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ESOL educators and the experience of visual literacy susan britsch

THE FORUM
The TESOL Quarterly invites commentary on current trends or practices in the
TESOL profession. It also welcomes responses to rebuttals to any articles or remarks
published here in The Forum or elsewhere in the Quarterly.

ESOL Educators and the Experience of Visual
Literacy
SUSAN BRITSCH
Purdue University
West Lafayette, Indiana, United States

One approach to teacher education courses for professionals in ESOL
(English for speakers of other languages) prioritizes language as the
central mode of communication. I argue, however, that it is visual
thinking on which language learning is based (Arnheim, 1969; Barry,
1997); for this reason, visual literacy must be equally integral to, if not
prioritized in, the training of ESOL teachers. I make this argument, in
part, with reference to the literature on visual thinking and visual literacy
and, in part, through the description of an approach to teacher education that engaged education professionals in exploring the meaning of
language and culture through visual media. In other words, I endeavor
to ask, and to suggest answers to, the following question: Does visual

literacy have a role in the teaching and learning of language?
&

PERSPECTIVE
Language does not develop as an isolated mode of communication.
Its relationship with visual imagery is primal. Barry (1997) has pointed
out that, ‘‘Because vision developed before verbal language, images are a
natural part of our primal sense of being and represent the deepest
recesses of ourselves’’ (p. 69). In fact, the cultural linguist, Geoffrey
Palmer (1996) has pointed out that ‘‘language is the play of verbal
symbols that are based in imagery . . . Our imaginations dwell on
experiences obtained through all the sensory modes, and then we talk’’
(p. 3). Concepts, then, derive from ‘‘perceptual images’’ whereas
thought operations constitute ‘‘the handling of these images’’
(Arnheim, 1969, p. 227). Sapir (1921), too, noted that ‘‘ . . . the essence
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of language consists in the assigning of conventional, voluntarily
articulated sounds, or of their equivalents, to the diverse elements of
experience’’ (p. 11). This means that a word such as house becomes a
linguistic fact only when visual, kinesthetic, and auditory experiences
‘‘are automatically associated with the image of a house’’ (pp. 11–12).
Because ‘‘images are tied to the full range of human experience and
expression’’ (Barry, 1997, p. 69), communication becomes somewhat
limited without them. Visual communication forms an integral part of
the environment, spanning written languages. This applies not only to
\ ): , #, É, 4, or %, but
the cross-cultural impact of symbols such as #,
also to our interpretation of any communication in which images cooccur with words. Lesley Stahl, for example, has described a televised
piece about Ronald Reagan that coupled negative oral commentary with
stunning visual images. A campaign official, unperturbed, commented
to Stahl that ‘‘they [the audience] didn’t hear what you said. They only


saw those pictures’’ (as cited in Barry, 1997, p. 78).
One alternative for ESOL teachers, then, might be to employ visual
images, graphic organizers, and hands-on activities as mere supports to
the more central task of ‘‘understanding text structure and of supporting
the development of academic writing proficiency’’ (Harper & deJong,
2004, p. 158). But the visual lies at the center of language learning, not
at its periphery. Because it is not the task of the verbal to replicate the
visual (Kress, 1997), the elimination of the visual does not lead to its
direct replacement with the verbal.
The task for ESOL teachers, then, is to draw upon multiple ways of
representing mental images. Much of the learning process is indeed
visual; problem-solving, for instance, is ‘‘inextricably connected with the
visual mode’’ (Dondis, 1973, p. 68). Conceptualization in the sciences,
for example, often takes place through visual thinking. Einstein’s first
glimmer of what would later emerge as the theory of relativity came
through his visualization of riding on a beam of light (Overbye, 2000, p.
42). Stephen Hawking (1993) has characterized his own thinking as
‘‘pictorial’’ (p. 35). His aim in A Brief History of Time, he has written, was
‘‘to describe these mental images in words, with the help of familiar
analogies and a few diagrams’’ (Hawking, p. 35). It was the art educator
Gustav Britsch who noted that scientific problem solving, in fact, relies
on synoptic thinking (as cited in Arnheim, 1969, p. 233). All too often,
however, school culture pays little attention to these realities, incorporating the visual in uninformed ways or even misusing it, and prioritizing
written language instead (Ewald, 2001). As Seels has summarized it, ‘‘It is
impossible to do higher order thinking without using imagery’’ (Paivio,
1978, cited in Seels, 1994, p. 99).
Much work has discussed the importance of visual communication to
the expressive lives of students. Igoa (1995) as well as Hull and Nelson
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(2005), for example, have addressed students’ visual representations
(drawn and digital, respectively) as components of multimodal
narratives. Whereas Igoa’s use of visual narrative helped immigrant
students with acculturation experiences, Hull and Nelson’s work in
Oakland related visual narratives to students’ personal relationships with
culture and history. In these studies, young people’s uses of visual
imagery with oral language resulted in products that were semiotically
richer than the written word alone. Similarly, in teaching photography
to children around the world, Wendy Ewald (2001) found the children’s
photographs to have ‘‘an unsettling energy’’ that does not conform to
the neat and cheerful stereotype of ‘‘children’s art’’ as it helps children
to express and explore the realities of their lives (p. 14). This conclusion
highlights the importance of visual literacy, not only for engagement
with contemporary visual–verbal texts, but also for teacher awareness of
the ‘‘multiple narratives’’ present in a classroom, including ‘‘those that
have been traditionally silenced in our school system’’ (Johnny & Shariff,
2007, p. 614).
Kress and Van Leeuwen (2006) have noted, however, that image
creation diminishes after the first two years of schooling, when written
text tends to predominate despite the increased use of images in all
content areas and at all levels of schooling. Although the visual plays an
increasing role in both print and electronic media, instruction still too
often fails to address the role of images either inside or outside of school
(Kress & Van Leeuwen, 2006, p. 27). There has been little departure
from the ‘‘old visual literacy,’’ in which visual communication was
‘‘subservient to language and in which images have come to be regarded
as unstructured replicas of reality’’ (p. 23).
For English language development, then, the visual clearly serves as
more than a mere support to the verbal. Merely substituting the
production of visual images for verbal expression at lower levels of
language proficiency or reducing the role of the visual in the experience
of students at higher levels ignore the role of the visual in both culture
and cognition. Ironically, however, the use of visuals may still be viewed
as just one strategy in specially designed academic instruction in English
(SDAIE) among others meant to aid English language learners in
eventually moving ‘‘beyond graphics’’ (Reiss, 2008, p. 146). The remedy
involves more than the inclusion of equal amounts of circumscribed
drawing and writing space on journal and worksheet pages. In fact,
teachers in one professional development project found that overdictating the structure of the journal or worksheet page actually limited
students’ writing and drawing, not only to the space provided but also to
a lower level of communication—to labeling rather than synthesis, for
example, in science activities (Britsch & Shepardson, 2007). In fact, it is
necessary to redescribe the notion of support altogether for ESOL
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instruction such that the visual and the verbal can exist in classrooms
reconfigured as multimodal complexes.
The nonverbal is central to English language development, a process
that must be seen as essentially multimodal instead of essentially
linguistic. Because a correlation exists between increased brain activity
and the explicit creation of nonlinguistic representations (Gerlic &
Jausovec, 1999, cited in Coggins, Kravin, Coates & Carroll, 2007, p. 71),
the combination of comprehensible input, social interaction, and
opportunities for verbal as well as nonverbal processing of information
by English language learners, will promote ‘‘deeper understanding and
retention of material’’ (Peregoy & Boyle, 2005, p. 79). Additionally, the
integration of multiple modes enables English language learners to
create a ‘‘representing world’’ of ‘‘symbols that stand for something in
the represented world’’ (Norman, 1993, p. 49). The use of visual, verbal,
and gestural modes—all as direct symbols—thus engages word as a
multimodal mediating element that students can enlist to modify a
situation ‘‘as part of the process of responding to it’’ (Cole & Scribner,
1978, p. 14). Integrating multiple modes extends Vygotsky’s (1978) view
of written language development as a shift ‘‘from drawings of things to
drawings of words’’ (p. 115). For Vygotsky, this ‘‘transition’’ required that
teaching unite written and spoken language via gestures or drawings (p.
116). This transition need not be conceptualized as unidirectional,
however. In fact, the integrative incorporation of speech with that which
it can ‘‘draw’’ (p. 115) suggests a kind of ‘‘multimodal communicative
competence’’ (Royce, 2002, p. 192) in which the visual can work in a
central way toward English language development. A prerequisite,
however, is teacher knowledge and experience with visual literacy. The
next section describes a graduate course that took steps toward a visual
approach to the education of ESOL teachers, initially by focusing
attention away from language as a foregrounded mode of communication.

A COURSE IN VISUAL LITERACY EXPERIENCE
Effective professional development in visual literacy begins with
activities that allow educators to experience visual communication
before applying it to the design and implementation of instruction
(Way, 2006). For this reason, the 16-week graduate course described in
this article aimed to challenge and enhance the visual literacy and
communication skills of its participants, in-service ESOL teachers as well
as graduate students in education. Three of the course participants were
native speakers of English, one a speaker of Arabic, one a speaker of
Chinese, and one a native speaker of Spanish.

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In terms of more traditional topics, the course compared the research
addressing the effectiveness of various types of English language
development (ELD) with bilingual programs, for example. But the
course also invited participants to draw upon concepts not often applied
either to mainstream classrooms or to ESOL contexts. Some participants
were more comfortable with topics usually associated with languagefocused courses, whereas others drew new links to ESOL teaching and
learning from the discussion of nontraditional ideas. For example, the
course related Donald Norman’s (1988) ideas to language learning as a
process that combines information that resides ‘‘in the world’’ with
learned information that resides ‘‘in the head’’ (p. 54). When the
amount of ‘‘in the head’’ material that must be remembered is too large,
memory alone is not enough (Norman, 1988). To deal with this
problem, language learning activities that rely primarily on the learner’s
memory for ‘‘arbitrary things’’ (p. 67) should be redesigned to instead
incorporate meaningful visual and kinesthetic relationships or explanations based on mental models. This emphasis helps learners to discern
structures that make sense (Norman, 1988) and to develop a sort of
contextualized conceptual model of the language. Norman’s ideas about
design thus apply to the mediation of language learning. For additon,
Coggins et al. (2007) describe the use of visual strategies that allow
English language learners to deconstruct and conceptualize double-digit
multiplication problems through the use of manipulatives (such as base
10 blocks) and rectangular diagrams that function as mental models
bridging to the more abstract use of symbols in algorithms. While
student work in groups with these visual and manipulative tools engages
their basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS), the teacher’s
modeling via hands-on materials, discussion, and visual strategies
engages their cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP), directly
linked to the students’ visual representations as well as to their talk.

Engagement
As a means of exploring communication through modes other than
language (e.g., Britsch, 2009; Jewitt & Kress, 2003; Kress, Jewitt, Ogborn,
& Tsatsarelis, 2001; Martinec, 2001; Norris, 2004; Plowman & Stephen,
2008; Prosser & Loxley, 2007), the course explored the notion of
narrative from a multimodal point of view. Learning narratives that did
not foreground the verbal were considered through, for example, a
video in which a child spontaneously learned a skill in his home through
observation and gesture with little to no talk; this fashion of learning
continued the cultural narrative as well. Narrative construction then
addressed the multimodal and the digital through ‘‘Lyfe-N-Rhyme’’ from
the Digital Underground Storytelling for Youth (DUSTY) project (Hull
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& Nelson, 2005). Course participants also learned to read images as
narrative by noting details and by ‘‘thinking consciously about the
elements that go into making a photograph’’ (Ewald, 2001, p. 17). They
related these observations to their own understandings of culture and to
the experiences of the students with whom they worked. The next step
was to involve the participants in producing visual communication
through a task their own English Language Learning students might
carry out. Thus, based on Ewald’s (2001) task for children, course
participants used digital cameras to shoot photographs that formed
visual narratives telling the stories of their own relationships to
community, as they defined this construct.
Photography was selected instead of other visual media in part
because of its history of use with students as a readily accessible means of
expressing inner experience via the recording of outer experience, both
digitally and through children’s use of the darkroom (e.g., Dragan,
2008; Ewald, 2001, 2006; Laycock, 1979; Way, 2006). For the graduate
course, either disposable or digital SLR (single lens reflex) cameras
presented the most available and expedient tools that could be
immediately used by all course participants to produce images. The
choice of this photography also linked to the possible exploration by
adults of activities designed for children by such photographers as
Ewald. In addition, my own background as a photographer allowed me
to facilitate course participants’ reading of visual images and to elucidate
the role of visual relationships in the composition of images.
After shooting their images and assembling them with PowerPoint,
participants presented their visual narratives without oral description so
that the class could respond to the images themselves. The presenters
then added verbal language to complement the visual, and noticed that
the photographs, along with the process of selecting the particular
subject matter to best address community, resulted in changed
perceptions that writing about their conceptualizations of this subject
could not (Kress, 2000). Course participants were asked to make
conscious links between the images comprising each narrative, discussing the foregrounding and backgrounding in each, the details that were
repeated across the images, and the audiences that the images addressed
and ignored. The images thus served as nonverbal mediational means,
externalizing perceptions that suggested mental models (Norman,
1988) held by each participant. This task raised another question: If
teachers assume mental models that are not necessarily shared by
students, is it the task of English language learners to juggle their own
mental models and those of the school? In this connection, the class
explored the notion of foregrounding certain modes (e.g., language) in
curriculum design and the social contexts this creates for many students
(Gonza´lez, Moll, & Amanti, 2005). This suggested a visual approach to
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the examination of teaching practice: Which modes are foregrounded in
our classrooms? Which are really valued as loci of learning and which are
minimized?

Project Work
As a way of further exploring their own uses of imagery for thinking,
learning, and expression (Braden & Hortin, 1982), the participants next
designed projects that pulled the visual directly into their own teaching
and research vocabularies in original ways. For example, a teacher of
adult English language learners compiled original digital photographs
of the local community into a book, using Photoshop to create images
that could be linked with language familiarizing learners with the
community. Another course participant carried out a personal and
cultural advocacy project focusing on a gap in the publishing world: the
near nonexistence of children’s picture books in Arabic. As a familycentered educator, this course participant’s engagement with visual
literacy emerged from a personal need for her own children as language
learners. Another course participant wrote and performed a video
scenario in which she used an Anglicized pronunciation of the target
language (Spanish) to enact hilarious point-and-repeat segments based
on decontextualized nouns and a quiz segment in which viewers were to
repeat lip-synched phrases. Through the enactment of inappropriate
techniques, this DVD encouraged visual thinking about effective
language teaching and learning. Another student explored a connection
between the iconic nature of the Chinese writing system and Chinese
students’ learning of apparently noniconic languages such as English.
Those course participants who had not worked with nonalphabetic
languages had not previously viewed English language learning in terms
of iconicity.
These projects created communicative comfort zones that gave course
participants a ‘‘sense of freedom,’’ in their words, not typically
experienced in university courses. This freedom involved them in
portraying cultures as amalgams, in visually articulating some of the ways
in which ‘‘proprietary’’ cultural elements can mix together to create
‘‘horizontal’’ cultures embodying ‘‘a multicentered reality’’ (Shavelson &
Setterberg, 2007, p. 12–13). The picture book project, for example,
linked a genre that the participant had encountered in the United States
with the oral literacy traditions of the Arab world. Similarly, this
participant’s visual narrative on community had commingled family
photographs taken at various landmarks in the Arab world with
snapshots of the children playing with American toys in the United
States. Another student’s narrative visually juxtaposed meaningful
elements of life in China with their American counterparts: the
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experience of doing Tai Chi outdoors in a locale where this is
uncommon . . . a tree that evoked Chinese imagery . . . a very small
shelter at a local bus stop coupled with a spoken note that bus stops in
China are much larger and filled with public transportation riders.
In these projects, perception and communication through word and
image worked to redescribe language as a range of symbols accommodating both concepts that could ‘‘only be clearly expressed through words’’
(McCloud, 2006, p. 30) and those that emerged clearly through visual
framing. As such, the projects themselves worked as mediational means
that enabled their designers to actualize ideas, unconfined by a single
format or mode of delivery. The Arabic picture book project addressed
the visual image as central to first language maintenance and the
learning of a genre central to the L1. The images in the Photoshop book
were effectively linked to language patterns, but language emerged from
the images, and not vice versa. As a series, the photographs also
conveyed a longstanding familiarity with the local area so that both word
and image took viewers inside a personal history of the community.
Thus, each participant directly experienced the visual as much more
than a support to the verbal, instead it became a central means of
organizing and conveying meanings.

FIGURE 1. A nostalgic tree for one of the students, from a visual narrative for the course.

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FIGURE 2. A very small American bus stop.

CONCLUSION
Visual language is structured by relationships that, once learned,
become a rich mechanism for both developing and expressing understandings (e.g., Bang, 2000; Leborg, 2006; Lohr, 2003). For this reason,
ESOL teacher education needs to include the development of visual
literacy so that teachers can experience the ways in which the interplay
of the visual and the verbal permits language learners to ‘‘fully
represent’’ their meanings (Kress, 2000, p. 337) in communication that
is semiotically more authentic. Because ‘‘no sign or message ever exists
in just one single mode’’ (Kress, 1997, p. 10), the interaction of the visual
with the verbal necessarily engages a more selective and informed use of
both as each supports the development of the other. The aim is not
simply to merge visual learning with the verbal curriculum but to reify a
multimodal view of identity and its role in learning.
The presence in classrooms of a poorly weighted balance between the
verbal and the nonverbal for both learning and assessment has long
been acknowledged (Halliday, 1980). In the current teach-to-the-test
environment, what is needed is not a separate curriculum for English
language learners that maintains this visual–verbal imbalance
(Thompson, 2009). Instead, today’s ‘‘intensely visualized culture’’
(Mirzoeff, 2005, p. 228) demands classroom discourses that blend
semiotics, digital and nondigital image creation, multimodal communication, and visual literacy to shape the curriculum and to mediate
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classroom language learning (Jewitt, 2008). What is needed for ESOL
teacher education?
N professional development that incorporates the visual thinking that
is so central to the language and content learning of English
language learners;
N training in the use of technological tools that facilitate this kind of
learning (TESOL, 2003);
N a focus on sophisticated and informed instructional uses of visual
literacy and visual thinking, based on a solid understanding of visual
literacy as a basis for second language development.
The university fails if it does not involve ESOL educators in this sort of
transition—transforming language curricula by challenging ‘‘models of
literacy . . . to keep up with lived practices’’ that more fully engage
students’ identities as well as new media and information technologies
(Low, 2005, p. 115).
THE AUTHOR
Susan Britsch is Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at Purdue University, West
Lafayette, Indiana, United States. Her research focuses on visual literacy, the visual
analysis of multimodal discourse, and the integration of literacy and science
curricula. She teaches courses in English Language Learning, early literacy
development, and language study for educators.

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