Images in ELT coursebooks are often ambiguous. What might seem a fairly obvious depiction of an act or concept to us may be perceived as something completely different to our learners.
In an interesting, small-scale study, Hewings (1991) asked a group of Vietnamese learners in England to interpret various illustrations found in Elementary level coursebooks. For most of the images correct interpretation would require some culturally-specific knowledge, and written text around the images was removed so the learners weren’t given any support.
Hewings found many types of image were interpreted differently from what was intended. One example was with illustrations portraying people in certain roles, where learners failed to recognise certain stereotypes (e.g. rich/poor). He found, understandably, that culturally-specific job roles (e.g. a priest) were misinterpreted, as were situational images.
Maps like this room plan were also confused…
Some learners thought this was a view of a house from top to bottom rather than a floor plan from above. Symbolic representations like thought bubbles were also misinterpreted, and images like the ones below were seen as something different – the first image being a children’s slide, a reception desk, and ‘information’.
Interpretation of graphs also seemed an issue, particularly dealing with keys.
Hewings made some clear points in conclusion (mostly quotes here):
- ‘we inevitably see illustrations from a culturally based viewpoint…’
- We assume that everyone perceives images in the same way
- ‘We assume that students have the necessary skills to make sense of information presented in the form other than a text’
- Interpretations are unpredictable
- Images are a chance to make learners aware of visual representations of a cultural group/target language
An example from my context
On the whole I feel most of our coursebook images, or those I use in my own materials, are interpreted as intended. However, anything related to emotions and feelings always seems to cause problems. I recently taught an in-house lesson to young learners with a matching task using emoticons, this was pretty disastrous!
Coursebooks such as Beyond (Macmillan) or English in Mind (CUP) use photo stories. It’s always interesting to blank out the dialogue and have learners construct this themselves – this often reveals that learners perceive characters emotions differently.
As a materials writer…
The materials I write don’t include images due to copyright. If they ever do, it’s vector images that appear. The assumption is that these clearly depict certain objects or actions, but I think they are limited when it comes to contexts/situations.
Embracing different interpretations?
Of course I like it when learners share their own interpretations of an image – it would be boring if they all thought like me! Differing views can lead to interesting class discussion. However, it can be an issue if the image has a specific purpose (e.g. establishing a context, representing a target word, etc). According to Hill (in Tomlinson, 2013), that’s not as often as we might think when it comes to coursebook images!
Hill found through analysing various coursebooks that over half their visuals were merely for decoration rather than for a specific purpose…
This seems like a waste of coursebook space to me. Hill points out that it’s the publishers rather than the writer who would make such aesthetic decisions.
If the images with a specific purpose are likely to be misinterpreted then they must require more careful selection, unless (as with Hewings last point) you want to make learners aware of how a concept might be visually represented by a particular cultural group…
With all this in mind, I wonder whether images are ever piloted by publishers. I’d assume this is standard practice.
I remember running a psychology experiment once using images to represent items. The images seemed pretty clear to me – a cabin, a cabbage, a crocodile, etc. But before I planned the experiment I still had to run the images by 100 people to check they interpreted the images in the same way. I excluded any images under a 95% match.
You could apply the same process to coursebook images, going beyond concrete nouns and dealing with depictions of a situation, an emotion, etc.
Ah, but I guess there’s a problem. You need the images to be interpreted similarly by your target learners – that’s a pretty broad spectrum if it’s a global coursebook. Publishers could produce localised/regionalised versions of their coursebooks with more suitable images, ones which they have piloted with target learners within the region.
Over to you:
- Do you find your learners interpret images differently to you?
- Is it fair to say that learners ‘misinterpret’ these images?
- Do you feel the images used in your coursebooks are suitable for your learners?
- How do you select suitable images for your own materials?
Hewings, M. ‘The interpretation of illustrations in ELT materials’ ELT Journal, v45 n3 p237-44 July 1991
Hill, D.A. ‘The Visual Elements in EFL Coursebooks’, in Tomlinson, B. (2013) Ed. Developing Materials for Language Teaching. London: Bloomsbury