Translating mental images onto words – even the words you can’t imagine

I’m currently on John Fanselow’s Small Changes, Big Results course with iTDi. It’s week one and we had some interesting homework asking us to try out a new teaching technique.

Most people have asked students to draw pictures in class – picture dictations, vocabulary notebooks, Pictionary.  However, certainly I, had never asked students to translate every word in a sentence, including the nitty-gritty grammar words. In John’s book of the same name as the course he emphasises the need to focus on common sentence patterns and allow students the chance to encounter and play with the same patterns in order to be able to acquire their fluent and accurate use.

One way of doing this is to have students draw each word in a sentence in a table and then have them add more pictures to the columns, creating effectively a personalised substitution table but with pictures instead of words.

What happened

As I don’t have any students at the moment, I tried out a sentence drawing activity with my mother-in-law…no, I’m not joking. I’ll refer to her as M from now on.

She’s around A1 / A2 level but is quite good at having a go at using English with me. I’d noticed recently that she often forgets ‘to be’ in sentences like this: I am tired, he is happy. As we’d seen in the webinar and read about in the book, I thought a drawing activity could help create an impression in her mind that would make such sentences more accurate. So I took one sentence (marked as 1 in the picture) that I remembered us studying together as the starting point for the activity.

I asked her to draw a picture for each word. She was not sure why, so I tried to explain. She looked unconvinced and reluctant. I encouraged more and she started drawing. She only drew the content words, not the grammar words, i.e. the word I wanted her to focus on (was).

She refused to even try and draw ‘was’ and ‘so’. Things were not going well and she asked me to show her what to do. Reluctant as I was to do this, for not wanting to influence her thought processes, I had to step in to save the activity from total annihilation. So I drew the backward facing arrow you can see in 2. My wife (L) stepped in and then drew the unhappy sun to show M that there are no “right” answers here. Emboldened, M drew the other arrow to represent ‘so’.

At this point I should say there was some Vietnamese being spoken between L and M, to give instructions and encouragement.

Line 3 was intended to be done in the same process as 1, but I think it would have been too much at this stage to ask M to do a repetition of 1. So we moved on.

I then drew the vertical lines in 4 / 5 and asked M to think of a sentence like the one above. I showed her it should have 6 words just like in 1. Then I told her to draw each word, but not to tell me what the words are. She started the task more quickly this time, though her face was still a picture of suspicion. She drew pictures in the 1st, 3rd, 4th and 5th columns: the content words again, avoiding the more abstract grammar words. With slightly less persuasion than before, she drew in the other two pictures to complete the sentence.

I then told her I was going to try and write the sentence underneath her pictures. This put me in an odd position as I could have just written what I wanted to see, but I tried to remain impartial and just write what I thought she meant. You can see my guess in 5.

As I wrote, she didn’t correct or confirm.  I didn’t ask for any feedback on my effort and we moved on.

Line 6 was an impromptu test of her ability to use ‘to be’ in another similar sentence. I wrote the sentence prompt and asked her to write the sentence. She did and she used ‘was’ as well as adding some extra, oddly worded information at the end.

L explained in Vietnamese what I was trying to do and the fact that M had shown accurate use of English. She seemed happy with that fact although slightly bemused at the experience overall.

I then asked her what her sentence in 4 had been. It was ‘he was young so he handsome’. No ‘to be’ in the second clause.


This sequence really tested the patience of M. It was all very new to her and I think she did feel slightly threatened at what she was being asked to do in drawing such abstract pictures.

I can only say that I have sometimes heard her say this simple sentence pattern (Subject + to be + adjective) inaccurately and also sometimes accurately in the past. It’s not like she always makes this mistake. She did show accurate use in 6, although the sentence prompt was pretty easy. She made the simple mistake when telling me the answer to her sentence in 4, possibly confused by the fact it was in the second clause and therefore there weren’t enough spaces to allow for ‘to be’.

It was a shame that I had to step in and draw the first ‘was’. This kind of defeated the point. However, I was very happy to see that she then drew her own ‘was’ in 4.

I’ve never seen her think about the word ‘was’ so much before. The struggle to think of how the heck to draw it may help her remember it should be there in future uses of this sentence pattern. I guess I would have to do some follow up activities to find out.

I feel like my sentence prompt in 6 made the challenge too easy for her, so any follow up tasks would involve some kind of similar activity but with less info in the prompt.

All in all, an interesting experience for both of us! Who would have thought mothers-in-law could be such a useful professional development aid.


Adults tend to be reluctant to draw, so no worries there.

Instead of helping her by drawing the whole sketch of ‘was’, I could have just drawn a part of it and let her finish it. Not revealing the whole “answer” is a big deal for John.

The sequence can be played around with and, importantly, the student should be asked to ADD MORE items to each column in the table. Amplifying the table, with grammar words / images the same, but new content words / images added, allows for repetition of the pattern in the student’s mind. According to the book, students need 15 to 30 occasions of exposure to a pattern to acquire it, so as much receptive or productive repetition of patterns, that have ideally been personalised in some way, the better.

Interesting experiment, more to come.

M’s work





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