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.