Designing posters to learn how to teach English (2023)

1The case study presented in this article reports on an introductory teaching methods course for undergraduate students, designed with three interrelated objectives in mind. The first (and overarching) objective is to ensure that students engage in active learning. Although student engagement has always been a concern of teachers (e.g., Dewey), the current “active learning” movement at university level (Jensen et al.) originated in science courses in the US in the 1980s. Instructors realized at the time that physics or biology courses offered to all incoming students yielded very little improvement in student preconceptions. Active learning entails transforming courses using a traditional lecture format to other formats following principles such as interactive engagement with instructors or other students, hands-on activities and experiments, and group work to attain deeper conceptual understanding (the popular flipped learning model emerged from this movement, Mazur). Many of its principles can be traced back to ideas present in progressive education since (at least) the beginning of the twentieth century (e.g., Montessori).

2Language courses, which are not traditionally taught by lecturing (although in our case, the course is part of a degree program in English, where some core courses do use the lecture format), did not really participate in this movement, but are naturally compatible with active learning ingredients such as interaction and group work. This is especially true within the current action-based approach, as advocated by the CEFR and French official instructions for primary and secondary schools, where the goal and the means of instruction are the performance of tasks, often in groups (although group work was already being used in the communicative language teaching approach in the 1970s, Long). Hence, the second objective of the course is to engage the students in collaborative tasks or projects.

3The third objective, and original impetus for the project described here, was the realization that university students need to engage in more physical or concrete activities, and to experience the power of visuals. I will show that such activities can be useful for the development of their language proficiency, for their future professional careers, and to express their creativity and artistic skills.


4As part of their degree in languages (licence LLCER), English majors at UGA (Université Grenoble Alpes) can take pre-professional courses intended to introduce them to potential future jobs. One of the strands concerns careers in teaching. The students involved in this study were 2nd and 3rd year English majors (20 years old on average) who took a semester- or year-long course (24 or 48 contact hours) in didactics, and who intended to become elementary school teachers or language teachers in secondary schools. As mandated by the English department, part of the final grade in undergraduate courses should reflect students’ English skills and not just mastery of the subject matter. 2nd and 3rd year students’ CEFR levels generally range from B1 to C1, and many of them still need help and practice using English in a variety of contexts, especially spontaneously in front of a class. Oral activities in class mainly focused on the development of fluency, whereas targeted work on accuracy occurred mainly in writing. During the course, students had to create resources that they might use with an elementary or secondary level class. They designed flashcards, worksheets, as well as different kinds of classroom posters. Because the course is offered to undergraduates who are not yet trainee teachers, objectives are not tied to official Ministry of education instructions, and students are free to propose a large range of activities to go along with their resources, as long as they correspond to general learning mechanisms (e.g., contextualization or repetition) and language teaching principles (input before output, attention to meaning with occasional focus on form, scaffolding, etc.).

Definitions (task and scenario)

5A task is defined by Rod Ellis (222) as an activity focusing on meaning, including a “gap” that triggers communication, letting learners use their own resources (linguistic or otherwise), and having a clearly defined outcome other than the use of language. The CEFR adds that learners are “social agents”, participating in the social world (here, the foreign language teaching community), and “exerting agency in the learning process” (28). A teaching scenario, on the other hand, can have different meanings. In the French context, a “pedagogical scenario” usually refers to a planned sequence of activities, together with its objectives, prerequisites, and final assessment. It can be seen as a roadmap that also specifies the documents used, instructions given, and tools and resources required for its realization (Nissen). However, the term is also used with a more specific meaning which refers to a broader situational context in which the sequence is embedded (Catroux), and which makes for a more immersive language learning environment. The context is typically provided by the final task of the sequence (often also called ‘project’), towards which all the preceding activities converge, and which justify their existence.

6Tasks in pre-professional courses can naturally be encapsulated in a professional context or scenario: in this regard, they are similar to English for Specific Purposes (ESP) courses. Lynch and Maclean call this the “ecological” justification: “the belief that the best way to promote effective learning is by setting up classroom tasks that reflect as far as possible the real-world tasks which the learners perform, or will perform” (222). Two main scenarios were used within the course. In the first, one of the students is a language teacher and the others play the roles of elementary or secondary school students. For example, in one of the tasks used, one or two students read a storybook aloud to the rest of the class, with pre- and post-reading activities of their own design. In the other scenario, students are all language teachers collaborating to prepare their future classes. The project I am presenting is an example from this second scenario.

Project description

  • 1 The first year I organized the activity, we analyzed as a group two posters I had used when teachin (...)

7The project starts with pairs of students analyzing former students’ posters, describing them and deciding how they could be used1. This leads to the construction of an evaluation grid in which the main rubrics are decided on as a class (typically, design quality and suitability for suggested uses emerge as the main criteria). It also provides the students with ideas for the design of their own posters (they are free to decide to improve on previous posters or design a completely new one). Students then bring a rough draft of their poster to the next class. We use an inside/outside circles activity so they can share their drafts and get feedback from other students. The idea is that students in the inside circle (which can be any shape, depending on classroom configuration) do not move, and students in the outside circle move one seat to the left after 3 to 5 minutes (iterations get shorter as the activity progresses) and interact with a new partner from the inside circle. This is very similar to the “poster carousels” activity where students practice presenting posters at scientific conferences (Lynch and Maclean).

Task repetition

  • 2 Because this article presents a post-hoc case study, no experimental design was used and no data ot (...)

8Task repetition has been shown to have beneficial effects on output (Bygate), because it frees users from joint attention to meaning (conceptualization) and form. The first time learners perform a speaking task, they need to both decide what they want to say, and how they want to say it. After the first (few) performance(s) of the task, learners can choose to focus essentially on meaning, increasing the complexity of what they are trying to express, or on form, by keeping meaning constant but trying to use more precise vocabulary, pronunciation or grammatical structures. It might also allow learners to improve their fluency, because of the practice effect. Most experiments report that repetition mainly seems to benefit fluency (e.g., Bygate; Lynch & Maclean), but in our case, lower-level students also learnt vocabulary to describe the materials they used (“butcher paper”, “glue”, “twine”, etc.) as well as useful structures (“My goal is for students to…”)2. Because there is a new speaking partner each time, task repetition does not preclude real interaction.

Learners as social agents

9This type of project also develops students’ competencies for their future careers: not only do they experience task-based learning from the learner’s perspective, but they also create useful resources. At the end of the project, they can choose to keep their posters for future use or leave them to be shown to the next year’s students. In both cases, their posters will be put to use in authentic teaching situations.

  • 3 They are also evaluated separately on a written description of how they designed and would use the (...)

10They also learn to collaborate as colleagues: the feedback they give each other helps them create better posters, they learn that it takes time and several revisions before the final version can be considered satisfactory, and they (hopefully) come to understand the importance of sharing documents and ideas. They are collectively responsible for the evaluation grid that is used at the end, giving them agency in the learning and teaching process3.

Visual aids to eschew translation

11Posters, along with flashcards, props, videos, etc. belong to the category of visual aids, whose use in language teaching has a long history. Visual aids (in the form of visual scenes) already appeared prominently in the work of Comenius in the seventeenth century, and were used extensively by its remote descendant at the beginning of the twentieth century, the direct (or natural) method (Puren 30), with “object lessons” or “wall pictures” (Escher 296). The main rationale was that visuals provide direct access to meaning (hence the term “direct” in “direct method”, which was opposed to the use of translation), at least for concrete objects. The same is true in our posters. Teachers can use thematic posters, for example, to introduce new words, to point to objects, animals or places they are referring to orally, or to ask students to show that they understand the words spoken out loud by pointing to the corresponding pictures (Figure 1). Although most thematic posters present too many words to be introduced at once, they can be used as a review activity or completed gradually (for example by hiding the words at first and uncovering them each time a new word from the theme has been learned). In communicative and task-based classrooms, they can be used in pre- or post-task phases, or in targeted focus on form episodes (for example, to introduce orthographic forms).

Figure 1 - thematic poster (body parts; Y. An)

Agrandir Original (jpeg, 148k)


12Visuals have also been shown by modern cognitive psychology to be effective in terms of memorization. Kellogg and Howe showed that foreign words associated with actual objects or imagery techniques are learned more easily than words without these associations, although other studies have had more mixed results (e.g., Lotto et deGroot). More recently, Andrä et al. have shown that pictures and gestures are equally effective (and more effective than translation alone) when primary school children memorize L2 vocabulary. There are several theories trying to account for this finding, most notably Paivio’s theory of double coding, in which nonverbal and verbal codes corresponding to the same object (e.g., a picture and its associated word) can have additive effects on recall, because several modalities operate in parallel. Sweller’s cognitive load theory also assumes that using different channels (auditory and visual) increases working memory capacity and facilitates learning.

  • 4 Students are generally reluctant to do away with orthographic forms, and every year we discuss the (...)

13The posters are meant to be used in class in conjunction with teacher talk or student talk, but most of them include written words as well as pictorial elements4. Although teachers in elementary school, especially in the lower grades, should focus mainly on oral skills, the introduction of orthographic forms can also be beneficial for memorization since the two modalities (spoken and written) within the verbal code complement each other. The main drawback is that learners’ pronunciation of words presented in both modalities tends to be more influenced by their native language than words presented only auditorily (Bürki et al.), which is why some posters choose not to display written words immediately. In Figure 2, orthographic words only appear once the clothes are chosen and moved onto the body shapes (they are kept in place with hidden magnets).

Figure 2 - thematic poster with orthographic forms hidden under the movable parts (clothing; E.-J. Smith)

Agrandir Original (jpeg, 132k)

An aid to production

14Finally, posters enhance children’s autonomy in the classroom because they can be used as a crutch when they need to produce language. This is especially true of “functional” posters, which provide the necessary linguistic elements to perform certain language functions typical of the classroom at different points in the lesson. For example, posters are useful during the ritual when giving the date, talking about the weather, calling the roll. These posters can be called “interactive” in the sense that children have to interact with them physically (move and stick word labels for days or months in the appropriate positions, turn wheels representing the course of time, etc.). In Figure 3, for example, children can move the names of absent students while saying “X stayed home” during roll call.

Figure 3 - functional poster used during the introductory ritual (roll call; M. Le Gall)

Agrandir Original (jpeg, 164k)

15Structural (grammatical) posters (Figure 4) are also useful in the classroom, especially in middle school, to visualize grammatical paradigms and to help with the understanding of rules or the prevention/correction of errors. These posters have sparked interesting discussions within our groups about the role of grammar, and have sometimes helped the students review metalinguistic terms such as intransitive and transitive verbs, or pronouns and determiners.

Figure 4 - structural poster (SVO word order; E. Aouini)

Agrandir Original (jpeg, 124k)

16From the very first class, I was struck by my students’ enthusiasm for projects in general, and for arts and crafts in particular. Projects are known to foster student engagement: they provide students with a goal, which can be self-selected, and they give them a degree of autonomy in the means chosen to reach this goal (Beckett). The fact that the artefacts are eventually put to actual use probably also motivates students, as well as the opportunity to improve on previous students’ productions. Nonetheless, the quality of workmanship displayed by many of the posters far exceeded my expectations. I had expected the students to print pictures off the internet as illustrations (there are many websites with free graphics that can be downloaded legally), but I had not expected them to draw, paint or sew their posters by hand (see Figure 5 for a hand-sewn “poster” designed to hang from the board), as around half of the posters turned out to be. I came to believe that this was because they had been denied the opportunity to express their creativity in this way.

Figure 5 - thematic poster (colors) with hand-sewn words and removable mini pillows (O. Davin-Poncet)

Agrandir Original (jpeg, 94k)

  • 5 ‘Brevet de technicien supérieur’ and ‘Bachelor universitaire de technologie’

17Physical and artistic pursuits are often neglected in the French educational system. This is true of official instructions and syllabi to some extent. In French middle schools, “Éducation manuelle et technique” dropped the word “manuelle” (manual) and became “Technologie” in 1985, and although official instructions stress the importance of “arts plastiques” (plastic arts), art is not considered a “core” subject, and it tends to be neglected by some elementary school teachers, especially in the higher grades (Londeix). However, France does not seem to be an outlier in terms of the number of hours devoted to physical education or arts when we look at international comparisons (OECD 373), and some of the tendency to downplay the importance of physical pursuits stems from teachers themselves (e.g., Ministère de l’Education nationale 6). This is even more true at the university level, where there is a strict division between degree courses that are technical/vocational (‘BTS’ or ‘BUT’5) and general courses (‘licence’), where sports or artistic pursuits are optional and often difficult to fit in the students’ schedules, and technical classes rarely available.

18French culture has a long tradition of separating body and mind (Antonio Damasio’s popular book on the link between cognition, emotion, and internal body states is entitled Descartes’ error), of elevating the intellectual at the expense of the physical. On the other hand, theories of embodied cognition hold that the sensory and motor systems play an essential role in cognition, a finding that has important consequences for educational practice (Kiefer and Trumpp; Aden). They stress the importance of engaging with sensori-motor experience at all levels of education (from learning to read and write to the understanding of abstract mathematical concepts). It is possible that the arts and crafts project presented here enabled students to reconnect with this side of their personality and provided them with a liberating experience in the process.

19In this article, I have presented a case study in a foreign language teaching methods course in which future teachers create classroom posters collaboratively. I have tried to show that this kind of contextualized project-based instruction can help students develop their language proficiency (mainly through task repetition), agency, and future professional skills. It enables them to reflect on the importance of visual aids in the classroom, as a way to help their future students access meaning, memorize vocabulary, and to provide them with templates for production. It also gives these future teachers an outlet to express their creativity using arts and crafts.

20Project work is not the be all and end all of foreign language teaching methods (as no method can hope to be), but I hope to have shown that it has its place in the university curriculum, together with more traditional teaching formats. Students learn that collaboration and constructive criticism are essential professional tools. In an introductory course such as this one, aspiring teachers can engage with the professional world they wish to enter, but they do this in the sheltered environment of the university classroom, before they go out into the “real” world.

I would like to thank Yeong An, Essia Aouini, Eva Benoît, Anaëlle Cheynier, Ophely Davin-Poncet, Margot Le Gall, Eva-Jane Smith and all the UGA students participating in the courses “Didactique et enseignement de l’anglais” and “Création de documents pédagogiques” at various times over the years, and J.-R. Martin for his help with the photographs.


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