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Peer Review

Visuals For Foreign Language Instruction

by Paul Toth


Overall Numeric Rating:

4.5 stars
Content Quality: 4.5 stars
Effectiveness: 4.5 stars
Ease of Use: 4 stars
Reviewed: Jun 26, 2012 by World Languages Editorial Board
Overview: The “Visuals for Foreign Languages Instruction,” or VFLI for short, is a small database of illustrations hosted by the University of Pittsburgh’s Digital Library.
Type of Material: Image collection.It contains more than 460 black and white drawings by Alec Sarkas, and it is part of a 2003 project intended to help develop communication skills
Recommended Uses: The VFLI is a great tool for educators and students of any foreign language. The images are of high quality and the full collection can be used by instructors who do not have a textbook, need more images for their posters and exams, or who need images to include in a presentation. Since the visuals are black and white, schools can save money by not using color ink. They images are excellent for coloring, cutting and pasting. They can also be used as a reinforce the vocabulary of colors, verbs, and adjectives related to art. The medium size images may serve as conversation cards for pairs or small group activities. The site suggests to use these visuals to teach and practice vocabulary and grammar. Teachers who focus on teaching active vocabulary and grammar will benefit more when using these images than teachers who prefer a more traditional list of vocabulary or fill-in the blanks activities. These visuals will work well in activities designed to promote conversation, writing, and presentation skills.
Technical Requirements: This is a web site. The URL is: The VFLI database includes 467 illustrations that depict conversations, food, school supplies, buildings, people performing daily chores, etc. The format of these files is .tif, which means that most computers and printers will be able to open and print them. Users can see and print the files in four different sizes: thumbnails, small, medium, and large. The thumbnails are less than 100 x 100 pixels, usually 75 x 98, and some are even 30 x 98 pixels. This size may be good for pasting the images onto bingo boards, for example.
Identify Major Learning Goals: The materials are intended for second language instruction. Speaking: Students can use images as prompts for interpretive or interpersonal communication. Writing: Students can use illustrations in digital storytelling projects or as inspiration for compositions.
Target Student Population: Most visuals can be used with any student population. They may work well with grades 6-12, college, and adult learners.
Prerequisite Knowledge or Skills: This is a site for instructors with Internet access.

Evaluation and Observation

Content Quality

Rating: 4.5 stars
Strengths: There are more than 400 hand-drawn images that put the focus on activities that would come up in language classes. For example, groups of people in a restaurant, ordering a meal with a cartoon bubble for each person deciding onwhat they will choose to eat or a group of people exercising in a variety of states of physical fitness. There is great diversity in the types of conversation starters. The best way to use this collection is by browsing for a few minutes to look at the images and take notes of what one can use. There are now several social media sites dedicated to images only, such as Flickr and Pinterest, where foreign language instructors can easily find and collect images in color or black and white, very artistic or realistic. However, the advantages of the “Visuals for Foreign Languages Instruction” are: one, they are for use in educational purposes; two, they were designed by foreign and second language acquisition specialists; three, the visuals have one style and are safe to use in any level of instruction and for most ages; and four, students and instructors can write on, color, cut, collage, fold, laminate, and pin up the visuals in their classrooms. Since the VFLI database servers are located at a university, it may be easier to access the site from a K-12 school computer. Think of this resource as a box of safe images to use once or twice a semester if you have a textbook, and perhaps more often if you do not have one.
Concerns: Google has influenced our expectations regarding searching habits and database design. Although this site represents a great repository of images and has a very good navigation system for browsing, it needs a better search design, specifically, a better list of descriptors--which are the words that describe the items in the database, and are also the ones used by the individuals searching the database. Most visuals have only two, perhaps three words as descriptors. Not every high frequency word or verb is included as a descriptor. For example, “hello” and “study” render zero results, while the search for nouns like “food” and “conversation” result in a large number of images. If the user types the word “morning” and chooses the option “Anywhere in record,” the result is 18 visuals with great conversation topics, while a search for the word “school” returns only the image of a boy talking to a male adult and a school bus in the background. However, when browsing the VFLI collection there are several drawings related to the early hours of the day and others that depict people at school. In other words, there are dozens of visuals set at school, but only one has “school” as a descriptor. Perhaps a redesigned database and a customized Google search box would be the solution for this issue.

Potential Effectiveness as a Teaching Tool

Rating: 4.5 stars
Strengths: Yes, a great number of tasks can be written based on this set of pictures in any target language. The pictures are rather culturally neutral, which can be useful or not so good, depending on the task. The images are very clear and depict action most of the time.
Concerns: There are only a few images that break stereotypes, but most of the images are good to use in any context.

Ease of Use for Both Students and Faculty

Rating: 4 stars
Strengths: The site design is rather minimalist, but the main focus and attraction is the collection of easy to use pictures. There are some uncommon items like a Saguaro cactus in a pot on the same page with oscillating fans.
Concerns: The "Search" option does not contain enough descriptors. It may frustrate some users.

Other Issues and Comments: This site will be highly useful to FL teachers at all levels, particularly for starting conversation in the classroom. There are even a few bizarre situations like invading space on a sofa in a living room and scenes of chaos in the office. The unusual scenes could create interest in student groups as they tell the story of what they see.