Picturing Words

Abstract: This assignment asks students to define 10 vocabulary words graphically with a concrete image that captures the words essence, thus breaking out of the infinite regress of using words to define other words.

Description: At the heart of the assignment is an “old school” task: “Define 10 vocabulary words, and learn their meanings.” But, inspired by Michael Hughes (a CEP 818 alumnus), we are adding a “tech” component in that the definitions have to be graphics that illustrate the essence of the words. How about that for breaking out of the infinite regress of using words to define other words!

Gather as much information about the range of meanings of the word to be learned as possible – be sure to get a thorough understanding of the word in order to match it up with the most fitting picture. You will most likely have to make a decision between multiple possible visualizations of the same (more or less abstract) term, such as “eclectic,” but your choice should be a deliberate one. Don’t just go with the first image that “somehow works.”

Post your ten images to your blog – we will discuss your choices and those of your classmates in class/via blog responses, to see firsthand the range of possible meanings a given word can carry.

Purpose: This assignment works on many different levels:

1)    Students have to truly understand the word to come up with an appropriate picture.

2)    Second, engaging in this activity makes the words (which are often quite abstract) “concrete” in their minds in a powerful kind of way. There is of course an interesting paradox here. Words, these black squiggles on a page are often the most abstract form of representation – receiving their strength from this abstractness. The word “eclectic” for instance is a really abstract representation of the idea of eclectic. Making the word concrete in an image gives it a “here-now-ness” that helps understand its meaning.

3)    Third, and the flip side of the paradox, the danger of becoming too concrete via images, is undermined by the sheer variety of pictures that students have come up with to represent the same word, which is why students are asked to view and comment on each other’s work via blog posts and/or in class. This means that students receive a rich range of possible meanings of a given word, and through that the concrete and unique nature of “an” image is broken down.

4)    Fourth, the assignment brings a layer of visual literacy to a standard “old school” purely verbal task, pushing students to think about issues related to the strengths of visual versus verbal representation.

5)    Fifth, and finally, putting it online means that this assignment and student works can now be easily shared with others (as Michael did with Punya, as his students do with each other, and we are doing now via this website).

Examples of Student Work:

Here are some links to work that his sixth grade students have done. Some of the images the students came up with are just wonderful[H1] .


[H1]Some of these links may need verification

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