Yes, Language Teachers Can Teach Design Too

Yes, Language Teachers Can Teach Design Too

By: Julia Daley

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No, I’m not being pedantic. I sincerely believe that teaching elements of design is part of our job as English (language) teachers, whether we have any training in graphic design or not. It’s a concept that can be easily folded into our lessons and brought up regularly in our courses. I want to focus on three areas in language classrooms where I think there are plenty of teaching opportunities: reading, writing, and presentations.

Reading

Reading, especially of expository texts, is a particularly ripe target for language teachers to teach about design. Texts are full of all sorts of basic design features that we use to navigate and process information: headings, subheadings, graphics and accompanying captions, charts, tables, bolded and italicized words, footnotes, etc. As teachers who have successfully completed tertiary education, and presumably therefore are experts at digesting nonfiction texts, we have reached a level of expertise in reading where we can use these design elements easily and without much effort. But for our students? Maybe not so much. Textbooks and articles are organized around their design elements, and students need to understand these features to succeed in learning from their readings.

Students are too infrequently taught how to use these elements of textual design to their advantage. I suspect this holds doubly true for language students hailing from different orthographic backgrounds. As teachers, it’s easy to assume that students just understand how to use textual elements strategically, say by chunking their readings into the pre-made sections that subheadings provide.  Yet reading[1] in their non-native language can be a cognitively heavy task for students, and they may not always have the spare working memory capacity to notice the information provided by the design of the text they are struggling with. Yet, learning how to take advantage of this design could help them become more successful readers (in both their native and non-native languages, since these design features often carry over across languages).

[1] For more about how the brain reads, check out our 2019 Reading issue. 

Yet how can they learn unless we teach them? Before we can plan lessons or activities to cover design, we need to reflect on the texts we use in our classes. Take a moment and look over your textbooks or workbooks. If you have your students read articles, take some time to skim through them, too. Pay attention to how the texts are designed to communicate information. For example, if words in your textbook are bolded, what does that mean: Does it mean new vocabulary is being introduced, or does it mean something else?

Once you have a solid understanding of the design in your reading texts, you can now get to the hard part: thinking about what elements of design need to be taught to improve the reading skills of the students in your courses, and how. For example, if bolded words in the textbook indicate target vocabulary, then your students should learn that.

Teaching Ideas for Headings and Subheadings

Headings and subheadings are incredibly useful for divvying up a larger text into smaller, more easily digestible sections for readers (case in point, I’m using them for that purpose now!). Different texts and disciplines will have different typography to display whether a section is a first-level heading, a second-level heading, and so on. For example, below you can see how the APA style designs their headings.

A guide to headings for APA style from the Purdue Owl.

The differences between levels of headings can be easily missed by novice readers, so it is well worth the effort for teachers to illuminate this organizational feature for their students.

Once the typographical elements of the headings have been made salient to your students, then you can start having them focus on various reading strategies that they can use to their advantage.

    • Brainstorm. Have students scan a text just for the headings and subheadings. Ask them to guess what they think each section will be about. Have them brainstorm what they think they already know (or don’t know) about the sections. Then have them read each section, taking notes as usual. When they finish, ask them to look back at their brainstorming and reflect on whether they got it right and how this strategy made reading easier.
    • Create your own headings. Prepare a segment of text with blanks where headings should be. Ask students to read and then create their own headings. In another variation, give them a large block of text and have them figure out how best to divide it into sections.
    • Create questions from headings. When students encounter a heading or subheading in their texts, ask them to create a question from it, one they predict will be answered in the section. Then, have them read and check back at the end to see if the question was answered. (You can also use these questions to jump start a Socratic discussion later!)

Teaching Ideas for Bolded and Italicized Words

Unfortunately, there are numerous reasons why words in a text might be bold or in italics, so it’s more difficult to teach about this. For example, a word might be bolded to emphasize it or make it more powerful and salient to the reader, or because the author thinks it’s important vocabulary for students to learn. Similarly, in nonfiction texts italics are often used in captions with graphics, or to indicate a book or movie title, a scientific term, a non-English word, a rhetorical question to the reader, or other such uses. Still, it is important to draw students’ attention to the use of bold and italics as indicating some additional meaning.

Here are some ways to make learners more sensitive to these additional meanings:

    • Vocabulary elements. If bolded words mark important vocabulary, have students keep a notebook where they write down all bolded words. They might also write definitions, translations, example sentences using the word, etc.
    • Bold for emphasis. For texts where the author uses bolded font to emphasize something, you have fertile ground for some lovely discussions. You might elicit ideas about why the author chose to bold a particular word or phrase.
    • Not-so-rhetorical questions. Ask your students to answer any italicized questions asked by the text, either in a notebook as a free-writing activity or in a class discussion.
    • Make your own caption. Present some decontextualized graphics from your text (or ones similar) and have your students create their own captions. The captions should incorporate relevant vocabulary.

Writing

Here are some semi-rhetorical questions for you: when was the last time you had students use headings in their writing? How about bolded or italicized words? Do you ask them to include graphics with captions? If we’re going to go to the effort of teaching them how to use design elements in their readings, we ought to teach students how to include them in their writings as well.

With navigating readings, the emphasis for students is on how they, personally, can make meaning from the text and what they think the author means. Yet with writing, it should be framed differently, as the students become the authors with an audience in mind.[1] I’ve found that students aren’t used to thinking of themselves as authors. They are usually focused on writing solely to complete a task, and not as a means of communicating with their audience. They don’t realize that their design choices (or lack thereof) have an impact on the readability of their writing.

[2] Students can become stuck in a rut of just writing for the teacher. In the real world, they’ll be writing for all sorts of different audiences, so why not specify real or imagined audiences for their school writing as well?

Teaching Ideas for Writing

You might start by explaining why you require certain stylistic formatting—double spacing certain fonts and font sizes, etc., whether that be a discipline standard or just to make grading easier for you. Here are some more ideas:

    • Headings and subheadings. For multi-paragraph writing, ask students to divide their writing into sections and add headings. Even if they only have one paragraph per heading, this is still a great way to get them to practice using them. For longer writing assignments, submitting the sections as separate drafts reduces the task load.
    • Bold and italicization. If new vocabulary is bolded in your textbook, have students bold target vocabulary words in their own writing. This encourages them to use new words in their writing. For textbooks where bold = emphasis, have them bold words for emphasis in their own writing and ask them to attach a page of notes with reasons why they bolded certain words.
    • Graphics and captions. When the task permits it, have students incorporate graphics (photos, illustrations, diagrams, etc.) into their writing, which is a good way for them to learn how to place, align, caption, and cite graphics.

Presentations

I think it is safe to assume that we have all attended a bad presentation at one point. Perhaps the presenter crammed their entire script onto their slides, reading everything verbatim and hardly making eye contact with their audience. Maybe there were graphics, animations, and transitions galore, so much so that they surprised even the presenter and distracted the audience from the core message. It’s easy to get annoyed, but I always try to reframe it as “this is why I teach my students to do better.”

As to what makes a good presentation design, well, that’s the conundrum isn’t it? There are copious amounts of presentation tips out there, sometimes with conflicting advice. Instead, ponder this for a moment: why do we even create slides for presentations? They’re ubiquitous now. But why?

"Information is always better presented visually than textually."
Julia Daley
TT Author

Try to remember the last great presentation you saw. How did the presenter use the screens? If you’re having trouble remembering, it’s likely because the screens were so well designed that they were not distracting at all. I’m betting the presenter didn’t read off the screen. Instead, the screens merely supplemented what the speaker was saying. Important points appeared on the screen as the presenter talked about them. If the presenter ever looked at the screen, it was to gesture towards a particular point to emphasize it (i.e., a physical bold).

I think screens serve as a tangible tool to guide the audience’s attention. At any point, should an audience member (or the presenter!) experience cognitive overload, they can recover their train of thought from the screens. This means that a well-designed presentation does not overwhelm our working memories or compete for our audience’s attention (should they be listening to you or reading your slides?).[3]

[3] For more on the neuroscience of presenting, check Curtis Kelly’s article on the topic from our 2019 Cognitive Load issue.

Teaching Ideas for Presentations

How then do we teach our students to be good presenters? To start with, we need to make sure our rubrics have a section dedicated solely to on-screen design. After telling students to make sure their screens have readable text, graphics that do not distract, and content that matches what they are saying, then you’re ready for some more nitty-gritty teaching tips.

    • Font size matters. There’s no point having text on a slide that no one can read. The rule of thumb is that font should be no smaller than 24-point. You can either mandate this explicitly with students, or you can take some time demonstrating various font sizes on the projector and polling students on which one is easiest to read, and why.
    • Limit words per slide. Another common rule of thumb here is no more than six lines of text per slide, or under thirty words. There’s another benefit though to limiting content on slides for students: it prevents the presentation from becoming a slide reading.
    • Encourage the use of graphics. Information is always better presented visually than textually. When a graph or chart or photo can illustrate a student’s point, they should be encouraged to use one. This can be a good comprehension activity for students: give them slides with some sample text and ask them to present that content visually instead.
    • Discourage transitions. It’s not that transitions[4] and animations are always bad—it’s that using them well is an art that few presenters ever master. Conversely, not having transitions rarely impacts a presentation negatively. And in some cases, issuing a blanket “no transition/animation” rule to students makes them focus on more critical presentation skills.
    • Peer editing for slides. If you do peer editing for writing, why not do the same for slides? After all, students can have grammatical mistakes on their slides that peers can help them to catch. At the same time, practicing their presentation with peers, screens and all, is a great way to prepare for their whole-class presentations.

[4] Just to clarify these terms: transitions are what you call the movement between slides; animations are any movement within a slide.

Final Thoughts

Design is an integral part of reading, writing, and presenting, all three of which are important to any language classroom, and for every other subject, too! Much about design can slip beneath our notice, after all, it is supposed to be mostly invisible, yet once students learn to pay attention to it, there’s much that they can use to their advantage. Hopefully this article has given you some ideas that you can adapt for your context.

Julia Daley is a lecturer at Hiroshima Bunkyo University, where she teaches English conversation and writing. She earned her MA in TESL at Northern Arizona University and is certified to teach secondary English in Arizona. She appreciates everyone’s patience as she’s been learning how to build a website.

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