The Power of Imagery in Teaching and Writing

Education & Technology

Once upon a time there was a girl who had great admiration for trees, paths, and open spaces. She often went on long, lonely walks accompanied by a willful imagination and a quest for ‘ahas’ m-attacks.

autumn musingsImage credit: Joe Ormonde

Imagery and inspiration.

When I saw this photo by Joe Ormonde on Facebook, it reminded me of a story I once wrote for my advanced English students. On a proficiency English course, there are huge lists of prepositional phrases that students have to memorise and become fluent in as writers and speakers of English. One day I went to the appendix of a challenging book and decided to write a story using prepositional phrases. I used images from storybird, along with the phrases to guide the direction of the story. I then capitalized all prepositions to show how important they are in story and fluency contexts. It also showed how prevalent they are. Here is a quiz to go with the story.

What’s behind a picture?

Most teachers use pictures to get their students to speak. The usual way is to show a picture and get students to describe what they see or compare and contrast two pictures. This is just a basic, functional use of imagery though. Images, in fact, have a subliminal influence on the subconscious mind.

a) They can remind us of things we don’t recall

Images can elicit memories from the subconscious mind. Advertisers and marketers exploit this when they want to seduce consumers through image, voice tone, and music. It’s called subliminal influence, a kind of conscious hypnotism.

b) Images are also primers.

Priming is a psychological terms which refers to how an image can bring forth subconscious reactions. As teachers, we can use priming to our advantage by choosing images that set the right mood and tone for creative activities or optimal learning outcomes.

c) Social and emotional learning

If we wanted to encourage the development of social /emotional intelligence in school or to solve bullying issues, we could use images or movies that show fun, co-operative and peaceful interactions, as opposed to shocking children with nasty bullying images. The bully image would remind the bullier of being bullied by parents at home, for example. It would remind kids who get picked on about the last time they were attacked or verbally abused in the playground. Everybody would feel depressed, disempowered, defensive, and less likely to develop emotional and social awareness.

Which of these photos would you use in class to raise awareness about bullying?

This one?


Or this one?

walkinshoes_makebeliefImage credit: make belief comix


How important are metaphors about teaching in light of the above?

As teachers it’s important for us to develop our teaching values and to become consciously aware of them. Whenever I create a presentation for professional development webinars, I usually end up framing my whole idea around one big metaphor.

What’s your metaphor?

Here’s a quote from

“A few years ago, I had an opportunity to use this approach in the context of a teacher professional development program with new teachers. After a series of reflections and cooperative learning activities, the participants started the process of developing their metaphors and then embraced them for the remainder of the program, viewing everything through the new lens afforded by the chosen metaphor.

Below are some of the metaphors developed that day:

1. As a teacher, I am … a bridge

2. As a teacher, I am … a gardener”

If you want to try this, why not use the comment box below to write your personal metaphor?

Metaphors and children

We can help children to develop creativity and social awareness through metaphor. Story-telling and poetry writing can exploit metaphor to help them express themselves in new ways, think visually or understand abstract concepts. Here is an article I previously wrote about teaching poetry. You could take any of the ideas there and have a metaphor as the theme of the poem.

Here’s an idea for peace.

Have a brainstorming session where students create personal metaphors for peace.

Peace is ……………

Let’s say that one answer is a ‘cloud’

Then you can ask that child to write a cloud poem.

C-omfy, warm, fuzzy dreams
L-ovely movement, shapes and streams
O-f thoughts changing, racing with the wind
U-ntil they quietly, silently sing
D-ancing, prancing, hands and rings.

Image and metaphor through multi-media

My appreciation of imagery deepened significantly when I started teaching online and developing my own materials. One reason for this is that the virtual classroom is set up to support multi-media, video and imagery. Not only is it much easier to be creative, but you realise that you are not longer satisfied with text as the only medium. Multi-media allows us to combine text and imagery as well as come up with our own metaphors in subconscious ways.

Text, however is extremely important in itself, and is not to be dismissed as one-dimensional.True metaphors are expressed in words but they conjure up images in the mind. The images then hook onto meanings that can affect our learning and our lives.

One reason why I like poetry is that sometimes students can do the thinking and writing with no support beyond imagination. What happens is that the images just run through their heads as they write. After the poem is written they can then draw the metaphor or make a video with multiple images.

Experiments, collaborations and MASSIVE metaphors.

Some teachers are still children at heart. The recently launched ELT MOOC promises to be one big festival of imagery and metaphor.

So far Jason R.Levine’s MOOC is known as the ELT festival. There are many videos, funny collaborations and presentations being shared and created behind the scenes as I type.

This is your invitation to watch the power of image and metaphor unfold for you with teachers from all over the world online.

Here is the magical gateway to fantasy, imagination, image and metaphor.

“Just knock and someone will let you in;)”

magicImage credit: Joe Ormonde


Sylvia Guinan

is an online English teacher, writer and blogger who facilitates professional development online. She uses brain-friendly techniques to help students and teachers around the world. She designs educational materials, develops courses, writes resource papers and publishes ebooks. Her work is the result of much research into the psychology of learning, as well as hands-on experience with multi-media technology.

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