March 9

Don’t judge a book by it’s cover

Thursday 9th March

Illustrations are key in language learning course books. In fact, it would be almost impossible to find a modern course book which doesn’t contain illustrations. According to Olshansky  (2008), “Pictures [Illustrations] provide a universal language” (p.1). They can, to a certain extent, be understood by speakers of English as a first language as by speakers of English as a second language. Illustrations can help us to see that which we cannot with words (Evans, Watson, & Willows, 1987). This is hardly a new concept; illustrations have been used for communicative purposes since the beginning of humankind (Basal, Celen, Kaya, & Bogaz, 2016).

In our everyday lives we rarely receive information that is solely textual, and so why should it be presented as such in course books. Kuzu, Akbulut, and Sahin (2007) claim that without the use of illustrations, materials may provide excess information and lead to inefficient learning. The use of words and illustrations simultaneously can increase the comprehensible input for learners (Çakır, 2015).

This week I was tasked with evaluating the illustrations in a face2face course book for ESL learners (Redston & Cunningham, 2006). It is acknowledged that illustrations have numerous benefits to learners and therefore it can be assumed that these images are not randomly placed but rather serve a number of purposes. The objective of this evaluation was to view the uses of the imagery and draw conclusions relating to my practice. In order to begin evaluation a number of things must be first identified:

  • What is an illustration?
  • What is the data?
  • What framework will be used in evaluation?

What is an illustration?

The Oxford dictionary defines an illustration as; “A picture illustrating a book, newspaper, etc.” or “The action or fact of illustrating something”, with illustrate being defined as; “Provide (a book, newspaper, etc.) with pictures” or “Explain or make (something) clear by using examples, charts, pictures, etc.”, This would assume that any illustrations in course books are there to give definition or explanation of text. For the purposes of this evaluation then I took Hewing’s (1991) definition of Illustration within course materials: “any input except for text such as drawings, cartoons, photographs, flow charts, pie charts, graphs, and tables” (p. 237). For this evaluation, it was decided to not acknowledge recurring illustrations present for organisational purposes, such as headers and footers.

What is the data?

As a group, we chose to evaluate the entirety of one select module within the book. This was to reduce the data sample but evaluate such in a rich manner. It was assumed that a module in the middle of the book would have established flow and be fully focused on language. A module was chosen that was seen to have potential use for all of our contexts. Whilst the first double page spread was evaluated collectively, the rest was done divided among the group, myself taking the back matter including group work tasks, self-study activities, and grammar guides.

What framework?

To evaluate the assumed systematic placements of illustrations we decided to use Duchastel’s (1978) taxonomy which outlines five purposes of illustrations:

Affective: provided to enhance interest and motivation;
Attentive: intended to attract and direct attention;
Didactic: intended to facilitate learning by showing something difficult to convey in words;
Supportive: provided for less able learners;
Retentional: provided to facilitate memorisation.


Initially, it was assumed that the images would be used predominantly to represent text, providing deeper context and acting as an anchor to aid retention. Secondly, as an advanced level book, it was assumed that there would be relatively few images in the books.

The module chosen contained a large number of illustrations, an average of 5 or 6 per double page, of varying type. Among these, were photographs (landscapes, portraits, and screenshots), drawings, tables, digital designs, and authentic materials. An evaluation of the first double page spread revealed that the majority of illustrations were provided for decorative purposes; enhancing interest or drawing attention. Whilst some of the illustrations accompanied text in a representational manner, they show little resemblance to the text in question. Further, none of the illustrations were used as or accompanying, an activity. In the back pages there are a number of tables which are used to represent concepts in a clear manner, and hence are didactic. However, these were the only illustrations that were perceived to have much purpose beyond that of decoration. The level of the book, being that of advanced, may be the reason for the affective/attentive foci of illustrations. Observations about the illustrations were also made regarding the overall graphic design, with discussions revolving around choices made by designers to limit copyright infringements and photocopying of materials etc.

Other course books

The evaluation of the face2face course book found some rather surprising results so I decided to evaluate this book against one of the books that I use day to day in my school. 10 pages were chosen at random from the face2face book and another 10 from the advanced book created by ‘EF’. These were evaluated using Levin’s (1981) typology which was seen to be less restricting, containing more purposes. The typology is as follows: (1) decoration, (2) remuneration, (3) motivation, (4) reiteration, (5) representation, (6) organisation, (7) interpretation, and (8) transformation. The first of the three functions are non-pedagogical whilst the last five are pedagogical.

It was found that the EF book contains a vast amount more illustrations throughout than the face2face. The illustrations in EF’s book were often collated as collages, accounting for the large number of images but relatively less space dedicated to such. The use of these illustrations also varied quite distinctly between the two books. Whilst the face2face used illustrations predominantly for decorative, remunerative, and motivational purposes, the EF textbook contained a larger proportion that were for representational, organisational and interpretative purposes. It can be seen that the EF textbooks use of illustrations were more pedagogically driven. Further, on most pages selected from the EF textbook, at least one illustration was used as, or part of, an activity, for example, eliciting vocabulary or matching image to text. It was noted however that whilst the EF textbook explicitly stated activities for the illustrations, the face2face images had, perhaps greater, potential to be utilised by the teacher and students. The face2face images were often rich landscape illustrations that could be used to form the basis of much lexical and pragmatic discussions and activities.


The evaluation undertaken would indicate that the textbooks I currently use within my school use illustrations in a pedagogical way to assist students in language learning. These too explicitly incorporate the illustrations into the tasks undertaken by students and teachers. However, the evaluation too identified that both textbooks have great potential for the use of illustrations if utilised by the teacher. Perhaps, the teacher’s use of the illustrations has a greater impact than the intended purpose. A further thought was that of utilising images outside of the textbook, mainly those of students’ own images. An image owned by the student could possibly possess greater context and interest to the student, electing richer vocabulary and affording greater retention due to the personal and emotive nature. In using students’ images there is also a wider selection to choose from, perhaps more appropriate to the foci of the lesson.


Basal, A., Celen, K., Kaya, H., & Bogaz, S. (2016). An Investigation into Illustrations in English Course Books in a Turkish Context. International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education, 8(3), 525-536.

Çakır, I. (2015). Instructional Materials Commonly Employed by Foreign Language Teachers at Elementary Schools. International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education, 8(1), 69-82.

Duchastel, P. (1978). Illustrating instructional texts. Educational technology, 18(11), 36-39.

Evans, M., Watson, C., & Willows, D. (1987). A naturalistic inquiry into illustrations in instructional textbooks. In H. Houghton & D. Willows (Eds.), The psychology of illustration (Vol. Vol.2: Instructional issues, pp. 86−115). New York: Springer.

Hewings, M. (1991). The interpretation of illustrations in ELT materials. ELT Journal, 45(3), 237-244.

Kuzu, A., Akbulut, Y., & Sahin, M. (2007). Application of Multimedia Design Principles to Visuals Used in Course-Books: An Evaluation Tool. The Turkish Online Journal of Educational Technology, 6(2), 8-14.

Levin, J. (1981). On functions of pictures in prose. In F. Pirozzolo & M. Wittrock (Eds.), Neuropsychological and cognitive processes in reading. New York: Academic Press.

Olshansky, B. (2008). The Power of Pictures: Creating Pathways to Literacy through Art. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Redston, C., & Cunningham, G. (2006). Face2face: Advanced student’s book. Cambridge: University Press.


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Posted 9th March 2017 by Ricky Dagnell in category Reflections

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