Picture This — Creating Visual Dictionaries to Teach Content and Vocabulary

Post Date: February 7, 2012


Of all the different learning styles, the most prevalent in my classroom is the visual learning style. Over time I have discovered that visual learners have distinct needs that set them apart from the other students, and that they require specific learning modalities in order to do their best.

Characteristics of a visual learner include:

  • Closes their eyes to visualize or remember something (in their "mind’s eye")
  • May think in pictures and learns best from diagrams, illustrations, videos, etc.
  • Responds best to worksheets or pictures that are vivid or in color
  • Enjoys opportunities to do multimedia projects or assignments
  • Finds oral instructions hard to remember

Accommodations for excellence include:

  • Make color-coded outlines or mind maps of information
  • Use diagrams that contain vivid pictures
  • Outline important parts of text in highlighted color
  • Provide videos or photographs as a point of reference
  • Limit the amount of listen-and-respond testing formats

Vocabulary Instruction for Visual Learners

This translates into many content-related needs as well, particularly in ELA. A recent Department of Education study of best practices on integrated vocabulary instruction notes that words are “the currency of education,” and that for most educators, teaching vocabulary is a structural foundation. The most highly used format is the traditional word wall, a staple in most classrooms. At the elementary level they are most commonly used to identify basic sight words, spelling and grammar, and essential definitions. The intermediate- and secondary-level word walls have advanced concepts and correlations between ideas.

The benefits for these best practices are twofold: they promote literacy and offer up a print-rich environment that beautifully illuminates a classroom. However, to really pack an educational punch, provide an image for those who need to make a visual connection. I began using visual dictionaries after many of my students referenced pictures, videos, and diagrams used in class in their essays. Even after years have passed, students still remember concepts they learned from visuals. Below you will find my top three visual map strategies and ways to differentiate them to fit your learners' needs.


Antonymns or Synonymns Dictionary

Images From BingTo start this activity, list the most important vocabulary words from your curriculum. I choose around ten that I write in different colors, which makes it easier for visual learners to distinguish on paper. The students are then directed to Thesaurus.com, where they type in a word of their choice. After looking over the synonyms listed, they type that word into Bing Images and look for images that match.

This task presents a few challenges, especially for struggling learners. For one, there are many specific steps that must be followed in order. Consider numbering each directive, and use as few steps as possible. Another obstacle occurs when students cannot find pictures of their written word. In that event, I ask that they type it below the picture. You may also increase or decrease the number of pictures required, or change the level of word difficulty to match your students' abilities.




Visual Map

Visual Map With Images From Britannica.comThe contrasting activity of a visual map requires students to only find pictures that match their words. This usually proves to be the project of choice as it only has one required element. However, the impact is extremely powerful as the images provide multiple reference points for memory recall. Many of my students choose to use their visual maps as a study guide. A master portfolio compilation is an excellent extension activity. This can be especially useful if your unit requires a cumulative vocabulary assessment.

Word Map

The most challenging of the three options, word maps require higher level thinking and research skills. Using the template provided, students must replace the bolded words with answers that match the assigned vocabulary word. The Online Etymology Dictionary and Dictionary.com are the best reference sites for this project, but students must look closely to find the answers. This would make the perfect differentiated activity for your highest level learners. You could also consider creating heterogeneous small groupings.

Sample Template

When they're done, hang your visual masterpieces “gallery style” in your room. This will provide continuous reinforcement of vocabulary knowledge. I created a ticket out the door as a wrap-up assessment for this activity and couldn’t have been more pleased with the result. Everyone raved about the activity and found it to be the perfect tool for studying difficult vocabulary words. Moreover, I saw a 25% increase in student test grades the following week. Student exclaimed how their visual dictionaries helped them create a “mental picture” of the definitions. I guess seeing is believing!


For more tips on how to meet the needs of your visual learners, check out Roger Essley’s “Visual Tools for Differentiating Content Area Instruction.”

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