Visual literacy has always been important in the lives of humans throughout history. The ability to look at, understand, interpret and create images goes back to the earliest civilizations. And like the people of the Palaeolithic era with their cave paintings or the Egyptians with hieroglyphics, the twenty-first century has also created its own set of visual symbols such as the thumbs-up ‘like’ button or the smiling emoticon. But if we want to understand the real importance of visual literacy skills in our twenty-first century lives, then consider the long list of new words which have entered the English language in the last ten years. They include: screenager, vine, kinetic typography, infographic, mashup, binge-watch, augmented reality, meme, emoji. If you don’t recognize all of them, a quick google of the terms will provide you with definitions and examples. The point is that all these new words connect in some way to the creation and use of modern visual stimuli.

Of course, as teachers we’ve all used pictures and videos in our lessons and know the value they bring to language learning. For example, we can use pictures and video to teach new words, practice grammar, to speculate and to asked questions, or to compare and even create new texts. However, in an age where we have so much access to images and the ability to create and share our own, it’s worth asking ourselves if we are really exploiting the full potential of our students’ visual literacy; especially when it comes to students creating their own images.

Here are ten tips and ideas for exploiting visual literacy in the classroom by making use of some of the newer forms of images and the many digital and online tools available to us. The first five tips focus on using photographs and images. The next five look at using video.

1. Taking photos with your phone

We’ve always liked using photos in our classes – after all, course books are full of them. So it makes sense to get students taking photos and bringing them to class. With so many students owning a phone with a camera it’s easy to set a photo-task for homework. For example, if your course book has an interesting image on particular topic, then students could take their own photo connected with the topic and bring it into class. They can present their image and explain the connection to the topic. This is exactly what Nicky Hockly in her lesson with the course book ‘Life’ ( which had a striking National Geographic image related to the topic of water. Read about Nicky’s lesson here and see her students’ pictures.

2. Recording descriptions of images

If you teach examinations such as Cambridge First, you’ll be familiar with the idea that students need to describe images as part of the speaking test. And in class teachers often ask students to talk about images because they generate lots of descriptive language. The free online tool Fotobabbleallows you to take your own photo, upload it, and record yourself talking about the photo. You can share the image-recording and other people can view it and comment. As a teacher you can create a closed secure group on the site so only the class can see the images. Your students can also email you the link once they have created their work. It makes a real change for students to be set speaking homework instead of writing homework!

3. Reading and creating infographics

Infographics are a great new text type which presents a topic in the form of images and text. If you google infographic plus the topic area you are looking for, you’ll usually find something relevant that students can read in the lesson. In another blog post on, the IELTS author Louis Rogers described how useful infographics can be in exam preparation. He writes: “Infographics can be a useful, quick and efficient way to build knowledge on common areas. Lots of infographics are available online to use to develop knowledge on common IELTS topic areas. Alternatively, you can create your own ones using websites such as Using infographics can help students feel confident and secure in a range of topic areas.”

4. Blogging about images

If you have a class blog or you use a platform like Edmodo, you can ask students to choose a photo they like and say why or they can share their own images. The great thing about this kind of blogging is that students can also write comments to each other so it generates so much authentic communication. One teacher I met on a training course set up a blog for her class. You can see an example of the type of task she set where students had to blog about images here.

5. Generating memes

A ‘meme’ is a relatively new visual phenomenon in which text is added to a well-known image. You’ve probably seen quite a few appearing on social media sites in the past. My personal favourite is this one about pair work with Mr Bean:
It’s created at If your students like memes, perhaps they could visit the site and create their own. After all, it’s useful writing practice that even lower level students could try their hand at.

6. Starting a lesson with a 30-second video

YouTube seems to have been around for a life time but in fact it only started in 2005. Since then it’s made video accessible in a way it never used to be. There are far too many ways to describe how to use online video here but one key advantage is the fact that you can easily start a lesson with a short video to get student’s interest in a topic. Click here to watch one that I like to use with Business English students on the subject of queuing and customer service. Play it and then ask: Has it ever happened to you? What did you do or say?

7. Video interviews and guess the question

As well as using videos made by others, it’s easy to make your own simple videos using your phone. One way that I think works well is to take the lead in questions to a lesson from your coursebook. For example, if the unit is about ‘Hobbies and free time’, it probably begins with lead-in questions such as ‘What do you like doing in your free time?’ or ‘Which sports do you often play?” Take your phone and ask other people these questions such as other teachers (if they speak English) in the school. Do not record the question, only their responses. Then play the video to your students and tell them to watch, listen and guess the questions you asked. Students love to watch other people (especially their other teachers speaking English) on video and then to try and guess the questions; it can be much more motivating than just reading them on the page of the course book. Once they have written the questions down, students ask their partner the questions. The energy of the students’ interest in the topic can really be enhanced in this way.

8. Reading kinetic typography videos

Like infographics, kinetic typography videos combine words and image moving around the screen. They are visually stimulating and require the ability to scan text quite quickly. Quite a few of these videos have facts and figures and I think you can make use of this in class by writing any numbers that appear in the video on the board. Then students watch the video and have to scan for the numbers and note down what they refer to. You can also read about this technique in more detail here.

9. Scripting your videos

Plenty of teachers make videos with their students because it’s fun and generative. You can use fairly standard video equipment or an iPad for example with iMovie or a similar app. For an even simpler way to make videos, try out a free online site like Dvolver Moviemaker. With Dvolver, students can create a cartoon video in which they choose characters, a background setting and music, and type in a script. It’s good writing practice and ideal for practising functional expressions used in everyday conversations. If you set the task for homework, they can email you the link so you can check it afterwards.

10. Experiments in augmented reality

We are only at the beginning of what augmented reality (AR) might allow us to do with images in education. A basic definition is that it adds a three dimensional computer-generated information onto a flat two-dimensional image. Using apps such as Aurasma or Layer, you can – for example – take a flat photograph and link it to a video. So then a user with an app on their phone passes the phone over the flat image and it triggers a 3D moving image. Educational publishers are only just starting to integrate this in a limited way into their materials and I’m sure we’ll see it being used a lot more in the future. Some teachers have already started using AR in the school environment. If you go to this post by Paul Driver and scroll to the end, you can watch a video of AR being used by students in a language school in Oxford.

 John Hughes latest

John Hughes is the author of ETpedia and the ETpedia series editor. He is giving a talk about Visual Literacy in ELT materials development with National Geographic Learning at this year’s IATEFL conference in Birmingham on Saturday 16th April. The talk will be streamed on line.