See the difference: Using visualisation to motivate learners and teachers and achieve goals

By Katie Powles

In a recent meeting concerning a teenage student’s relatively good progress in IH English language classes but difficulty with formal assessment, his father lamented “he doesn´t know how to study”.

We commiserated, discussing the challenges of knowing the student was spending hours poring over his books but not using the time productively. The student had low intrinsic motivation, feeling that the effort he put in reaped no rewards. Though he had a sense that he was doing well in class, he was unaware of how or why, and was starting to doubt his ability and drive.

These doubts are not uncommon among students and teachers, and the conversation prompted me to look further into learner autonomy and raising motivation levels. Many students lack training in how to learn, and developing learner autonomy is not easy. Starting by increasing motivation through raising awareness of why students are learning and where they want to be is useful, and devising personal plans with strategies to achieve specific goals is being shown to be successful.

Visualising the ideal L2 self and motivating language learning

Zoltán Dörnyei is a long-term researcher of motivation and his 2013 work with Jill Hadfield Motivating Learning promotes the idea of using visualisation techniques and use of the “ideal L2 self” to increase learner motivation and success in language learning.

The motivational self system includes analysis of three aspects –

  • The Ideal L2 self – for example students visualise themselves travelling, holding a conversation or giving a presentation in L2.
  • The “ought-to” L2 self, e.g. I ought to pass my exam/memorise rules/speak like X, which can be both a positive and negative motivator in that there may not be achievable outcomes and often a reliance on extrinsic motivating factors.
  • The learning experience – enjoyment and practical evidence that progress is being made. This motivation programme is based on visualising achievements as an L2 speaker and setting goals to get closer to the vision of the ideal L2 self. It can also be adapted for the ideal Teacher self.

Visualisation – “the deliberate creation of a mental image (or a series of mental images) according to a script or a series of instructions” (Dornyei & Hadfield 2013:13) – is used by drama practitioners and has recently also become well known as a technique used to motivate athletes and enhance their performance; seeing yourself score a goal, for example, is said to increase chances of achievement of the task or put oneself in the “optimal affective state” to reach targets (Arnold 1999:xiii).

Dörnyei and Hadfield (ibid.) advise building on different stages throughout the process – first creating the vision, then strengthening, substantiating, operationalising, keeping the vision active and counterbalancing the vision. The book uses real experiences to inspire students and practical activities to monitor progress and keep learners on track, as well as to ensure they are aiming for realistic objectives. Danny Norrington-Davies, reviewing the book for Issue 35 of this journal commented:

“I particularly liked the authentic examples of L2 future-self texts which can be used to encourage learners to write their own. I also liked the way that later activities act as a form of reality check, suggesting that a desired vision is meaningless unless it is achievable.”

The system is designed to be used as a long term strategy and the time frames for goal-setting are important in aligning visions with realistic targets. An A2 learner may have a vision of travelling to London but would need to set goals, e.g. ordering a meal, using speaking repair strategies, etc., as part of building up to the long-term vision.

Short term benefits can also be gained through visualisation, either as an introduction to more reflection and awareness of the language acquisition process or to gauge the level of interest and success of the technique, with a view to developing it further in future.

Guided visualisation as language classroom practice

Putting the ideas to the test, visualisation was successful with a B1 group of older adult learners who struggled with vocabulary retrieval, allowing them to relax and focus on their own ideas and what they wanted to express in English. When they had a break from what they viewed as “learning”, i.e. using a coursebook and memorising lists of words, they experienced success at employing more lexical items than they had previously given themselves credit for knowing. Even with a short burst of visualisation, they were motivated to think more about language they could use, and seemed less concerned about the pressure of the next unit test.

As well as sparking motivation, visualisation lends itself naturally to providing a stimulus for language work in class. Earl Stevick (1986:3) discussed how visual images can form useful language teaching resources as “words that have come into our heads from reading or listening commonly leave us with pictures, sounds and feelings in our minds”. These visual pictures “commonly differ from the pictures in the head of another person” and they “commonly contain some details which have no direct basis in the words themselves” which makes them apt and rich for communicative activities and ripe for exploitation. I have successfully used the simple activity of visualising then describing the scene to a partner with all ages and levels, but found the technique especially fruitful with lower-level learners.

Guided visualisation activities are a good way of motivating learners to speak; to describe and compare. The technique is easy to grasp, so that once the teacher has demonstrated it, learners can be encouraged to direct their own “visions” in pairs, in groups or individually. Thus visualisation is flexible, accessible and adaptable to any language point. It should also be fun and meaningful and, as with many drama techniques “attempt[s] to put back some forgotten emotional content into language.” (Maley & Duff: 1987:7)

Some may be put off by the image of visualisation as being somewhat intangible and uncomfortable as it can be associated with old-fashioned ethereal ideas based on negative images of therapy and drama practices. With explanations and practice, we can show teachers and learners that using visualisation, does not mean we have to start lighting incense and draping classroom walls with “hippy” throws; rather, that some deeper thought and reflection adds clarity in cognition and in determining learning objectives. As Maley and Duff pointed out when discussing negative reactions to using drama techniques, “it does not mean we must suddenly start leaping about the room in an exaggerated fashion, but it does imply that we need to take more account of meaning” (Maley & Duff:1987:7).

Teacher development

In CPD, teachers are often aware of skills and strategies that they need to develop, but lack the time and opportunities to focus on achieving personal aims. Visualising the teacher you want to be, whether it be in terms of teaching style, trying out new techniques or focusing on specific aspects of teaching, such as error correction or board work, can be beneficial.

Many teachers report using or being encouraged to use a type of visualising in their planning. Pieces of advice such as “picture the students actually doing the activity” or “imagine where you are/what you are doing” (in monitoring, for open class feedback, etc.) are well-employed phrases on many pre-service training courses and in observation feedback sessions for newly qualified teachers.

Extending this to using visualisation in tandem with other reflective practice tools, such as teaching journals, allows for specific and realistic goal-setting and proactive, self-directed development within a productive time-frame. Adapting the L2 Ideal Self to the Ideal Teacher self allows teachers to consider, personalise, and prioritise goals, which should increase motivation and chances of success.

For experienced teachers, new techniques for development are even more crucial if we wish to sustain motivation for continuing to reflect and improve on teaching skills and practices. Maley and Duff talk about building self-awareness and confidence to encourage our learners to take the risks necessary to try out new language. This principle should extend to keeping teachers self-esteem high and, just as true in the teacher´s room as in the classroom “motivation is fostered and sustained through the variety and sense of expectancy generated by activities”(2005:2).

Evaluation of visualisation techniques by school managers, peers and teachers themselves, will increase the chances of continued participation, and contribute to fulfilling criteria for CPD developed by Richardson and Maggioli Diaz (2018): impactful, needs-based, sustained, peer-collaborative, in-practice, reflected and evaluated.

As we move towards a need for more teacher agency in CPD, motivational techniques will be more important to maintain self-directed reflective practice. Speaking at the closing IATEFL 2019 session on the future of ELT, Amol Padwad predicted that the role of the teacher is changing and will require more “voluntarism and initiative.” This could be something we need to visualise.

Author's Bio: Katie Powles has been teaching English for 13 years in Spain and the UK and is currently Head of a YL Department at International House Barcelona and a Cambridge and IELTS speaking examiner. Her pedagogical interests include task-based learning and using authentic materials, developing learner autonomy and teacher agency through in-service teacher training.


Arnold, J. (ed.) (1999) Affect in Language Learning Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Dörnyei, Z. (2001). Motivational strategies in the language classroom Cambridge: CUP

Hadfield, J. and Dörnyei, Z. (2013) Motivating Learning Harlow: Pearson

IATEFL 2019 Closing Plenary- Future Directions in ELT: Where are we headed (speaker Amol Padwad)

Maley, A. and Duff, A. (2005) Drama Techniques Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Norrington-Davies, D. Book Review: Motivating Learning by Jill Hadfield and Zoltán Dörnyei IH Journal Issue 35 Autumn 2013

Richardson, S. and Díaz Maggioli, G. (2018). Effective professional development: Principles and best practice. Part of the Cambridge Papers in ELT series. [pdf] Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Stevick, E.W. (1986) Images and Options in the Language Classroom Cambridge: Cambridge Language Teaching Library