7 Types of Visual Aids in Teaching English

A picture is worth a thousand words.

Nowhere is this truer than in the ESL classroom.

Suppose a student wants to know the difference between “He danced at the party” and “He was dancing at the party.”

Instead of launching into a long explanation, you could draw a picture of two timelines, one representing each sentence, and have the students describe them.

Visual aids make English so much more approachable for students, so I’ll show you seven important types of visual aids that you should be adding to your class. 


Easy ESL Visual Aids You Can Use Immediately

Visual aids include pictures, charts, posters, videos, flashcards and Powerpoint presentations. These are invaluable tools for ESL lessons because they catch students’ attention and help them understand new information better. 

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.

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

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1. Pictures

esl teacher using pictures to teach english

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. With younger students, I ask “What do you see?” then call on many students and meet all of their suggestions with positive feedback. With older students, I have them predict what a chapter will be about based on the pictures from the opening page.

If a textbook doesn’t have good pictures, I also use 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 work well.

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.
  • Include celebrities for interest: Whenever I use pictures of a well-known celebrity, students perk up and I’ve definitely have captured their attention more than before.
  • Draw stick figures: For a quick solution, use the simple drawing or stick figure. Stick figures take only a second to draw 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

timeline used for esl class

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.

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Timelines are a great way to illustrate tenses and time expressions

When I was trying to teach the difference between “by” and “until,” I drew 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?

3. Charts and Graphs

esl charts for teaching english

These work beautifully for introducing and practicing a variety of structures. I’ve used pie charts or bar graphs to illustrate comparatives and superlatives, such as:

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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 personally 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.

5. Opposites

tall and short men for illustrating opposites in esl class

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

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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

gap fill example as an esl visual aid

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:

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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. 

7. Realia

esl teacher using realia to teach english

Realia is an incredibly effective visual aid in the ESL classroom. Realia means real-life, authentic items. For example, when I was teaching a lesson about booking a hotel room, students became much more engaged when I gave them at an actual hotel brochure to look at. I used the brochure to introduce new language items, and even as the basis for a role play.

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. 

Here are some must-have realia for you to start off your collection with.

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  • 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 for family-themed ESL activities
  • Car rental brochures

Benefits of Using Visual Aids for ESL

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

Helps with understanding concepts

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

As the saying goes, 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.

When my visual aid was a timeline illustrating someone’s work experience, I asked my students, “How long did Bob work for ABC Inc.?” 

Provides a touchpoint for reference

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

More dynamic and fun

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

You can even use visual aids that are related to pop culture or your students’ interests. For example, FluentU has hundreds of authentic English videos taken from movies, TV series, vlogs and more. You can show these to your students since they’re made learner-friendly through tools like interactive subtitles and transcripts. 


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!

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