Despite a broad range of professionally developed language teaching materials, we often prepare our own materials (e.g., worksheets, checklists, surveys, tests, assignments sheets) in order to provide learners with more personalized, individualized, or localized contents and tasks. How many of such materials have you designed yourself in the past year?
The effectiveness of our self-made materials depends on many aspects. They should reflect the theories of second language acquisition, principles of teaching, knowledge of language use, and experiences with materials in use (Tomlinson, 2010, p. 82). Moreover, I believe that they should also be informed by principles of effective visual design because “visuals, layout, and design are indispensable parts of meaning making and of language acquisition and development at all ages” (Tomlinson & Masuhara, 2018, p. 326). Simply put, well-implemented principles of visual language can support the teaching potential of our materials. Visual design flaws of teaching materials, however, may hinder students’ learning despite the other positive aspects they may have.
Through multiple observations of print and online teacher-made materials, I have identified a set of common visual design flaws (Kleckova & Svejda, 2019). Here are six of them along with suggested fixes.
1. No Clear Hierarchy
[–] The level of importance of the presented information is not visually clear. It doesn’t have an apparent organization and structure.
[+] Use visual signs (e.g., typography, contrast) and cues (e.g., numbers, letters, symbols, icons) to help readers navigate the document efficiently. Indicate visually what the most important and the least important information is.
See an example of poor and effective hierarchies in Figure 1.
[–] Visual elements, such as typefaces, space, or alignment, are used inconsistently throughout a document.
[+] Use visual elements consistently so your learners are not caught by visual surprises they must continually adjust to.
3. Too Much Clutter
[–] The material is cluttered, short of white space, and the amount of text and graphics overwhelms learners.
[+] Use white space to create a friendly look and support visual guidance.
4. Irrelevant Visuals
[–] The material has unrelated images and space fillers for decoration or fun rather than learning purposes.
[+] Use pictures, clip art, frames, lines, emoticons, symbols, colors, and other visuals when they are relevant and support learning. They should play a communication role.
5. Poor Use of Fonts
[–] The material has either too many fonts or unsuitable fonts which lower the quality of learners’ reading experience.
[+] Use a limited number of font styles. Choose styles from one to two type families and use them consistently within a document.
6. Poor Use of White Space
[–] White space between items doesn’t communicate the relationship between them and connections across parts of the material.
[+] Use space to show connection among items. Place related items close and distant ones apart. Create visual space between them so a clear relationship is established.
See Figure 2 for an example of how the use of white space can help show the relationship between items.
Most design flaws do not occur in isolation. For example, in addition to the principle of hierarchy, Figure 1 also shows the principles of typography, contrast, and alignment. For an in-depth discussion of these and all other principles of effective visual design, check out my book from TESOL Press, Creating Visually Effective Materials for English Learners.
How many of these flaws have you come across in your own or other people’s teaching materials? Have you observed any others? Share your ideas, comments or questions about visual language of your materials in the comments below.
Kleckova, G. & Svejda, P. (2019). Creating visually effective materials for English learners. Alexandria, VA: TESOL Press.
Tomlinson, B. (2010). Principles of effective materials development. In N. Harwood (Ed.), English language teaching materials: Theory and practice (pp. 81–108). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Tomlinson, B., & Masuhara, H. (2018). The complete guide to the theory and practice of materials development for language learning. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.