Archive for May, 2013

IATEFL (international Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language) Conference at Liverpool 2013: Summary of the powerpoint presentation on ‘Mental Imagery in Language Learning’ by Rosemary Westwell

May 16, 2013

IATEFL (international Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language) Conference at Liverpool 2013: Summary of the powerpoint presentation on ‘Mental Imagery in Language Learning’ by Rosemary Westwell

What do we mean by ‘mental imagery’?

‘Imagery experiences are often understood as echoes, copies or reconstructions of perceptual experiences of the past or possible, desired or feared future experiences’ (Nigel Thomas 2011)

In other words, mental imagery means the pictures you form in your mind, pictures that are based on your previous life experience that may also help to shape imagery of the future.

Consider the following:

In various tests it has been shown that:

When reading, mental imagery has powerful effects on: comprehension, appreciation and memory.
( accessed March 2012 )

Consider also that:

Known techniques for remembering names often involve  visualisation.

e.g. Imagining going on a journey or imagining we are standing in a room with the words we are trying to remember associated with each item in turn.

Imagining success can improve an athlete’s performance by 50% (Metro 20/02/2013 p.27)

Our unconscious mind perceives far more than our conscious one. In the BBC programme of Horizon: ‘Out of Control’ on the 13th March 2012, a subject was trying to spot buildings that may have contained weapons in hundreds of photos of the mountains in Afghanistan. His brain waves were tracked as he saw the hundreds of photos rapidly in succession. His brain wave pattern showed ‘aha’ moments when possible buildings had been spotted. His conscious mind saw nothing.
(Prof. Scheider, BBC Horizon programme: ‘Out of Control’ 13th March 2012)

In the same ‘Horizon’ programme, when scientists were asked how much of our thinking is conscious and how much is unconscious – the vast majority believed it to be unconscious mind that is mostly in control.

How is this relevant to language learning?

We should relax and allow our unconscious minds ‘control’. We may not know how or why mental imagery helps language acquisition, but certain methods have been shown to be successful.
e.g. The Linkword Method  (Michael Gruneberg 1987)

Try the Linkword Method in its adapted form for yourself:

Try to learn words that are new to you e.g.

apozem’ (meaning medicine dissolved in water)

What does it sound like? Possibly the phrase ‘oppose ‘em’. Imagine interacting figures representing ‘oppose ‘em’ and medicine dissolved in water. For me, this consisted of parents trying to persuade a reluctant child to take medicine dissolved in water i.e. the child was ‘opposing ‘em’ when they were doing this.

Hold the image in your mind for 10 seconds while you look at the word: apozem

What was the word? What did it mean? (Hopefully, you remember.)

How can we apply this knowledge to our own students and their language learning problems?

Three case studies were offered:

The first, a girl of 9 years old, who had English as a first language, had a poor short-term memory and could not spell.

How would you help this student?

A suggested solution:

Give the student a list of words that are spelt similarly e.g. words containing ‘au’ such as

Show her a number of pictures e.g. one of a bathroom, another of a waiter serving someone in a restaurant and the third a picture of a sumptuous meal. (Any pictures can be used.)

Then ask the student to relate the words to the pictures in turn by connecting them to sentences that contain the words.  

e.g. The toilet paper in the bathroom is taut.

The waiter was being observed by a hungry audience.

We had a lovely meal before watching the play in the auditorium.

This made the student not only look closely at the word and its meaning, but delayed recall. Thus her spelling and her short term memory was being improved.

Then the student was given the pictures as prompts for her to write down the new words learnt.

 The second case study was a 7 year-old Chinese boy, who was at the elementary level and who was not particularly interested in learning English at all.

How would you help this student?

A suggested solution:

Pretend that the student is only an observer of your own enjoyment of language e.g. You read the first verse of a poem that might appeal to the student such as “When Daddy Fell into the Pond’ by Alfred Noyes.

‘Everyone grumbled. The sky was grey.
We had nothing to do and nothing to say.
We were nearing the end of a dismal day.
Daddy fell into the pond!’


Ask him to draw a picture to represent each line. (Something he may be more willing to do that read for himself.) Then, using the pictures as prompts ask him to see how much of the verse he can remember.

The third case study was an adult who worked in an office, who had English as a first language and who was keen to learn but had problems with spelling, lack of focus, and poor comprehension.

How would you help this student?

A suggested solution:

First improve her spelling with the same method used in Case study 1.

Then compose an advertisement for her to respond to in the way her clients should.

e.g.’ Advertisement: Busy office requires  temporary administrative staff  Summer 2013 …’

Ask her what the employer really wanted e.g. someone who can work on their own (evidence = ‘busy’). I gave as an example a letter I wrote asking for a temporary teaching position. I said that I had my own resources and would not need the photocopier – not mentioned in the advertisement, but, reading between the lines, would be what the employer really wanted. (I got the job.)

So I hope you will agree that mental imagery can facilitate language acquisition in many different ways and as experienced teachers we should have the courage to explore new ways of helping our students learn even if these are devised intuitively.  

If you would like more information you may wish to look at:

My PhD thesis
“The development of language acquisition in a mature learner”

‘The Spelling Game’
word lists and pictures for using the method described for improving spelling, working memory and vocabulary

‘Teaching Language Learners’ a book of ideas for new and experienced teachers of English as a Foreign Language
‘ Twenty Tips for Teaching IGCSE ESOL’ Twenty tips for teaching the International General Certificate of Secondary Education English as a Second Language.

On a personal level: ‘John, Dementia and Me’ a semi-autobiographical novel based on early-onset dementia

Thank you!

Rosemary Westwell