9 – The Power of Visual Notetaking: Empowering EAL Student Learning in the Classroom

Sarah Gerrard

English as Additional Language (EAL) students are diverse.  Prokopchuk (2017) defines EAL learners as “recent immigrants, refugees; fee-paying and international students; First Nations and Métis students; Hutterite students; or, local students who speak languages other than English when they arrive at school” (p. 3).   With the increased numbers of EAL students in Saskatchewan classes, visual notetaking is a powerful teaching tool that teachers should embrace. Visual notetaking, herein defined as drawings that combine both visual and text elements to convey information, enhances teacher-student communication, helps EAL students acquire their second language (L2), supports students learning academic vocabulary, enhances memory performance, and is culturally responsive.  As someone who has been on both sides of language instruction—both as an L2 learner and a teacher of L2 students—I am convinced of the value of visual notetaking and plan to infuse it into my own lessons in the future.  The research clearly illustrates that when teachers incorporate visual notetaking in their classes, they amplify their EAL students’ comprehension of subject matter and simultaneously enrich their students’ learning experiences.

EAL Newcomers in Saskatchewan Schools

There has been an immense increase in EAL learners entering Saskatchewan schools in the last eight years.  In 2009, “Ministry of Education sources indicate that less than one percent of all K-12 students required EAL support” (Prokopchuk, 2017, p. 6), whereas in 2015, “8.5% of Saskatchewan students in Grades 1-12 were receiving EAL support (Prokopchuk, 2017, p. 11).  In Saskatchewan, EAL students’ placement in classes is often based on their age versus their L2 fluency, which “takes into account the research that students are more motivated when placed with groups of age-alike students, as well as guidelines in place in other provinces” (Anderson & Tilbury, 2014, p. 91).  Because urban school divisions, such as Saskatoon and Regina, have experienced higher EAL student enrollments, they are often able to provide specific programming for their EAL students using a “pull-out . . . push-in . . . co-teaching approach” (Anderson & Tilbury, 2014, p. 89), even offering specific EAL courses in high schools.  In contrast, rural school divisions often employ itinerant teachers who provide professional development to classroom teachers working with EAL students, but rarely teach EAL courses themselves.  This means that many EAL students across Saskatchewan are relying on their classroom teachers to support their L2 learning; in an era when support staff are being cut due to budget restraints, this places even more pressure on teachers to differentiate and adapt their instruction.  Visual notetaking is one way that teachers can better support L2 learning and offers a practical approach to enriching their lessons for all students.

Visual Notetaking: A Powerful Teaching Tool


  • Visual Notetaking Enhances Communication

Visual notetaking offers teachers a powerful way through which they can convey meaning to EAL students.  Using Vygotsky’s (1978) zone of proximal development, teachers can explicitly teach students how to construct visual notes and model visual notetaking themselves, scaffolding their instruction before gradually shifting to support students in creating their own original visual notes. Carroll (1991) wrote that “students should be encouraged to draw into meaning” because drawing is “a powerful writing tool” (pp. 35-38), arguably because “Before there are words, there are images” (Rico, 1983, p. 157).  In essence, sketches convey meaning.  Examples of visual notetaking approaches include: edu-sketches (Pillars, 2016), sketchnoting (Rohde, 2013), and info-doodlingTM (Brown, 2014).

The authors of these approaches all stress that teachers need not be artists (in fact, Pillars discourages this), and describe visual notes as being constructed from expressive fonts, shapes, stick figures, symbols, and selective use of colour, with special attention focused on how containers of information are connected together (For an example, see: https://www.bluelatitude.com/how-we-think/an-introduction-to-sketchnotes/ ).  Pillars (2016) writes that since “nonlinguistic symbols. . . can be imparted quickly and clearly without a single word. . . across linguistic barriers” (p. 6), visual notetaking helps communicate meaning to EAL students in a way that written or spoken words do not.  In fact, Parkland Ambulance’s use of Kwikpoint brochures (Karasiuk, personal communication, Sept. 24, 2017) reflects this sentiment since these brochures use visual graphics to “foster two-way communication when no interpreter is available” (Kwikpoint, 2016, p.1). Although all learners benefit from visual notetaking, EAL students arguably have more to gain by having their teachers use this approach since art functions as a universal language.

Visuals Help EAL Students Acquire Better Language Fluency

There are a lot of similarities between how young children learn to identify letters, words, and their corresponding sounds in early literacy and how EAL learners acquire language and literacy in their L2.  The Institute for the Development of Educational Achievement (2004) states that “the best approach to reading instruction is one that incorporates explicit instruction in phonemic awareness, systematic phonics instruction, method to improve fluency, and ways to enhance comprehension” (p. 1).  DiLorenzo, Rody, Bucholz, and Brady (2011) state that, “Of these critical areas, the alphabetic principle is commonly identified as a challenge to many young readers” (p. 28).  EAL learners go through a similar process of learning the Roman alphabet, attaching sounds to letters and words, and gaining fluency in their L2. Citing research that showed “that prereaders who were taught letter–sound associations through integrated picture mnemonics learned more letter–sound associations than did their peers who were not exposed to the mnemonics” (DiLorenzo et al., 2011, p. 29), DiLorenzo et al. (2011) conducted a study on kindergarten students who were developing their sublexical skills and found that kindergarten students who received instruction about “letter–sound knowledge and phonological awareness” (p. 29) using Itchy’s mnemonic alphabet were “better able to segment words into individual sounds” (p. 32) and “better able to decode unfamiliar (nonsense) words than those who were in the comparison class” (p. 33). While “educators and administrators understand that the developmental stages in learning one’s first language (between 0-5 years of age) are not replicated by EAL learners at school” (Prokopchuk, 2017, Module 7, p. 1), some of the same strategies are effective in supporting L2 acquisition.

I have extensive experience as an L2 learner: I completed elementary and middle school in a French immersion program, studied Japanese for three years in high school, and took two introductory Spanish courses in university.  My Japanese language teacher taught our class the hiragana alphabet using mnemonics, which is probably why, two decades later, I still remember how to read and write it (for examples, see images for a key and no smoking on the hiranga alphabet website).  The time it took me to learn the hiragana alphabet was much faster than the time it took me to learn the Roman alphabet as a young child, because “L2L [second language learners] who start learning the language years later than their peers can understand language at a higher level of complexity” (Coelho, 2012, p. 230).

Teaching the Roman alphabet and its phonemic sounds using visual mnemonics would increase EAL students’ abilities to learn letter-sound associations in their L2.  Coelho (2012) would support this approach, since she points out that school-wide actions that would support academic progress for EAL students include teachers incorporating more visuals into their lessons.  Coelho (2012) writes that, “Using key visuals can reduce the language demands of the curriculum and enhance understanding, thus enabling L2Ls to handle new concepts and information” (pp. 280-281). Creating visual notes is also a way that teachers can provide differentiated instruction for EAL students, something Garnett (2012) argues is needed because there is so much variation between EAL students’ socio-economical, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds.


  • Visual Notetaking Supports Learning Academic Vocabulary

Coelho (2012) points out that there is a “strong correlation” (p. 307) between students’ vocabularies and their academic achievements.  While some classroom teachers argue that “‘Teaching English is the job of the EAL specialist’” (Helmer & Eddy, 2012, p. 8), Helmer and Eddy (2012) refute this, explaining, “Because research in second-language acquisition clearly indicates that it takes five or more years to become fluent and proficient in a second language, responsibility for meeting the educational needs of these learners must realistically extend to all the teachers our EAL learners encounter” (p. 8).  Coelho (2012) explains that the English language is extra complex due to the fact that in addition to its Anglo-Saxon words, it contains words from other languages, such as Latin and Greek.  Coelho (2012) defines low-frequency vocabulary that is essential to academic success as “General academic words” (p. 314) and notes that these tend to be “Latin-based words such as observe or accurate” (p. 314).  Roessingh (2016) explains that, “As language becomes more cognitively demanding and context reduced, learners must avail themselves of language itself to make meaning” (p. 69), something that is difficult for EAL learners to do in their L2, especially if they don’t have a high Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP).  It is essential that EAL learners are explicitly taught academic vocabulary since “It is impossible to get an education without knowing these words” (Coelho, 2012, p. 314) and “it is difficult to learn [academic vocabulary] from mere exposure through reading alone” (Roessingh, 2016, p. 71).

One way to support EAL students’ academic vocabulary learning is to have students create visual notes for these words. It is imperative that classroom teachers receive professional development regarding visual notetaking since “The school-level personnel with the most direct effect on ESL students are teachers” (Garnett, 2012, p. 17).  Pillars (2016) states,

When students are learning vocabulary for the first time. . . Simple assessments can occur quickly – even though one student spelled ‘learn’ as ‘lean,’ the sketch shows comprehension of the meaning of ‘learn,’ whereas another wrote ‘lean’ and sketched the meaning of ‘lean’ instead of ‘learn.’  In other words, I could see immediately whether it was a spelling or semantic error.  Both were easy fixes, with the sketches. (p. 126)

Visual notetaking allows teachers to better understand if EAL students comprehend the academic vocabulary that has been taught in a lesson.  If administrators in Saskatchewan school divisions took Garnett’s (2012) advice that “more and better [EAL] professional development is. . . an important investment” (p. 17), classroom teachers would be better prepared to support EAL students’ learning in schools.


  • Visual Notetaking Supports Memory Performance

Pillars (2016) claims that adding visuals to a piece of information increases a student’s ability to recall it three days later by 65%.  Brown (2014), another visual note-taker, concurs with Pillars, claiming that a person who doodles is “engaging in deep and necessary information processing.  A doodler is connecting neurological pathways with previously disconnected pathways” (p. 11).  Skeptics may be tempted to dismiss claims about the power of visual notetaking and may argue that the act of notetaking alone is responsible for boosting one’s cognitive performance.  They may base their argument on Mueller and Oppenheimer’s (2014) study where researchers found that the act of writing longhand notes helped individuals synthesize and recall information better than individuals who took notes on their laptop computers.  However, Paivio’s dual-code theory, which “suggests that pictures are better remembered than words because they are represented both visually and verbally” (Wammes, Maede, & Fernandes, 2016, p. 1754), challenges this notion.

Curious about Paivio’s theory, Wammes et al. (2016) executed a study to “determine whether drawing provided a measurable advantage over passive note-taking” (p. 1753), and explained that data they collected and interpreted from seven different experiments with numerous participants suggested that there was a direct correlation between people who drew words and people who experienced better word retention and “memory performance” (p. 1752).  Wammes et al. (2016) described this as the “drawing effect” and argued that, “the mechanism driving the effect is that engaging in drawing promotes the seamless integration of many types of memory codes (elaboration, visual imagery, motor action, and picture memory) into one cohesive memory trace, and it is this that facilitates later retrieval of the studied words” (p. 1773).

Visual notetaking does not just help with vocabulary retention; it can help students process short stories, essays, and other course content.  A study conducted by Weimar and Perry (n.d.) found that students who both wrote notes while Perry read a short story and created visual notes immediately following the reading did 7% better on a ten question quiz the following week than students who only made written notes.  This study reinforces the notion that visual notetaking is coded in multiple ways; drawing is not just creative as it increases one’s memory performance.


  • Visual Notetaking is Culturally Responsive

Effective education for EAL learners must be culturally responsive and extend beyond direct L2 language instruction since many EAL learners often experience societal marginalization due to both their low socioeconomic status (SES) and the fact that many of them are visible minorities (Cummins & Early, 2015).  Cummins and Early (2015) argue that teaching should aim “to counteract both the negative consequences of socio-economic variables and the devaluation of student and community identity experienced by marginalized social groups” (p. 25).  Since teachers are predominantly from white, middle-class, Euro-Canadian backgrounds, this means that teachers need to reflect upon the privilege and power they possess (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2013).

In the Ontario Ministry of Education’s (2013) monograph titled “Culturally Responsive Pedagogy,” it states that teachers who employ a constructivist approach and offer authentic learning opportunities to students demonstrate two characteristics of culturally responsive teachers.  Visual notetaking, then, is culturally responsive because it is constructivist in nature and authentically allows students to attach their own symbols to represent meaning; for example, Pillars (2016) writes how “the word ‘ancient’ was signified by a spider web for one student, an Egyptian pyramid for another, and a pirate ship for yet another student” (p. 66).  These students’ visual notes serve as examples that illustrate “Instruction [that] connects to students’ lives by activating their background knowledge and stimulating their curiosity and interest.  Instruction affirms students’ academic, linguistic, and cultural identities by enabling them to showcase their literacy accomplishments in both L1 and L2” (Cummins & Early, 2015, p. 31), thus visual notetaking is an approach that fits within Cummins and Early’s (2015) culturally responsive literacy engagement framework.

Application of Visual Notetaking in My Own Practice

John Dewey (1944), wrote that, “If we teach today, as we taught yesterday, we rob our children of their tomorrow” (p. 167).  Visual notetaking offers teachers an opportunity to teach differently than the traditional norm; an avant-garde teaching method that reaps rewards for more than just EAL students, “visuals are equally useful for native speakers of the language” (Coelho, 2012, p. 281). Brown speculates that classism is behind society’s valuing of print-based literacy, saying in an interview that, “Historically, literacy, verbal and spoken language has been associated with a certain level of status and economic class” (in Maverick, 2012, para 2).  Indeed, Kerkham and Hutchison (2005) write of how teachers “privilege written and verbal forms of communication over visual and multi-modal forms” (p. 117).  Rodriguez (in Alexis, 2016) challenges this ideology, writing that teachers “should be focused on what works for students, capitalizing on [students’] funds of knowledge and strengths, such as ‘drawing’, in which [students] conceptualize literacy, to equip them for the twenty-first century skills” (para 4-5). As a teacher, I am convinced of the value of visual notetaking, and am committed to infusing my future lessons with it.  As a first step, I attempted my own original edu-sketch (illustration shown below) to experiment with how I could use visual notetaking to better explain figurative language to students, which is language that Roessingh (2016) describes as particularly difficult for EAL students to interpret.

Figurative language visual note (Gerrard, 2017)


Visual notetaking is a powerful way that teachers can support EAL students in their classrooms while simultaneously enriching their courses for all students.  As both an L2 learner and a teacher of L2 students, I believe if teachers use this method, it will correlate with their students experiencing enhanced memory performance.  It will lead to EAL students developing stronger academic vocabularies and gaining better overall fluency in their L2 than they would otherwise experience.  At the very least, visuals enhance communication between students and teachers and visual notetaking offers a creative medium that helps facilitate more engaging lessons.  Visual notetaking is constructive and supports authentic student learning opportunities, which means that it demonstrates characteristics of a culturally responsive approach.  With so much to gain and so little to lose, it is time to spread the word about the power of visual notetaking so that teachers can use it to support EAL student learning in their classes.



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