Did you know that images are a powerful aid to learning?

by Louis Alexander

The great Czech educationist, John Amos Comenius (Jan Komensky, 1592-1670) is universally revered for first recognizing the power of images as an aid to learning. He became famous throughout Europe in 1631 with the publication of his 'Janua Linguarum Reservata', which appeared in England as 'The Gates of Tongues Unlocked and Opened'. His 'Orbis Sensualium Pictus' (The Visible World in Pictures) with a Latin and German text was published in 1658. This was the first schoolbook ever to use pictures systematically in order to teach languages and was popular for two centuries.

In our own times Audio Visual Methodology in language teaching only began to develop seriously beyond Comenius in the 1960s. The credit for this belongs to CREDIF (Centre de Recherche et d'Etude pour la Diffusion du Français, a research centre at the École Normale Supérieur de St. Cloud, near Paris). Courses for teaching French such as 'Voix et Images de France' (1961) and 'Bonjour Line' (1963) presented the French language to learners through a series of pictorial story lines and vivid images accompanied by language. Students learned to understand and speak French through pictures long before they were exposed to the printed word. This approach was not rigorously applied to the teaching of English until 1967 with the publication of 'First Things First'.

Storytelling is as old as humanity itself. Our passion for stories remains undiminished throughout our lives. Stories accompanied by pictures remain particularly memorable. All of us can vividly recall childhood publications of stories read to us or which we read ourselves and which were beautifully illustrated. Where language learning is concerned, stories and pictures make language memorable. A lesson based on a grammar point (say the present perfect tense) will be quickly forgotten. However, if this same grammar point is built into a story and well illustrated, it will be remembered for a long time through the story.

Do you remember the story called 'Commuter's tale' in Direct English, Book 3, Unit 21, Lesson 3? It's the one where Wendy swings her handbag in front of her to get on a train and the doors shut on the straps while she is left on the platform. The purpose of this story is to teach you how to report in English. You remember it not because of its linguistic purpose, but because it is such a vivid story in which (as Wendy puts it) she is 'mugged by a train'. By remembering the story, you can also tell it in your own words. So you learn about reporting by actually doing it.

Every Unit in Direct English is introduced by a short vivid episode on video rarely lasting more than a minute and a half. The wonderful video presentation is reinforced in the coursebooks by superb pictures so that you immediately recall the moving image you saw on video. The chances are that you can remember dozens of stories in Direct English and what is more, you can more or less reproduce them in English if asked to. The availability of video in addition to textbook illustrations has greatly enhanced the power of the image as an aid to learning. We may have come a long way since Comenius in this respect, but the simple truth he observed so many centuries ago is undiminished. The immense power of pictures can be harnessed to aid our learning process, both by motivating us to learn and helping us to remember what we learned. In the case of language, it is not just facts we are remembering, but the power to communicate fluently and accurately. Direct English presents 'the visible world in pictures' in a way I hope Comenius himself would have approved of.


© LG & DE Limited 2006


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