Mastering Vocabulary with Visuals

by Stephen Fleenor

It’s as simple as this: mastering academic vocabulary is essential for mastering content. Granted, this probably marks the one million and twenty-third time that statement has been said, but it merits repeating for three key reasons: first, academic vocabulary is the language by which content concepts are expressed; second, mastering today’s academic vocabulary is fundamental for mastering tomorrow’s content; and last but definitely not least, the ability of a student to master academic vocabulary is directly tied to his or her confidence in the subject.

That last point is key and often underemphasized. It also explains why students often struggle with using academic vocabulary. As humans, it is natural for us to be intimidated by “big” words and either insert generic filler words, such as a “thingy,” or avoid the conversation entirely (like when Bridget Jones classically evaded academic conversation with Salman Rushdie). A large part of this intimidation is not being able to visualize what the vocabulary represents, and not having the background to construct the visualization in one’s mind.

Visualization of the Academic Content

Consider, for example, the word saponification. Most people (including myself) who enter into a conversation about saponification would feel like a deer caught in the headlights. Listen closely to the conversation and you might hear the words “acid-base chemistry,” and, weirdly, the phrase “soap is a salt.” Here is the image you now might have in your head:

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Just when you’re trying to figure out if soap might be bad for you, someone turns and asks you, “how do you think taking an antacid might affect the body’s natural saponification?” Okay, now it’s time to go find the restroom.

In our classrooms, our students often experience the same degree of intimidation with academic vocabulary, and often equally struggle to evoke a comprehensible image in their minds of what the academic vocabulary means. This is especially true of students who lack background knowledge or who do not read and write on grade level. It’s not that struggling students don’t have visualization in their minds’ eye about what they’re hearing, it’s just that the visuals we conjure up when we don’t fully understand something (like new content) are often confusing and inaccurate.

Imagine now if, instead of leaving you to try to come up with your own mental image of what saponification means, the other people in the conversation are referring to a poster on the wall about saponification:

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Now when you hear the words “acid-base chemistry,” you have an idea that saponification has to do with combining acids and bases. And when you hear “soap is a salt,” you can infer from the visual that soap is an example of a salt. You also know exactly how saponification is spelled and you can make a visual connection to the word every time you hear and say “saponification.” Then, when somebody asks, “How do you think taking an antacid might affect the body’s natural saponification?” you have a foundation to begin confidently thinking about the question.

How to Effectively Use Visuals

  1. First, make sure the vocabulary word is inferable based on the visual. This means that a student can draw meaning (or make an inference) from the visual regardless of his or her background knowledge. We teach highly heterogeneous classes and every student brings a unique schema of understanding about academic vocabulary. Great visuals, therefore, allow students to make a connection to the content and normalize around the academic meaning of the word. Take for example the visual of “capitalism” below:

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Some students might have never heard of the word “profit,” and some students might be imagining state capitals or capital letters when they hear the word “capital.” However, with this visual it is easy to infer that profit is basically money, and that capital has to do with ideas and money to make the ideas happen. After some thinking and discussing, one can infer that capitalism has to do with generating profit in order to create more profit.

pasted image 0-4Pitfall to avoid: hieroglyphics. A good visual cannot be just a hieroglyph. For example, today’s young people know what the save icon looks like (left), but they probably do not know that it represents a 3.5” floppy disk, or know that data was originally saved on these disks before the age of cloud computing. It is a hieroglyph because it can be used to refer to saving, but its meaning cannot be inferred without specific background knowledge from the 1990’s. In the case of capitalism above, a simple money sign will only be a sight reference for the word, and will not help students understand the meaning of capitalism.

  1. Second, have students interact with the visual. Open-ended questions that refer to the visual, combined with opportunities to speak in small groups about the questions, help students to think deeply about the word. Discussion prompts also help students forge connections to other vocabulary words or concepts. Lastly, discussions centered around visuals give students a platform to learn from each other. This is true for all learners, including the highest-performing learners. Asking questions about what the visual might mean and how it might tie into the lesson is an excellent way to challenge students while making them feel smart and supported in the process.

    Pitfall to avoid: wallpaper. A visual is only as effective as the opportunities students have to interact with it. Leaving a beautiful poster or image on the wall is effectively fruitless if the teacher does not refer to the visual or ask students questions based on the visual. Make sure to refer to the visual and have the students think about it the more often, the better.

As teachers, we can let visuals and students’ interactions with those visuals drive our lessons. Try to think of two to four vocabulary words or concepts essential to the lesson, then find supporting visuals and questions to stimulate thinking. With increased opportunities to visualize words, students will more confidently express themselves using academic vocabulary and not feel the need to excuse themselves from the conversation.



Image Attributions
“Bar of Irish Spring deodorant soap” by Dwight Burdette [CC BY 3.0] (cropped) via Wikimedia Commons
“Butter and Oil – NCI Visuals Online” by Bill Branson [Public Domain] (cropped) via Wikimedia Commons
“Chemist Laboratory Periodic System” by geralt [CC0] (increased transparency) via Pixabay
“Corrosive Acid Warning” by OpenIcons [CC0] (no alterations) via Pixabay
“Graphic depiction of capitalism” by Rcragun [CC BY 3.0] (no alterations) via Wikimedia Commons
“Potassium hydroxide” by Walkerma [Public Domain] (cropped) via Wikimedia Commons
“Toicon-icon-lines-and-angles-save” by Shannon E Thomas/ [CC BY 4.0] (no alterations) via Wikimedia Commons


8 thoughts on “Mastering Vocabulary with Visuals

  1. Visualization help learner of every language pick a language quickly. It is crucial we use visual to help our students learn new vocabs.


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