Visual Thinking Strategies and English Learners

Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS)  is an inquiry-based teaching method developed by Philip Yenawine (2013), former education director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and Abigail Housen, a cognitive psychologist in the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Yenawine describes what VTS is in his latest book, Visual Thinking Strategies: Using Art to Deepen Learning Across School Disciplines (2013):

Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) is an educational curriculum and teaching method, which enables students to develop aesthetic and language literacy and critical thinking skills, while giving teachers a powerful new technique they can utilize throughout their career.

When VTS are used in the general education classroom, there are many benefits to ELs.  Instruction is centered on a painting, drawing, photography, or other visuals that can be tied the content area curriculum. Language used during the lesson can easily be differentiated for ELs. They are part of the mainstream lesson, but are able to participate at their own English language development level.

During the lesson, students brainstorm their thoughts on a painting, photograph, or drawing, and ELs are able to develop  their listening skills. Teachers are able to guide vocabulary development when they restate what students say. VTS can be used with students as young as kindergarten. Here is a sample lesson from a first-grade classroom.  Below is the  instructional sequence that is usually followed during a Visual Thinking lesson.

  1. The teacher selects a photograph, painting, or drawing that is tied to a piece of literature or a content-area lesson.
  2. The photograph, artwork, drawing, or other visual is displayed on an overhead projector.
  3. Teacher directs students to look at the picture and asks them “What’s going on in this picture?”
  4. Students brainstorm what they see as a whole group.
  5. Teacher paraphrases student responses.
  6. Students may be asked to further elucidate their contributions when the teacher prompts, “What do you see that makes you say that?”
  7. Teacher encourages more students to reply by asking “What more can we find?”

These are some other resources for learning about VTS:


Yenawine, P. (2013). Visual thinking strategies. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

About Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes
Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher" and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.
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