Complicated vocabulary? Make cartoons!

Almost no teacher of adult learners would stand in front of her classroom, take out the crayons and proceed to tell students to get out a sheet of paper and draw pictures of challenging vocabulary...

However last week when I noticed the verbs look at/look for/look after being consistently used incorrectly in our conversation, this is exactly what I resorted to.  

Normally, I would have reached for the computer, Google and PowerPoint (my dearest friends) but last week I was actually in a classroom with a chalkboard, not a whiteboard let alone a computer and projector and none of them had their laptops.  I kid you not.   

Baffled... I still had to make my learners see the difference.   

There is a good reason we drew as kids - that whole spending time thinking about concepts and then creating something out of those thoughts marks the brain in ways that receiving oral explanations never will and we shouldn't ever let those skills go to waste just because we're working with adults.

Step 1
Whenever you notice a group of words with similar meaning but they're not quite the same / a set of common errors between English and the students' native language / phrasal verbs that have distinct meanings first talk about what is wrong in their conversations: give or elicit an explanation.

Step 2
Get your students to draw cartoons demonstrating the differences.

Step 3
Encourage your students to share their drawings with each other.

That's it: have fun!


11 Responses to “Complicated vocabulary? Make cartoons!”

  • Mike Harrison says:
    December 01, 2010

    Couldn't agree more, Karenne. I also think that sometimes drawing the language is the only to get to some learners. Especially if they have a low lever of literacy in their mother tongue.

    Thanks for sharing something so simple =)

  • Adam says:
    December 01, 2010

    A technique I used constantly and to great effect during my first year of teaching and one I seem to have abandoned ever since.

    What the hell is wrong with me?

  • Chris says:
    December 02, 2010

    Absolutely! I agree with you and Mike completely.

    My boards are often full of stick people and lines and sometimes ambiguous sketches! For any level!

    I've never done what you did (not yet anyway), but I do notice some students catch on to the drawing thing and begin drawing their own spontaneously.

    December 02, 2010

    Am very glad you like this idea Mike, Adam and Chris! It's funny when you write out a post like this you think... hmm, people will think I'm mad for posting it. But like Adam, this technique was something I used to do all the time and then forgot!


  • John Brezinsky says:
    December 02, 2010

    I love it Karenne. How's that for dogme?

    I think sometimes teachers also avoid cartoons because they think they can't draw well enough, but my drawings were always stick figures and for a lot concepts it gets the job done.

  • Sally says:
    December 03, 2010

    I think it is better not to be able to draw well - if I did fabulous representative drawings on the board, my students would be too intimidated to join in (or to exasperatedly take over - something I encourage). But most of us can make stick figures work, and the guessing at the squiggles of those who are truly terrible at it usually generates a lot of language.

  • Clare says:
    December 03, 2010

    There is a fabulous book of cartoons showing phrasal verbs... cannot remember its name now, but they're funny little cartoons with the phrasal verb underneath. Seem to remember look after, look up to being in there. Perhaps someone else can remember the name...

  • Emma Herrod says:
    December 03, 2010

    Hey Karenne,

    Thanks for posting your drawing thoughts :) This actually comes at a really opportune time as I have, waiting on my phone to be uploaded, pictures of a fun thing I did with my students last week.

    It's been such a manic week, I've not had the opportunity to write up the post, but you've got me determined to sort that this weekend.

    I'll like to your post and reply proper by way of my blog if that's ok with you.

    I was actually wondering whether there might be some pedagogic mileage in a call-to-blog on the theme of memory/retention/vocabulary/techniques. Nice to have some experiences of how other teachers encourage their students to remember and become more autonomous in their memory techniques.

    Link to you soon :)

    Emma x

  • Ekaterina says:
    December 04, 2010

    Hi! Thank you for the post! I also use comics as a method of teaching. You can look at my comic strips at

  • spanish translation services says:
    December 07, 2010

    I greatly believe that drawing out ideas and problems can really enlighten one's mind. Expressing what you really feel by drawing can be helpful. It is just like expressing your anger when you got disappointed. It can lighten your heart and burden as well. And I like the idea as well to make cartoons when getting complicated with vocabulary. Nice idea from the one who started it.

  • Tyson says:
    December 16, 2010

    I often draw little pics myself on the chalkboard (by the way, I work at a university and almost never these days do I have a room with anything but a chalkboard, certainly no laptops or even wifi in my basement classes).

    Having students draw can be hard to justify to them. They do often end up feeling juvenile, but I agree it's effective. Do you explain to them why you're making them draw?


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