be used as an activity for different language targets. Among them:

a) Application of verb tenses (past tense)

b) Practicing giving instructions (low level learners)

c) Post-reading activity (For reading materials from “communication”themes)

d) Be aware of cultural differences when playing this game, as learners would have  to be in very close proximity with one another. Do keep that in mind.

– there were times when the learners were so intensely weaved into a know that they almost gave up. As a teacher, I asked “possibility questions” just to get them thinking on other possible alternatives to un-weave themselves.


So there you go. Any comments or insights?

Think Out Of the Box – Infusing Critical Thinking in the EFL Classroom

“Teaching students to think in English teaches them to live in English” affirms my friend, Anthony Vaughan in his blog several weeks back. 

And this struck a bell in my mind and got ME thinking. Now, how often do we plan lessons that primarily aim in getting learners to don their thinking hats? More often than not, the precision and details that go into EFL lesson planning is largely intended to hone a multititude of language skills. Fair enough for a language class. But what about those crucial soft skills that learners would so need once they go out into the world of reality ? Think about it.

The truth is (as Anthony puts it) we’re probably a really lucky bunch of ELT teachers  if we’ve been blessed with learners who hail from educational systems that place focus on nurturing thinking skills. But this is usually not the case now, is it? For I honestly believe that in a large number of countries, a huge share of the educational-cake is given to assessments and examinations of some sort. In fact, it can pretty much get into a rat-race of learners trying their best to outdo one another where exam results are concerned. But how can we use exams as a basis in determining a learners’ intelligence level? You do get what I mean now, don’t you?


(image courtesy of short-quote-jokes.com)

Well, I may not have my facts in black and white, but I think I can regretfully and sadly say that this is the case in many countries. However, I’m not going to get into the details of this because it’s not the purpose of my post for today.

Which bring me back to this post. See,  I believe that as ELT teachers, we actually play a very influential role in helping these learners transcend from the exam-base educational system to a lifelong-based learning system. And how do we do this, exactly? By designing lessons that aim in developing BOTH language AND soft-skills of learners, which was what I attempted at doing in this following lesson. I particularly focussed on critical-thinking and problem-solving skills this time around. It was overwhelmingly fulfilling to watch my learners argue, discuss, negotiate and plan fervently in their groups. AND EVERY BIT OF IT WAS IN ENGLISH…..:))))))

You might have seen a similar lesson plan elsewhere, but this one’s definitely as original as it can get, and no, it wasn’t inspired by the series “Lost”. 🙂


Lesson Plan                    : A month of survival on an island

Proficiency Level      : Elementary and above

Activity Type               : Collaborative task (Group Discussion and class presentation)

Learners’ Age               : Teenagers, young adults and adults

Skills focussed             : Language skills (speaking, reading, listening with a bit of writing)

Time                                   : Depending on class size 

Materials                          : Task sheets, Manila paper (1 per group), colored permanent markers and papers.   

The Plan

1. Divide learners into groups of 3. 

2. Get learners to select a team leader.

3. Distribute the task sheet to each team.  Give them around 5-10 minutes to :

      a) read the task              

     b) underline the keyw    

     c) discuss what they’ve understood from   the task

     d) write down questions arising in their minds 

4. Discuss the tasksheet together as a class.

5. Distribute the materials for the group presentation (blank manila cardboards, markers).   

6. Presentation to the class.


Important Notes:

1. I used this lesson for purposes of teaching them presentation skills, soft skills, as well as practice the target language of the day. This can be the 1st conditional, or even the 2nd conditional. You can customize this lesson to fit your aim in any way you want.

2. If you look at the task sheets, there are some blanks in the instructional rubrics. I deliberately did that for you to be able to personalize this task according to wherever you teach in the world. I find that learners get truly engaged if the task is personalized to their needs. Personalization actually enables learners to truly imagine themselves in the  situation highlighted in the task.

3. You can expand this lesson to include the introduction of presentation skills and language to your learners. This could be done between steps (5) and (6) in the lesson plan above.


 And How did the lesson go?

 I guess the photos below could help answer the question…


 They pretty much loved it, I must say:))) Totally engaged and truly believing that they were stranded on an island! 

Please do try this in your classroom. You’d surely enjoy it as much as I did. Perhaps you could even improvise it and leave a comment here on how you did so. I’d jolly love to hear what you’ve got to say!

In case we don’t meet again, happy happy new year, friends….


(image courtesy of http://momentsofharmony.com)

Our very own Amazing Race 2012 – A lesson plan you must try!…


Change is the only constant says Diogenes Laertius.Yes, I feel you nodding and smiling. And as professionals in the ELT industry, we’re very well-aware of the changes that are taking place in our teaching world. Changes that I feel are happening at such whirlwind speed, I sometimes see the need to race against time to be on par!


(image courtesy of http://livesmart360news.com)

I love using the phrase “our teaching world”. Why is that so, you may ask? Well, it makes me have sense of belonging, of sharing, and of connecting with like-minded individuals. Isn’t the teaching world all about connecting and sharing these days?                                                          

  And these days…                                                                                                                                              

Twitter, facebook, LinkedIn, teaching blogs, communities of practice and the list just goes on.It’s more of we as the individual helping the group and the group, in return, helps us as the individual. We grow together for the betterment of our teaching community.

And then there are those changes in methodologies and strategies concerning the nuances of teaching itself.

Mushrooming in abundance are theoretical terms such as ‘Dogme‘, ‘Task-based Language Teaching‘ and ‘Content-based Teaching‘ which have taken centerstage these days; and where practice is concerned, ELT educators around the world are striving to bring chockful of creativity, fun and dynamism into their classrooms as they become increasingly concious on the need to do so. You can count me into that group as well!


You see, I used to teach at a school with learners of diverse nationalities. It was a truly enriching experience. But a challenge of it’s own. Differing nationalities would mean different cultural and socioeconomic background, learner needs and beliefs about life itself. It was rare to have a task that satisfied the entire class in one go. On a positive note, though, if a task was crafted with much thought and planning, learning could take place exponentially! And a rocking approach that often worked for me was to design tasks based on the competitive team-based learning (CTBL) method.

It’s amusing how academicians take a pendulum approach when it comes to using the competitive approach in class. Some vouch by it, others consider it to be a complete no-no. And me? Neither, really. It’s one of the many approaches. But hey, who doesn’t love games, healthy competition and most of all, rewards?

The works of it…

This outdoor lesson was fueled by my very own passion for treasure hunts and races that I used to participate back home. So, what’s so intriguing about these hunts, you may ask. Well, I found them to be so much fun, engaging and mind-simulating, all in one! Most importantly, these hunts helped tremendously in developing my soft skills, among them being :

a) the ability to harmoniously collaborate with team members     

 b)  critical thinking skills                                                                                                                            

c) the ability to think out of the box, on my feet and under intense pressure 

 d) interpersonal communication                                                                                                          

e) self-efficacy and self-confidence                                                                                                

f) creative problem-solving skills

As a teacher, I’ve always made an effort to design ELT lessons with underlying aims of developing my learners soft skills, which I believe is of utmost importance especially when my learners are eventually going into the  “the big world out there” upon completing their tertiary education.

So, with the help of a wonderful group of co-teachers whom I’ve worked with, I tried and tested this activity twice, both times being very successful and learners immensely enjoying themselves. So here goes :


Lesson Plan                          : Amazing Race

Proficiency Level            : Pre-Intermediate and Above

Activity Type                     : Collaborative Task

Learner Age                        : Teenagers, Young Adults and Adults

Skills Focused                   : 4 language skills (reading, writing, listening, speaking)                                                                             

                                                       Soft skills (as mentioned above)

Time                                         : 2 – 4 hours (depending on how you set the task)

Number of Learners     : 3 – 4 learners per team

Materials                               : a) Cluemaster’s Briefing sheet     b) Participant’s Briefing sheet

                                                         c)   5 location clues                          d) 5 treasure clues  

                                                         e)   Task Completion Sheets         f)  5 ELT tasks                            



1. Selecting Locations

 Select 5 famous locations around OR within your university / school that are well spread out and possibly, in circuit-like route. However, you can make it more challenging by choosing locations that aren’t in a circuit route. I used the following circuit-shaped route to be able to easily monitor the game:


2. Selecting ClueMasters 

ClueMasters are teachers who’ve volunteered to be stationed at each location. One ClueMaster per location would suffice. However, for a larger group of teams, it’s best to have 2 ClueMasters stationed at each location. To make the race more interesting, ClueMasters should not stand out in the crowd; they should blend in with everyone else in that particular location. The role of the ClueMaster is to:

  – assign a language task to the teams arriving at that location

 – monitor the teams as they perform the tasks

 – verify the completion of the tasks by signing on the Task Completion Sheet of each team.

 – handing the next Location Clue and Treasure Clue to the teams.

3. Designing Location Clues 

Each location clue is designed to lead teams to their next location. Hence:

  Location Clue 1 –> leads to Location Clue 2

 Location Clue 2 –> leads to Location Clue 3

Location Clue 3 –> leads to Location Clue 4

Location Clue 4 –> leads to Location Clue 5

Location Clues can be designed as a 2 or 4-line riddle. An example of a Location Clue that I designed was: 

  “The morning awakes you, bright and shiny,

 But there you stand, tired and sleepy,

 And then you think of a drink at the place that flies,

 A place where you go for cakes and pies.”

 (well, you know the answer don’t you ? :))

4. Designing Treasure Clues

 There are two kinds Treasure Clues to be designed : –>                                                        

 Treasure Photo Clue and Treasure Item Clue.

 a) Treasure Photo Clue – Riddles designed where the answer would be photos taken at           a specific location. An example of a Treasure Photo Clue would be:

  “Oh dear, Oh dear, the sky is dark,

 The clouds are dark with lightning sparks;

And here you stand, with no clothes to wear,

But who can help you clean them up?”

(and the answer is………..the photo below 🙂  )


(courtesy of limkokwing.net)

b) Treasure Item Clue – Riddles designed where the answer would be items that teams need to buy. These riddles are similar to the ones I’ve written above.

5. Designing Task Completion Sheets                                                                                                   

Task Completion Sheets are signed off by the ClueMaster at each location upon the completion of the team’s ELT tasks.  Task Completion Sheets would look like this.

6. Designing ELT Tasks                                                                                                                                 

 These were designed by the teachers that I worked with and is completely within their discretion. Tasks could range from storyboard writing, memorizing tongue twisters, making a short movie, presenting a speaking topic, solving a language puzzle, or in fact, tasks that are intended to revise what’s been taught in the entire semester. Get creative with what you’d like them to do, rather than copying worksheets from books. 🙂

7. Preparing Debriefing Sheets                                                                                                                   

Write up a short, clear outline to brief both the participants and the ClueMasters on what they need to do during the race. The participant briefing sample outline can be found here and the ClueMaster briefing sample outline can be found here.



Pre-Race (A day before):

1. Assign 3 – 4 participants to each team. I find 3 to be an ideal number.

2. Get teams to select a team name, and a team leader.

3. Brief teams about the race that’s going to be held. Encourage them to ask questions if they don’t understand what you’re saying.

4. Assign the ClueMasters to their locations. Brief the ClueMasters on their roles during the race.

On The Day of the Race:

1. Send the ClueMasters to their locations.

2. Gather all participants at the starting point, and give them their 1st Location Clues, and Task Completion Sheets.

Very Important Note : If possible, do not send all teams to the same location at one go. Each team should go to different locations the first time; a maximum of two team at each location. Assign Location Clues carefully and accordingly at the start of the race. The teams would then follow their race route automatically. I hope the photo below explains what I’m trying to say:


3. Remind teams on things that they need to have with them (back packs, pens, etc as mentioned during the briefing).

4. It’s now time –> READY, GET SET GO!!


And Lastly…

I was amazed at the amount of fun that they had during the race! It was definitely a tough one to design and plan, but well worth every bit of our time and effort. The race was so much fun and the learners loved every moment of it. 

And me? I went back home with a dreamy smile on my face ~~ a time to remember!

Oh, and of course, if you’ve got any questions at all and are interested in getting this done at your school / university, please do get it touch with me here : ratnavathy@gmail.com

**and I’m signing off here with some pictures of the amazing race at my school**