Using Visual Aids with ELL Students

Instructor: Sarah Mills

Sarah is an educational freelance writer and has taught English and ESL in grades k-12 and college. She has a master's degree in both Literacy and TESOL.

In this lesson, teachers will learn about the strategy of using visual aids in the classroom to help accommodate English Language Learner (ELL) students. This lesson will highlight some specific types of visual aids that teachers can consider using during their instruction.

Visual Aids in the Classroom

Imagine being an ELL student in an American public school. Your teachers, classmates, school counselors, and administration are all speaking a language that you're not familiar with. All the books in the school library are written in English, as well as your classroom textbooks and worksheets. What could your teachers do to help ensure that you can at least follow along during instructional time?

One method of accommodating for ELLs is to use visual aids during instruction. Visual aids help to make content comprehensible for ELLs. No matter what language a person speaks, a picture of a house is easily recognizable to most people. If you point to a picture of a house and say 'house,' a student is likely to make that connection and begin to acquire the language and vocabulary.

Let's take a look at some specific strategies you can use in your classroom to incorporate the use of visual aids during instructional time.


Pictures can help enhance instruction for all learners. You can use personal photos, pictures from magazines, or ones printed from the Internet.

The Picture Word Inductive Model (PWIM) is a strategy that uses pictures to teach vocabulary. Show students a laminated picture with a lot of details, such as a family having a picnic in the park, or a busy city street with lots of pedestrians. Ask students to name what is in the picture. As they call out the vocabulary, use a dry-erase marker to label the picture. Refer back to the pictures during instruction to help reinforce the vocabulary.

As an extension to this activity, create worksheets and vocabulary activities that ask students to recall the vocabulary from the PWIM, such as a cloze. A cloze is a reading passage with blank lines substituting for some of the words. Students fill in the blanks with appropriate words from a word bank. For example, one sentence in a cloze passage might look like this: 'In the picture, the child with the _____ shirt is eating an apple.' Students would search for the appropriate word, 'red,' from the word bank and write it down on the blank line.

This strategy relies on contributions from students with different levels of English proficiency. Therefore, it is a collaborative strategy where students are learning and building language skills with their peers.

As an added bonus, use pictures from your own collections and photo albums. This can help increase student motivation because students love to make connections to teachers' personal lives.

Students also love to learn about their favorite celebrities. Cut out advertisements featuring celebrities to teach students about descriptive adjectives. Have students label these images with words that describe hair and eye color, facial features, and clothing.

Charts and Graphs

Charts and graphs can help students make sense of abstract and confusing concepts. Use charts and graphs to organize and present data or statistical information. A variety of graphs can be used depending on the type of information being presented: bar graphs, pie charts, line graphs, and pictographs, just to name a few.

To help reinforce content, regularly survey students about lesson material and then create (or have students create) a chart to display the information. For example, during a lesson about nutrition, ask students to choose their favorite healthy snack between the following options: carrots, apples, bananas, or celery. After students make their selection, create a bar or pie graph to visually display the data.

Maps and Timelines

Maps can help students understand lessons focusing on geography, while timelines can help students place important historical events in chronological order. When referencing different geographical locations during instruction, try to refer to that area on the map. Globes can also be a helpful way for students to visualize geographical content.

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