Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 3 : 10 October 2003

Editor: M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
Associate Editors: B. Mallikarjun, Ph.D.
         Sam Mohanlal, Ph.D.
         B. A. Sharada, Ph.D.




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    Central Institute of Indian Languages,
    Mysore 570006, India
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Copyright © 2001
M. S. Thirumalai

B. Syamalakumari


It is an old adage that a picture is worth thousand words. In the hands of an effective and imaginative communicator, a visual representation of a thing or concept communicates the intended message more effectively than oral or written description. Pre-historic man used visual representations to communicate his ideas and to record his experiences. Some languages like Chinese and Japanese have pictorial writing systems, which originated from the early drawings in their cultural history. The present day script systems in different languages evolved to become arbitrary symbols and function as abstract representations of early drawings.


A pictorial representation is more easily accepted by a child learner than an oral or written description. Since adults can extend their horizon of imagination to a great extent they want, they conjure some pictures in their minds to visualize these concepts in their imagination. But, in the case of children, even though they can be very imaginative, most children would love to have pictures in their textbooks or in any type of learning materials. This is also true with adult neo-literates. Only the intellectuals of high caliber would like to have their reading materials devoid of illustrations, as they would not like to be disturbed in creating the characters in their minds with the help of the written words used in the materials. Accordingly, we often hear of an extremely good painting to be compared to a poem and a poem to be compared to a painting. Even to such adults a good cartoon appeals much more than a detailed report. With a few deft strokes the cartoonist tells so many things untold so far and conveys most powerfully what is intended.


Exploiting the above quality of visual representation, unfortunately we find people indiscriminately adding pictorial illustrations to textbooks or other books for children without taking into consideration the need and role of such illustrations in a book.

Generally the objectives of adding pictorial representations in any learning material can be summarized as follows.

  1. To illustrate clearly, thereby explaining further a point that is described in words.
  2. To clarify a point that is not described but is only hinted at.
  3. To inculcate a curiosity in the learner to probe more into the details of a thing/concept discussed in words.
  4. To motivate the learner by breaking the monotony of seeing only the printed words.
  5. Just to attract the attention of the potential readers toward the book so that he/she will be motivated to use the same.
  6. Use an illustration as a cue for learning/teaching, practice of learning items, and testing.
  7. In language learning/teaching materials, visuals could be fruitfully used to develop oral as well as written compositions
  8. By clarifying the point discussed in the reading material, the visual acts as a catalytic agent to accelerate the process of learning, thereby increasing the motivation to learn further.

Just as a good visual helps to attain the above objectives, a bad/defective visual retards the pace of learning, kills the curiosity of the learner, and makes the learner disinterested in the material and the process of learning itself. Similarly too many illustrations shrink the thought process of the learner and leave her always spoon-fed and makes her incapable of widening her imagination. Such a bad visual is more destructive than constructive in effect.


In the category of visual aids, in addition to life size and miniature models, photographs, paintings, drawings and cartoons have a great role. This is so whether in the opaque medium of a textbook or in the transparent medium of a slide or film. While children will love to have models, colorful life-like photographs or portraits for maximum appreciation, they also like line drawings and cartoons, which exercise their brains along with entertaining, while kindling their imagination.


It is an ideal condition that the artist is very thorough with the situation in the learning materials and has first hand knowledge of the same, either through direct experience or by understanding the situation presented. But, in many contexts, we find that what is intended by the material producer and what is drawn by the artist do not at all match, and in such situations the learner finds himself/herself in a fix and this acts as an impediment in the learning process and in no way creates interest in the process of learning or in the material in the learner. Sometimes the peripheral issues or irrelevant points are given prominence in the visuals that the main point for the clarification for which the visual was drawn is lost sight of. On other occasions we may see that scientifically or proportion-wise the pictures may be correct, but the learner does not find the cultural color of the setting in which the learning material is presented.

This means that there are visuals, which are culture specific, and so culture-bound, and visuals which are culture neutral and so general for any situation. A mixing of these two varieties will not be acceptable to the learner as that will also hamper or at least disturb the learning process. Sometimes it also happens that words and sentences used in the materials could cover a wide semantic range whereas the visual drawn represents only one aspect of the same and that too most probably is the inappropriate theme for the given context.


All these could happen when there is a gap in the communication between the materials producer and the artist. It is in this context that both materials producers and learners benefit if a dialogue between the materials producer and the artists are initiated.

The textbooks produced by the various state-run Textbook Corporations in India and by the leading publishers who print, sell and distribute hundreds of thousand of copies of books in Indian languages and English actually will benefit by these dialogues. Even though quality of the paper used and the variety of color drawings will enhance the attractive presentation of visuals, even black and while pictures can be so drawn that these will be attractive, relevant, and meaningful. Moreover, even two-color visuals could be made as attractive, relevant and meaningful as the four-color drawings.

Comparing a series of English teaching textbooks published by a leading Chennai publisher with a series of ESL books published in the United States, Zabel (2001) writes, "The Spectrum book (series published by a leading Chennai publisher) is printed on ordinary newsprint-type paper with black-and-white illustrations. . . . Without judging the merit of the information and activities included, but based only on sight, the initial impression is that a student would more likely be captivated by or interested in the Success book (a series published in the United States) over the Spectrum book, based upon the color photos, the differing layouts of each page, and the apparent variety of topics covered" (Language in India, May 2001). Reviewing another series of ESL textbooks produced in India by a multinational publishing house, Erickson writes, "The texts are easy to read, using 14 pt. font, bold headings, thought bubbles, etc. They make good use of illustration and seem well designed to hold students' attention. There is sufficient space given for activity sections in both books, and all in all the layout of the texts are pleasing to the eye" (Language in India, 2003).


In order to establish some models in this area, I gathered together artists and materials producers for a 10-day conference sometime ago. The conference focused first on the experience of the materials producers and artists while they engaged themselves in producing language textbooks. They narrated in simple language their experience and anguish, and presented the difficulties they faced while working with each other.

There was mutual distrust, one could feel, when experience was exchanged. There was also misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the focus that the written text intended to communicate. The materials producers could have easily written their text in such a way that such misunderstanding and misinterpretation could be avoided. For, in some real sense, the artists were responding to the written text as the children or other categories of learners would respond to the material.

On the other hand, the artists were also imposing their own perception on the written material that they were asked to portray in a picture. They tended to select a trait that was easy to portray or was prominent in their imagination. They went beyond the written text and began to visualize things that were not intended by the text. Moreover, they treated the text as a launching pad for them to create a new world of their own, not restraining themselves to be participants in the world created by the materials producers.

It was very clear that both the materials producers and artists needed to understand one another and view the textbook production as a joint effort. Since the materials producers do most of the design and writing of the texts, it becomes their responsibility to clearly lay out what the structure, scope, goal, etc. of the textbook, while at the same they should be willing to modify the text if necessary to accommodate the necessity of visual representation.


On the basis of the discussion we evaluated the quality of visuals in certain publications. We found that often visuals are introduced just to fill in the pages. Visuals were not tied to any real learning or hand on activity. Factual representation was not emphasized. Moreover, existing conventions were freely used without examining whether such traditions or conventions help illustrate the points made in the text.


We did some visuals for some sample language learning materials on the spot. These visuals were shown to a number of people to evaluate their usefulness as part of the specific lessons for which they were drawn.

In addition we discussed various themes, which reflect the nature of language - as a process and its salient features and got as many posters drawn as possible. These posters were to be addressed to language learners as well as common man.

The first two days were devoted for the dialogue and discussion, and one day for evaluation of materials. The remaining days were devoted for the production visuals for the textbooks already prepared.

Pictures were drawn for a number of proverbs that would be used in first or second language textbooks in Indian languages. We also drew a variety of pictures for language games that would use these proverbs. We also drew visuals to teach poetry.

This was one of the most difficult tasks, because we need to come to some agreement as to the major focus of the poems for which we were trying to produce visuals. Also, do we use the metaphors employed by the poems, even if these metaphors were not very explicit? If we unravel the hidden truth and put them out as visuals, would this stop the students from unraveling the hidden beauty themselves? What about simply focusing on some elegant idioms and phrases only and making visuals for them?

We also drew visuals for the grammatical points focused in individual lessons. Accusative case in Indian languages lends itself very well to this sort of handling. Instrumental function may be distinguished from the associative function of a case marker using visuals in Indian language materials. In fact all the case functions (vibhakti or ve:RRumai), postpositions, and verbal and nominal compounds needed visuals to illustrate the subtlety. Time or tense is another interesting area that attracted our attention. We tried to use balloons only to a small extent, because our materials focused more on direct and conversations.

The games were presented as multiple choice games, completion games, matching games or guessing games.


For the posters we used the following themes and the participants were requested to generate more related materials.

  1. Language mirrors culture.
  2. No language is easy. No language is difficult. Languages are different.
  3. Multilingual heritage is our strength and not our weakness.

One of the things that we decided was that no visual should be given any caption. However, our early attempt was to find ways and means to distinguish themes that would lend themselves for visualization without any caption, and those themes that would demand captions for a clear understanding of the visuals. If visual is self-contained in some sense, then there is no need for any caption.

Needless to say that all our visuals should meet the demand that they faithfully represent the local culture and conventions, avoid hurting religious or ethnic sentiments, and be noble and uplifting in some sense, even as they function as an effective tool for learning and teaching.

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B. Syamalakumari
Central Institute of Indian Languages
Mysore-570006, India