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Why Are Visual Tools Important for Helping ELL Students Learn English?

English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers work with English Language Learners (ELLs), for whom English is not their primary language. Students who use a language other than English at home and learn English as their second or foreign language are considered ELLs both in the ESL classroom and in regular content area classrooms in the United States.

As students who are still developing English vocabulary and usage skills, ELLs often need extra support in comprehending unfamiliar concepts regardless of the classroom setting. One way to offer that support is through the use of visual aids. These visual tools help ELLs grasp new ideas, access previous knowledge and gain confidence in using the new language (English). 

Why Use Visual Aids in the ESL classroom?

Many ELLs have a more robust understanding of the subject matter than their existing English language proficiency might reflect. The use of visual aids and multimedia can build ELLs' self-confidence by helping them absorb the content and become interactive in the classroom.

According to a study published in English Language Teaching, the use of visual aids decreases ELLs' fears of giving wrong answers to questions and encourages them to engage more during lessons. When ELLs feel more confident in the classroom, they are more likely to participate in the tasks and absorb the new content effectively.

What Is a Visual Aid?

A visual aid is anything that students can look at to help them comprehend and remember content. Anchor charts, physical gestures, document cameras, digital or printed images, and illustrated vocabulary cards are excellent visual aids that ELLs can use for reference while learning English.

Other visual aids might be text-based. For example, closed captioning is an excellent method of enhancing student learning. According to Educause reports on a 2017 study, utilizing closed captioning when showing video content improved student learning not only for ELLs but also for students with and without learning disabilities.

Voice typing and translation tools are also examples of text-based visual aids that help teach ELLs. Many voice-to-text applications exist to help students who might be confident in their vocabulary but still struggle with spelling and writing in English. When ELLs participate in regular content area courses, translation tools might also be beneficial for quickly grasping unfamiliar concepts.

Student-Generated Visual Aids

While teacher-created visual aids can help students express themselves, The Kennedy Center suggests allowing students to create their own visual aids. Incorporating artistic expression into ESL lessons can help ELLs develop deeper understandings of vocabulary across subjects. Activities such as drawing, performing and "picto-spelling" can not only aid in student comprehension but also give students a more accessible outlet for demonstrating their understanding.

ELLs can benefit from a host of self-created visual aids to recall and transfer knowledge. Graphic organizers, sentence frames and self-illustrated vocabulary cards are helpful tools students can develop themselves. Each of these allows students to tap into existing knowledge banks to solidify old lessons and comprehend new information.

The Teaching Channel suggests utilizing color-coding in both teacher and student-generated materials to help with quick recall. For example, teachers can utilize color-coding to identify similar types of items or ideas in anchor charts. Students can then use these same color codes when creating sentence frames and graphic organizers. Consistent color-coding allows students to identify commonalities and build confidence as they quickly identify unfamiliar words and concepts.

Technology Is Your ESL Friend

Modern ESL educators have a host of new and exciting digital tools to aid in visual techniques. Edutopia has compiled a helpful list of online resources for ESL education. They list everything from ESL video apps to learning software and digital databases. ESL teachers might find it beneficial to identify new additions for their proverbial teaching toolbelts.

Visual aids are an essential part of any ESL teacher's toolkit. Through teacher-generated and student-created visuals, ELLs can improve their English language proficiency in four domains: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Both high-tech and low-tech aids can accelerate students' language learning and academic performance.

Learn more about Southeastern Oklahoma State University's online Master of Education in Curriculum & Instruction – English as a Second Language (ESL) program.

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