Why Visuals Are Important for ELLs

Minds in Bloom is pleased to welcome Nikki Lubing to the blog today! Nikki has experience teaching English language learners in foreign countries, and she’s written an extremely helpful post for our readers about why visuals are important for ELLs. Keep reading to learn her tips and suggestions!

This is a graphic of four children on a white background with text on it explaining the title of the blog post.

Have you ever been in a full immersion foreign language class? If you have, then you understand why visuals are important for ELLs (English Language Learners). When you learn a language in an immersive environment, you feel disoriented and anxious. Visuals are important for ELLs because it reduces their anxiety, increases their comprehension, and can even help them with decoding.

Examples of Visuals

Before we discuss why visuals are important, I want you to have a good understanding of what visuals are.

  • Photos of key vocabulary words hanging in the classroom for each unit — be sure to have the word accompanying the photo.
    • For math you could have a photo of a division symbol with the word written beneath.
    • For social studies, you could post a photo of the Boston Tea Party with a label or a small caption.
    • For science you could hang a photo of types of cells and label it.
  • An agenda written on the whiteboard to help the student get acclimated each day
  • A copy of the text or book you are reading aloud so your ELL student can follow along
  • Clip art or photos on worksheets that accompany important concepts or vocabulary
  • Drawings, diagrams, or graphs that explain concepts
  • Allow students to draw their answers to check for comprehension (drawing a comic is always a great way to do this)

Visuals Are Important for Reducing Anxiety

School causes anxiety for many students, whether it is for social or academic reasons. English language learners experience anxiety because they are not accustomed to the culture or the language around them. They fear being teased by their peers and sometimes even by their teachers for mispronouncing words or misinterpreting content.

To understand the importance of reducing anxiety, I want you to put yourself in the student’s shoes. Watch the video below to see just how difficult it is to remember a new word in a completely foreign language.

YouTube video

One of the Most Important Language Teaching Strategies

Helping our students doesn’t just mean using strategies. It means understanding and empathizing with what they are experiencing, which is the most important strategy you can use. The video above gives you a taste of how much repetition, visuals, and kinesthetic learning is required as a complete beginner. Seeing that and experiencing it yourself is what will inspire you to implement ELL strategies, such as using visuals, in your classroom consistently.

A photograph of teachers and students in Taiwan
I made a craft with my ELL students in Taipei, Taiwan. Crafts are great because one of the best language teaching strategies is kinesthetic learning.

Misconceptions about Language Learners

A misconception that many people have is that fluent English learners comprehend academic content. Their fluency in social language deceives teachers because they think that their ability to converse means that they should be able to do well academically. Advanced ELLs benefit from visuals, too. Referring to visuals in your classroom is a strategy you should remind them to use until it becomes a habit.

Remember that visuals reduce student anxiety (for all levels of ELLs) because they will see the content you are teaching in photos and have an idea of what is going on if you post a daily agenda. If you provide plenty of visual aids throughout your lesson and on your materials it will put your ELL students at ease. They will feel more oriented and confident in your classroom.

Visuals Are Important for Comprehension

Sometimes students cannot comprehend important concepts without visuals. It’s important to implement visuals at the right time. Before you start teaching or before you start reading, show some pictures of the main idea to the class. Previewing the information visually guides them throughout the lesson so that, at a minimum, they have an idea of what is being discussed and, at best, they are confident about what is being taught.

While teaching, use an anchor chart, a projector, or an Elmo (or whatever you have available to you) to write notes and show images. Even something as simple as reading directions under an Elmo while guiding your finger underneath each word is extremely useful for ELLs. Think of being lost at an amusement park or in an airport. What is the first thing you do to get oriented? You look around. You look for people, maps, and signs to guide you. That’s exactly what your ELL students need throughout your lesson and throughout the school year. Without visuals they don’t get that sense of relief when finding their friends or family after being lost. However, if you have the right visual aids in place, accompanied with patience and compassion, they won’t reach a sense of panic while in your classroom.

Visuals Are Important for Decoding

Let’s talk about reading aloud and guided reading with ELL students. In order for ELL students to make sound-symbol relationships, they need to hear and see text while reading. Do this with all ages (K to adult). If possible, read slowly or change the speed of the audio book to suit the student’s needs.

Younger students will learn phonics and spelling. Older students will see language patterns and grasp grammar. You can make their reading time intentional by having them circle specific words or grammar points.

If you have newcomer ELL students in your class, then I suggest having them do something different during read aloud time because that will be well beyond their zone of proximal development. It would be a better use of their time to practice vocabulary and main ideas in a quiet space. If your student is allowed to sit in the hallway, go to the library, or work with an aid during read aloud, then I highly suggest doing that.

Additional Teaching Strategies in English

ELLs of all levels need you to implement language learning strategies for them. Teaching vocabulary strategies (total physical response, Frayer Model, contextual reading, etc.) is a huge part of this because then they are empowered to teach themselves. Don’t just do the strategy; let them know that it is a strategy so they use it while working independently.

A photograph of a teacher and two students
My students and I sang a song and used Total Physical Response while performing. TPR is one of the best language teaching strategies, too!

Remind your students that learning a language is a marathon, not a sprint, and that you are there to support them throughout the process. Be patient when they become frustrated. Be their cheerleader at all times. Have high expectations based on their zone of proximal development. Never give up on them!


If you have any questions please contact me (Nikki) at nikki.lubing@gmail.com. You can also connect with me on Instagram @teachernikki.

Access my Top 3 ELL Teaching Tips here. This is geared toward online ESL teachers, but can be applied to a brick and mortar classroom as well.

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