esl visual aids

7 Simple Visual Aids You’ve Gotta Use in Your ESL Classroom

A picture is worth a thousand words.

Nowhere is this truer than in the ESL classroom.

Suppose after a verb game or during some reading comprehension exercise, one of your curious students wants to know the difference between “He danced at the party” and “He was dancing at the party.”

What will you do?

You could probably give a really clear explanation about how one sentence states what happened at a specific place or time, and the other gives background information to establish a scene in the past.

And then maybe you’d give a couple more examples prior to showing how the two very similar tenses—past perfect and past perfect continuous—do in fact differ.

Or, you could draw a picture of two timelines, one representing each sentence, and have the students describe them.

Which would be more effective?

The Benefits of Using Visual Aids in the ESL Classroom

Visual aids, like those two timelines, are so perfect for the ESL classroom. Here’s why:

Helps students understand and remember concepts more easily

When you present a concept using a visual aid, you are giving your students something they can associate with that concept. Later, when they try to recall it, all they have to do is bring up the image you used.

Visual aids also help you present clearly and smoothly, without complications or tangents.

Reduces Teacher Talking Time

Like I said at the top of the post, a picture is worth a thousand words. Visual aids allow you to explain the meaning behind various vocabulary and structures without explanation. In addition, you can ask prompting questions about your visual aids to boost Student Talking Time and lead them to the answer.

For example, if your visual aid is a timeline illustrating someone’s work experience, you can ask them “How long did Bob work for ABC Inc.?,” etc.

Provides a touchpoint you can refer back to throughout the lesson

Visual aids not only help put the new language out there, they also help remind students of the language they’ve learned as the class goes on.

For example, if your students make an error with the target grammar, or use a different word when they could have used a new word from the lesson, you can direct them back to the visual aid as if to say, “Try and say it like we practiced earlier.”

Makes the class more dynamic and fun

Visual aids add some pizazz to your lessons, and help take the focus off of you or the textbook.

Now that we’ve outlined just some of the benefits of using visual aids, let’s look at seven visual aids that work.

7 Easy ESL Visual Aids You Can Use Immediately

There are tons of games and activities that you can do with visuals, but you’re not going to find in-depth activities here. Rather, I want to show how you can use visuals to introduce new words or clarify concepts—without giving lengthy explanations to your students. (We’re reducing TTT, remember?)

These are simple, effective teaching aids. So here we go:

1. Pictures

esl visual aids

Pictures are great for presenting many nouns, adjectives and simple sentence patterns. If you are using a textbook in class, make use of the pictures in it; they are sometimes very simple and effective. With younger students, solicit words by asking “What do you see?” Be sure to call on many students and meet all of their suggestions with positive feedback. With older students, you can have them predict what a chapter will be about based on the pictures from the opening page.

But what if your textbook doesn’t have any good pictures? Or if you’re not using a textbook?

In those cases, try using realia, such as pictures from newspapers or magazines. (We’ll touch a little more on realia later in the post.) If your school has them, flashcards or picture dictionaries also work well for teaching nouns, adjectives and verbs across a wide range of themes.

Here are a few ideas of how to incorporate pictures into your teaching:

  • Use personal pictures: Whenever possible, use pictures of yourself or photos around town/school (that students would recognize) in PowerPoints or games. This will make it much more interesting and memorable for the students, so words will stick that much easier.
  • Include celebrities for interest: Likewise, if you use pictures of a well-known celebrity (whether local or global) in activities, presentations or games, students will perk up and you’ll have captured their attention more than before.
  • Draw stick figures: When all else fails, or you need a quick solution, use the simple drawing or stick figure. Stick figures take only a second to draw, can be used to teach just about anything, and are guaranteed to get a chuckle (or at least mine are).

The site ESL Flow has many more ideas about using pictures to teach English.

2. Timelines

esl visual aids

One thing that pictures aren’t very helpful for is introducing grammatical structures, particularly anything beyond the present simple or present continuous.

For this, we have timelines.

Timelines are a great way to illustrate tenses and time expressions. For instance, suppose you are trying to teach the difference between “by” and “until.”

You could draw simple timelines to illustrate the following sentences:

Sun-Hee has to finish her thesis by March 12.

Sun-Hee will work on her thesis until 10:00 tonight.

Maximize your Student Talking Time by presenting timelines interactively and leading your students to the answer.

For instance, if you’re using timelines for the above sentences, ask questions like, “What is Sun-Hee working on now?,” “When is the deadline?,” “When will she stop working on it tonight?,” etc.

3. Charts and Graphs

esl visual aids

These work beautifully for introducing and practicing a variety of structures. For example, you could use a pie chart or bar graph to illustrate comparatives and superlatives, such as:

ABC has a larger market share than XYZ.

LMN has the largest market share in the industry.

Because line graphs indicate change, they also work like a charm for verbs of change, like “increase,” “decrease,” “dip” and so on.

When you are working on vocabulary building in class, use a chart. I myself like to use charts to teach word families. I have columns for “noun,” “verb,” “adjective” and “adverb.” So let’s say the word “tired” comes up in class. I’ll expand on it by eliciting “tiredness,” “tire” and “tiredly.” Get the words in the chart, and refer back to it through the lesson.

4. FluentU

A super effective type of visual aid that’s also an English immersion platform is FluentUFluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.

It’s got a huge collection of authentic English videos that people in the English-speaking world actually watch on the regular. These are videos that your students already love watching, so they’ll be beyond excited to interact with them in the classroom. 

2014 10 09 21.14.21 A Model Lesson for Using Songs as ESL Audio Listening Materials

On FluentU, all the videos are sorted by skill level and are carefully annotated for students. In addition to the strong visual cues in the authentic videos, students will see an image with every word. Each word also comes with an in-context definition, audio and example sentences. Students will be able to add them to their own vocabulary lists, and even see how the words are used in other videos.

2014 10 09 21.15.16 A Model Lesson for Using Songs as ESL Audio Listening Materials

Worried that students might be stumped by some of the harder videos? No way. FluentU brings authentic content within reach by providing interactive captions and in-context definitions right on-screen. For example, if a student taps on the word “brought,” they’ll see this:

2014 10 09 21.20.15 A Model Lesson for Using Songs as ESL Audio Listening Materials

Plus, these great videos are all accompanied by interactive features and active learning tools for students, like multimedia flashcards and fun games like “fill in the blank.”

2014 10 09 21.21.16 A Model Lesson for Using Songs as ESL Audio Listening Materials

It’s perfect for in-class activities, group projects and solo homework assignments. Not to mention, it’s guaranteed to get your students excited about English!


5. Opposites

esl visual aids

Showing a word’s antonym or opposite is a sure-fire way to teach its meaning without a word of explanation. Suppose your student doesn’t know the word “least.” Just jot down something like this on the whiteboard:

Least  <——–> Most

Alternatively, you could use hand gestures: Spread out your arms for “most” and bring them in for “least.” Hand gestures are also good for opposites like “fast/slow,” “cheap/expensive” and “big/small.”

And, speaking of opposites, what’s the opposite of an answer? That’s right, a question! Introduce question structures by showing the question’s answer. For example:

Q: ________________________?

A: I work for a securities firm.

6. Gap Fills

esl visual aids

Like opposites, gap fills help you introduce or reinforce grammar by accessing the knowledge your students already have. They’re perfect for things like pronouns, prepositions and articles. Let’s say your lesson today is about “in,” “on” and “at.”

Having three sentences on the board like the following is all you’ll need to make their meaning clear:

Mary always goes to the beach ___ the summer.

Richard has a meeting with his boss ___ October 7. They’re meeting ___ 2:30 p.m.

If you wish, you could expand on this by creating a chart (like in #3) with “in,” “on” and “at” at the top. Then you can have your students come up with time expressions that go under each category. It’s interactive, easy and reinforces what you made clear via the gap fills.

7. Realia

esl visual aids

Realia is an incredibly effective visual aid in the ESL classroom. Realia means real-life, authentic items. For example, if you’re teaching a lesson about booking a hotel room, students will become much more engaged if they have an actual hotel brochure to look at. You could use the brochure to introduce new language items, and even as the basis for a role play if you wish.

I highly recommend taking some time to build a “realia collection” for your ESL classes. Take a walk around town or go online to gather some essential realia. Anything you print should be laminated to make it last longer.

Here is some “must-have” realia for you to start off your collection with.

  • Celebrity photos
  • Menus (eat-in and take-out)
  • Weather reports
  • Hotel pamphlets
  • Maps (world, country, street, train, subway)
  • Train/subway/bus timetables
  • Movie/concert schedules
  • Want ads
  • Property ads
  • Family trees
  • Car rental brochures

And there you have it! With these visual aids, you can teach a diverse range of structures, words and concepts with pizzazz and, best of all, very little talk time.

Practice trying out different types of visual aids in different situations. Over time, you will develop your “go-to” visual aids—ones that you’ll use every time you teach a particular lesson or topic, because you know they work. Good luck!

If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to teach English with real-world videos.

Bring English immersion to your classroom!

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