Professional Development

Acquiring Vocabulary Part IV: Mental Pictures and Drawing


In Part I of our series, Acquiring vocabulary: 5 strategies to create meaning in learning vocabulary, we noted that teachers are moving towards authentic resources and communicative tasks to teach vocabulary and language structures in context.

In Part II, Acquiring vocabulary: 9 strategies for creating graphic organizers, we reviewed a few graphic organizers that support vocabulary acquisition.

In Part III, Acquiring vocabulary: 10 ways to get students moving with physical models and kinesthetic activity, we reviewed types of physical models and kinesthetic activities along with ideas for applications that support vocabulary acquisition.

In Part IV, we’ll maximize the adage, “a picture paints a thousand words”.

1. Generating mental pictures

Photo of Mercado de Villa de Leyva, Colombia (photo by Debbie Espitia)

Guided imagery taps into students’ prior knowledge as well as the affective domain. It empowers students since they decide what images represent the vocabulary in question. An example of this that I’ve used with my students at the Novice level is around foods at the market. Have students close their eyes and imagine they are going to the market with a family member. The first section they see is the produce section with fruits and vegetables. Ask them questions, such as the following, based on the target vocabulary or previously-learned words and expressions:

  1. What fruits do you see?
  2. What colors are they?
  3. What shape are they?
  4. What do they smell like?
  5. What do they taste like?

Then, have students open their eyes. Display pictures of fruit labeled in the target language and ask students to jot down in one circle of a Venn diagram (there are those graphic organizers again) the fruits they “saw” in the market and what color they were, what shape – in Spanish, of course. Next, have students share with a partner, record the partner’s fruit in the other circle of the diagram, and add in the overlapping space the items they have in common. Debrief by asking a series of yes/no, choice, and wh-questions (this supports pronunciation practice as well as vocabulary building). Have pairs of students share with others by pointing to and naming the items they have in common. Have a couple of students model this for the whole class, then have students share simultaneously in small groups. Repeat the process with vegetables.

Extend the activity by having students close their eyes again and note where items are located. Then, have them open their eyes to describe the scene to their partner, who has to draw it. Provide a list of prepositions of location (i.e., on the right, underneath) to use as a reference. Make a cultural connection by displaying a photo of a market from a country that speaks the target language and having students make comparisons between it and the one they imagined.

2. Drawing pictures and pictographs

Creating pictures that are meaningful makes learning personal. Allow students to refer to labeled images or definitions of the new vocabulary as they engage in these activities. As they use the vocabulary more and acquisition builds, they will not need to refer to these kinds of supports. Let’s take a look at a few examples.

Un desfile (A parade):

Give students a copy of a Venn diagram and show them a video clip of a parade for a holiday celebration in one of the countries that speaks the target language, such as el carnaval en al República Dominicana. As students watch the video, have them draw pictures of the items they see in the parade in one of the circles on the diagram. For example, they might draw masks, costumes, musical instruments, dances, etc. Then, have students draw items they would see in a parade in their community. In the overlapping area of the diagram, have students write the words for the items the two parades have in common. (Novice Mid)

Llena mi plato (Fill my plate):

Give students a paper plate and have them draw foods that represent a typical meal from the target culture (this can be assigned for homework). Next, have students sit back to back with a partner and take turns describing what abuela served last night for dinner and where it was located on the plate. As one student describes the plate of food, the other draws it on the flip side of his or her own paper plate. When finished, students can compare what they had on their plates and how accurate they were at drawing the other’s plate of food. (Intermediate Low)

Dibuja la lectura (Draw the reading):

Have students read a text or a segment of a text and draw one or more scenarios that summarize that text. Then, have students retell what they have read by using the drawings as a guide. A variation of this is to have students exchange their drawings and write summaries or captions for their classmate’s drawing. This works best when students have read different texts. (Intermediate Mid)

Tying it all together

Don’t hesitate to share in the comments section ways that you use mental imagery and drawings in your classes. Want even more ideas? Take a look at the appendix of additional instructional strategies in the Teacher’s Edition of EntreCulturas 1, 2, 3.

And those drill and practice exercises? You’ll want to shred them; you won’t be needing them anymore.

  • Espitia, D., García, P., Cornell, J., & Vásquez Gil, I. (2017). EntreCulturas 3. Freeport, ME: Wayside Publishing.
  • Mar, A., Davis, R., Sloan, M. & Watson-López, G. (2017). EntreCulturas 1. Freeport, ME: Wayside Publishing.
  • Marzano, R., Pickering, D. & Pollock, J. (2001). Classroom Instruction That Works. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
  • Schwenkler C., Cory, M., Carrión, P. (2017) EntreCulturas 2. Freeport, ME: Wayside Publishing.

Deborah Espitia

Deborah Espitia has been a world language educator for more than thirty years. She is a lead author on EntreCulturas 3 and has written numerous articles for Wayside surrounding proficiency-based learning.
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