V is for Visualization

26 12 2011

Pep Guardiola, coach of ‘the best team of the world’ [sic] describes how he prepares his players:

I ask the players what they are capable of doing so that, above all, they feel confident before they go out on to the pitch. This is what I did when I was a player: before going out I would see the game up here (he taps his brow). With my eyes shut I could see the game clearly. That way I had it all wrapped up, and I enjoyed it¹.

I was reminded of this last week on getting the following email from Zahid Sheik:

I’m writing to ask you about your thoughts on an idea that has recently popped into my head.  I’ve noticed that on several occasions, some of the best lessons that I’ve had were lessons where I simply jotted down a few cursory points about what I’m planning to do in class without going into the detail that’s often required on a typical lesson plan, followed by a brief visualization of the class in my “mind’s eye”.  I was wondering if any research has been conducted in relation to the benefits of visualization and lesson planning.  How do you feel about this phenomenon?

As can be seen by the Guardiola quote, in the sports world there’s a healthy tradition of visualization as preparation for performance. The story of the pentathlon athlete, Marilyn King, who, after a debilitating accident, ‘visualized’ herself back into Olympic-standard performance, is often cited in this respect.

Visualization has impacted on language learning too. Jane Arnold (e.g. 1999, 2007) has written extensively on this subject. She recalls that her interest in visualization in language learning was prompted by an account of “an American scholar who, before going to a conference in Europe, eliminated blocks about speaking French and Italian by working with imagery”.  After visualising himself travelling through these countries and speaking fluently to everyone he met “it was found that his fluency improved notably and with his Italian his accuracy did also” (1999, p.269).

More recently, visualization has attracted the attention of theorists of motivation, specifically those who argue that the (language) learner is driven by the need to reconcile his or her present self with some idealised, imagined future self. As Dörnyei & Ushioda (2009, p. 4) put it: “If proficiency in the target language is part and parcel of one’s ideal or ought-to self, this will serve as a powerful motivator to learn the language because of our psychological desire to reduce the discrepancy between our current and possible future selves”.

Accordingly, visualization has been recommended as a means of bringing into sharp focus one’s ideal self image – the better to realise it.  ‘The first step in a motivational intervention… is to help learners to construct their Ideal L2 Self, that is, to create their vision’ (Dörnyei, 2009, p. 33).

This might involve visualizing a situation in which you, the learner, are successfully using the target language for the specific purposes for which you have been learning it, whether social, business, academic, or whatever. The visualization is likely to have more motivational power if it is clearly and concisely elaborated, with details of time, place and people explicitly articulated.

Subsequent phases in the visualization process (as outlined in the literature) include: substantiating the vision, keeping the vision alive, operationalising the vision, and counterbalancing the vision. Of this last, Dörnyei says, “In language learning terms this would involve regular reminders of the limitations of not knowing languages” (p. 38).

Zahid’s email, (above), however, raises the intriguing question as to how visualization might apply to teacher development. Could it be a tool on a teacher training program, for example? Does it assume a degree of familiarity with lesson planning and classroom teaching that might preclude its use with novice teachers? Do the so-called ‘foreign language lessons’ on many pre-service courses (wittingly or unwittingly) offer newbie teachers a vision of their ‘ideal teaching self’?  To what extent are our ideal teaching selves modelled on charismatic teachers from our past – or even from Hollywood?

At a more pragmatic level, is it possible to imagine one’s way into a lesson, in the way that Pep envisions a successful football match? When I asked Zahid to expand on his use of visualizations as a planning strategy, this is what he said:

Basically, I visualize the different stages/activities that I cursorily wrote down on my lesson plan, what the students might respond with, and I keep going through the lesson with whatever comes to mind.  I see myself and my students in the classroom interacting etc… and I sometimes close my eyes to do this.  I’m pretty much picturing the whole lesson in my mind in its different (planned) increments and potential asides, the latter point being related to the “potential problems” section of the CELTA lesson plan.

Has anyone else experienced visualization as either a language learning or a lesson planning strategy?

¹Thanks to Jessica Mackay for this quote.


Arnold, J. 1999.  Visualization: language learning with the mind’s eye’. In Arnold, J. (ed.) Affect in Language Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Arnold, J., Puchta, H., & Rinvolucri, M.  2007. Imagine That. Helbling Languages.

Dörnyei, Z. 2009. ‘The L2 motivational self system’. In Dörnyei & Ushioda (2009).

Dörnyei, Z., & Ushioda, E. (eds.) 2009. Motivation, Language Identity, and the L2 Self. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Illustrations from Hartley, B., & Viney, P. 1978. Streamline English: Departures. Oxford University Press.



29 responses

26 12 2011

Hi Scott,

Yet another interesting topic for discussion – Thank you!

“Has anyone else experienced visualization as either a language learning or a lesson planning strategy?”

Yes, I have, and I think it’s safe to say we all use visualization in our daily lives if we understand visualization as forming a mental image.

As a language learner, for example, living in my L2 environment, I would often imagine myself on the train the next day, and, in great detail, run through myriad situations within my ‘riding on the train schema”, such as what I would say to someone who asked me if the seat next to me was available (as well as how someone might ask: Ist hier frei? Ist dieser Platz bestetz?, etc.). I did this often, perhaps even obsessively, and I would claim it helped me learn German.

As a pre-service teacher on a CELTA, at an IH Center in the U.S., I would meticulously run through of the next day’s lesson(s), anticipating the learners’ responses to steps and stages in the lesson, which was difficult since I had to concern myself more with ‘getting through the lesson’ than getting to know the students. A Dogme approach has alleviated this ‘malady’. 🙂

I’m not sure any of this qualifies as visualization, however, at least not in the sense that athletes use it; I might call what I used to do ‘worrying’. Had I imagined myself successfully performing the tasks I’ve mentioned, it might be fair to say I was visualizing as do athletes or stage performers. But, again, I picked up German relatively quickly and feel fairly confident using the language, so perhaps I acquired an L2 in spite of my poor visualization techniques?

Just last night, Scott, I was reading in a book I once sent you (Original Self by Thomas Moore), in which Moore writes about self-actualization and other idealized ‘self projects’, arguing that we are not born as a sort of tabula rasa but rather come with a personality and story to be lived out. That might seem fatalistic to Western minds (and teachers) who encourage ‘growth’ and heroic self-improvement. Still, I think Moore is onto something: We add depth and meaning to our lives when we observe the images that come to us naturally rather than trying to suppress these and replace them with high-performance, ego-driven images we are told will make us successful.

So, as counter to modern Western thought as it sounds, maybe pre-service teachers should rely less on idealized models of what is a ‘good teacher’ – or ‘good learner’ for that matter – and more on getting to know their personal, singular style and how to let that work for them and their students. Likewise, as language learners, if, for instance, I am not required to perform on an exam, I might try to to focus less on perfection and more on connection, especially if all I really want to do is meet people, listen to their stories and share my own. The rest will follow?

Nowadays, I find the less I attempt to engineer classes, thus the more I let the ‘lesson’ (loaded word) happen, the better things are for me and language learners. None of that is to say I don’t still ‘worry’. Maybe I need to give visualization a try.

I hope Jane (Arnold) comments here.


27 12 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Rob – you raise interesting questions, one being the distinction (if there is one) between visualization, imagining, anticipating and even worrying! I’m not sure I’m qualified to tease these apart, except that I suspect that visualization is a more deliberate, explicit and focussed process – but maybe Jane can enlighten us!

As to the point that what we need to focus on is less models of teacher behaviour, and more processes of ‘connection’ – yes, I second that, although at pre-service level I’m not sure how this could be achieved. Perhaps imagining oneself as the ‘connecting teacher’ is a step in that direction.

26 12 2011

Have no choice but to jump in.

A few quotes
1. The image is the great instrument of instruction… what learners get out of any subject is merely the images they themselves form in regard to it.
John Dewey (1897)

2.Alan Paivio’s Dual coding theory of cognition – we receive information from two channels, verbal and non-verbal. “It is especially important to learn the second language in association with appropriate nonverbal referents –either visible or in imagery – which represent the knowledge of the world”.

3. If you don’t have access to a lot of materials (or I would say even if you do), Charles and Jill Hadfield suggest the following: “Use the limitless resources of students’ imagination -simply get the students to close their eyes and imagine their own pictures which become the stimulus for speaking or writing activities.”

I find that work with mental imagery is useful in all aspects of language teaching. And I understand what Zahid says about lesson planning. Whatever else I may do, I also have some type of mental image about the class, often an almost kinaesthetic image of how I want the class to flow and those of us involved to experience what goes on.

Particularly interesting in what Scott describes is Zoltan Dörnyei’s L2 motivational self model in which imagery plays a central role. The model is also used with teacher education. I have had graduate students working on both the L2 learners’ and teachers’ ideal selves and the results have been promising.

31 12 2011

Hi Jane

Visualization plays a great role in language learning.These days I’m teaching my youngest son, the alphabets and the sounds they carry.Whenever, he has aproblem in learning an alphabet; I visualize my self when I was a child sitting in my class with my small language book with pictures of kings and queens.When my son listens to my story; he immediately overcomes his problem.

26 12 2011

I would love to be able to imagine the lesson and I guess I often do but I couldn’t call it ‘visualisation’, it would be more like ‘dreaming’. It’s often the case that things don’t go to plan and what I see as working doesn’t as much as those things I predict as being a problem aren’t – I guess that comes down to experience.

I find it more useful to leave thinking time till after the lesson when things have gone the way they went and then I can think about why it happened that way. Maybe for me that means visualising or predicting will happen after time spent reflecting. Josie

28 12 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Josie, for the comment, which makes me wonder if reflecting and visualizing are not two sides of the same coin?

27 12 2011

I find myself constantly going through a process of mental verbalization -the mind’s tongue, as it were. It’s not visualizing lesson plan stages, students’ roles, or possible departures what trigger all the rehearsing. It’s about establishing islands of L2 ownership, opportunities for L2 actual emergence, and even L2 mental representations with no communicative goal, like a songwriter exploring all the innuendos that word combinations can conjure up and copies down only the ones that help shape the story or build up the emotion.

In order to capture this mental verbalization process, these islands of L2 ownership and L2 morphing, I would redefine the concept “IDIOLECT” as “OWNILECT”.

27 12 2011
Jane Arnold

When we talk about mental imagery/visualisation, it is common to associate this with the visual – the mind’s eye.But it is not limited to the visual – Almagro writes of what he calls the mind’s tongue and we can have mental images of all the senses. Adrian Underhill has developed a very interesting way to work on pronunciation with what he calls the “inner workbench”, having learners use inner auditory images, the mind’s ear, then.
The sky is the limit…. Imagine the blue color of the sky on a clear day….birds flying through the sky…. 🙂

27 12 2011

Thanks so much for your very interesting post Scott and thank you to everyone else for the comments that followed.
It all made me think about my experiences of learning a new language. Just like Rob I’ve only ever made a quantum leap when I’ve been able to “see” myself communicating successfully in various situations.
Back in the days when I was a new, young teacher facing large classes of children and teenagers, I can remember lesson plans disintegrating under the more pressing issues of classroom management. Visualizing myself as an infinitely more confident teacher was a survival technique I developed pretty quickly. It stopped me scampering back to Old Blighty and kept me in TEFL!
Nowadays, I find myself pondering an ideal end of lesson scene and putting together ideas of how to get there rather than starting with a traditional structured lesson plan.
Is that pondering visualization? Could starting with the end result that we want to achieve in any lesson be considered a very basic form of visualization which we all use?

( I was astonished when I saw the Streamline illustrations on your post – I didn’t know those books were still in print! I taught my very first lessons from them.)

28 12 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the comment, Louise. Imagining – or visualizing – the lesson’s outcome (or destination, to borrow from the Streamline series title!) seems like a promising planning strategy. Although, in my case, I think this would be less imagining a specific learning outcome (e.g. that the learners have ‘learned’ the present perfect continuous) than some kind of affective outcome, a sense that learners feel satisfied at having met the challenges they have been set.

27 12 2011

Thanks Scott for another interesting topic!

The first thing that came to mind as I was reading through your post was the rationale and importance of Personalisation and Context-setting (in terms of pre-service teacher training). I’ve had a few trainees in recent months who had a difficult time seeing the value of spending (read: wasting) ‘precious lesson time NOT focussing on language’. Now I have another point to highlight for such trainees in the future!

28 12 2011
Jessica Mackay

What a treat to come back from holiday and find this post!

I think that Rob’s post above raises an important point, the sensation and impact of emotions that can be recreated and experienced through visualisation. Rob calls it ‘worrying’ but isn’t this more evidence of how humans can ‘relive’ or ‘pre-live’ an experience though the power of imagination.

There is evidence from neuroimaging studies (Kosslyn et al, 2006) that imagining yourself engaged in a certain type of behaviour closely approximates real human experience; in other words the same parts of the brain leap into action when we’re imagining doing an activity as when we are actually doing it. If we can harness this potential for mental preparation and rehearsal, then this could be a powerful motivational tool, for teachers and learners alike.

28 12 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for your comment, Jessica (and thanks for the Pep Guardiola quote, as well as the talk on motivation whence it came!).

The Kosslyn quote on ‘neuroimaging’ connects to what little I know about ‘mirrror neurons’, and the fact that watching someone performing an activity stimulates the same parts of the brain as doing the activity oneself. Which in turn suggests that there might be (teacher) developmental possibilities in cycles of observation, visualization, rehearsal and performance.

28 12 2011
Jane Arnold

Yes, as Jessica points out, it seems our brains process real and imagined behaviour in similar ways. Dörnyei (2009:15), in his L2 self model that Scott describes, notes that these possible selves “involve images and senses, approximating what people actually experience when they are engaged in motivated or goal-directed behaviour”,

31 12 2011

Hi Jessica,

I agree when you say humans can relive or pre-live an experience and this helps you alot as a teacher (learner)- as sometimes, we pre-learn before we teach).

28 12 2011
Jane Arnold

Patrick, I can understand (though not share, of course) the idea of your trainees about not wanting to “waste” time on non language issues. I think this is from their (probably logical) lack of vision of what being a teacher really involves (Parker Palmer says something to the effect that technique is what the teacher relies on until the real teacher is there and he affirms, somewhat in the line of Earl Stevick, that “good teaching connot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher”, though we might want to add a few other ingredients to the recipe).

With my methodology students (still undergraduates and not really near the classroom yet except as students themselves) I always bring out Adrian Underhill’s 3 step model for teacher development for them to keep in mind. Using the terms in a special way, he speaks of Lecturer (who knows the subject), Teacher (who knows the subject and methods and techniques) and Facilitator (who knows the other areas but also how to create a psychological atmosphere which makes for more effective learning). Obviously the more tools the teacher has, the better and I think that what is being said here contributes to the tool collection and has a solid base, as Scott and Jessica point out, in the neurosciences.

One of my MA students last year did a very interesting study with a small group of future teachers of Spanish as a second language. They had little or no actual experience in the classroom and his intervention involved using visualization and goal-setting activities related to the way they would like to see themselves as teachers in the future – their ideal L2 teacher self. Their response to the activities was very positive and points to an option for strengthening teacher motivation and minimizing teacher burnout that could possibly be used in training courses along with the necessary work on more traditional areas.

29 12 2011

I have also used visualisation as a tool, both as a learner and a teacher. When in Spain I constantly visualised what I would say and do when shopping etc. and my language improved immensely.

I visualise my class and the activities I want to incorporate on a daily basis. In fact I am so good at this that I don’t need a lesson plan at all, it is already there mapped out fully in my head. Of course, one can’t avoid producing the LP as they are a contractual requirement!

I have talked with my students about this, but I think I might take it one step further and have them do the visualisation, then role play it in class. At the worst they will get more speaking practice, at best, it may help them to be more fluent or confident.

Thanks for the topic, interesting and thought provoking.

30 12 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Sheri, for that insight into your own use of visualization. My problem is that – when I visualize an exchange in Spanish – I often see myself making a mess of it (based on past experience). Doesn’t exactly help my motivation!

30 12 2011

Ah, then you have to re-visualise your visualisations!

We can natter on about any theory we like, but at the end of the day it comes down to each individual – do you think it will work; are you willing to try it; and can you make it a positive experience?

This obviously includes the steps outlined by Hadfield and Dornyei; however it doesn’t have to be a laborious process, and ‘counterbalancing the vision (thinking about the negative consequences if your vision does not become reality)’ is simply having a Plan B.

As every teacher knows, the likelihood of something going wrong or not quite according to plan is ever present. It isn’t rocket science, we don’t have to over evaluate or over think it…just give it a go, and always have a back up!

31 12 2011
Jessica Mackay

It shouldn’t be a laborious process. I totally agree.

The point about Dörnyei’s model is not that he’s trying to be prescriptive (ie follow this six-point plan to learn a language) but rather trying to explain why some learners are more successful than others.

The origin of the theory was to try to explain the success (or lack of it) for those learners in a globalised, EFL context where there is little contact with and little interest in the L1 community and therefore the concept of ‘integrative’ motivation no longer applies.

As you have worked (or still work?) in Spain, you’ll know that a large number of adult learners sign up for English classes with the vague notion that ‘English is important’ or ‘I need it to get a better job’ but without any specific vision of what they want to do with it or how they’re going to get there other than sit in class for two hours a week and somehow it will magically happen.

Dörnyei suggests that if we can somehow harness the power of our learners’ imagination to help create this vision, this can be a powerful motivational tool. This does not come automatically to many students and they need to work on creating the vision; hence the six points.

The results of my own research in Barcelona and the work of Jane’s grad students in Seville seem to bear this out. Probably not the only solution and not rocket science indeed, but I don’t know many other teachers who are using visualisation techniques in class and maybe it’s something we should be exploiting more.

30 12 2011
Jessica Mackay

As Scott mentions above, Dörnyei elaborates six stages or aspects of developing a vision of your Ideal L2 Self or Ideal L2 Teacher self, in this case. Jill Hadfield (Hadfield & Dörnyei, in preparation) very cleverly distinguishes between two phases. The initial steps; ‘creating the vision’, ‘enhancing the vision’ (adding more detail and nuance), substantiating the vision (making sure it’s realistic and attainable) and counterbalancing the vision (thinking about the negative consequences if your vision does not become reality) and the long-term use of your idealised self image in order to maintain motivation and effort; operationalising the vision (strategies to make it happen) and keeping the vision alive (regularly accessing your self concept as a motivational tool).

It seems that what Rob, Josie and Louise are doing when visualising their lesson outcomes falls in to the latter category. Perhaps pre-service training already implicitly focuses on the initial stages by offering trainees the opportunity to observe peers and mentors and ponder what kind of teacher they would like to be, e.g. through the use of metaphor as mentioned in Scott’s previous post.

Incidentally, when using some of the techniques developed by Jill and Jane in order to develop my EFL students’ Ideal L2 Self, by far the hardest stage for me was ‘counterbalancing the vision’. It is not in our nature as teachers to dwell on the negative and it was quite a struggle to find ways to remind learners of the consequences of failure without overly intimidating them. In the end, timing was the key. You can discuss failure if you then discuss ways to avoid it. Always finish on a high!

30 12 2011

Sounds a lot like what some call ‘goal-setting’, particularly under the SMART acronym. Google SMART goals if you like since it’s interpreted differently by different people. It’s definitely a creation of the Herculean personal development/self-improvement set. 🙂


1 01 2012
Jane Arnold

Hi Rob
Just because it might be appropriate for today – January 1

A version of Smart Goals we (Veronica and I) have used in ELT
Specific: It should be detailed enough for anyone to understand it
Measurable: What evidence are you going to gather to measure your success?
Achievable: Is this achievable by you? Only YOU can answer this!
Responsible: Is this good for you? Is it good for others?
Time-bound: When is the deadline? (It is said that the difference between a dream and a goal is a deadline!)

The ideal self in Dörnyei’s formulation involves, of course, more than just imagining how you would like to be. Whatever name or scheme is used, it does seem that working with goals – not just having the vision- is essential.

30 12 2011
Jessica Mackay

Quite so Rob but I might not be doing Dörnyei’s theory justice with my description.
He makes a point of distinguishing between goal-setting theory and possible self theory. He quotes Pizzolato (2006) ‘Unlike goal theory, possible selves are explicitly related to a long-term developmental goal involving goal setting, volition (…) and goal achievement, but are larger than any one or combination of these constructs’. (Dörnyei & Ushioda, 2009: 15).

30 12 2011

I know it’s hard to fit entire books and their theories into this space, Jessica. I can always read up on what Dörnyei has to say since I’ve got his books on my shelf. It definitely seems like he’s talking about how we imagine ourselves to be, which makes me ponder how learning a new language can expand our imagination. I wouldn’t be who I am today without my other languages, but I also know that, at my core, I’d likely be the same in any language. It’s an ironic twist, but it explains why we find kindred spirits around the world. Universal Grammar? 🙂


30 12 2011
Jane Arnold

Related to what you say about being the same in any language. I feel I am more or less, I’d have to think a bit about when more and when less. But I remember the case of Alice Kaplan in her autobiographical book French Lessons. In a sense she “escaped” into French because she felt English didn’t “name her”. Related to the topic here, no doubt her ideal self spoke French.

3 01 2012
Derick Bonewitz

Hello Scott:

Process drama and other types of enactments are among my favorite classroom activities because I witness students forgetting that they are language students as they take on imagined roles in an imaginary setting. To help students prepare for these enactments, I ask them to imagine (to visualize) the setting and themselves as an actor in that setting. I emphasize that they are to be someone else, not themselves, and this greatly helps to lower their affective filters. What are they wearing, doing, seeing, feeling? etc. Then: what would they be hearing, saying? I’ve found this step of visualization before enactment to be essential to a successful activity.

And yes, I visualize this and many other classroom activities beforehand. I find such visualization to be a much more efficient way to plan lessons because it’s faster and less tedious than a written lesson plan. Even when I do make written notes for a lesson, I often never need them. As the lesson evolves, I keep trying to visualize the possibilities of where it is going (or could go) and how I might nudge the trajectory in a desired direction (or not).

Might this be what being a visual learner really means?

For anyone interested in process drama, a new installment of an excellent online workshop is just getting started at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/EVO_Drama_2012/

3 01 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Derick, for the comment – and for reminding me of your interest in process drama. It hadn’t really occurred to me that there might be a connection between visualization and drama, but your comment makes it clear.

4 01 2012

A resource for anyone interested in exploring this topic further: http://www.njcu.edu/cill/journal-index.html


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