Using Nonlinguistic Prompts to Promote Critical Thinking

Now I’ll find peace of mind

Background Information:

Reaching the deeper levels of rigor and getting students to think critically while learning a world language can seem difficult. A lot of what students have to learn initially is that surface-level knowledge, but using pictures without words is one way you can get students swimming in the deep end of the thinking pool. At this point, those of you who aren’t language teachers are now thinking of jumping off my post and dusting your hands of it since it clearly doesn’t apply to what you teach. But wait! There’s more! This gem can actually be used with any content and at any level. It is presented as an world language activity, but it is easily adapted to whatever you teach.

Finally found a way of thinking

You might now also be thinking that I am about to drop some serious work on you, the teacher, but that is not the case. This activity does not require much from you other than finding or creating a picture that suits your learning objectives. The trick to moving the learning from surface to deep is the number of decisions students have to make and providing problems that have multiple correct answers or more than one possible product.  This activity is one I adapted from John Antonetti’s work in this area of rigor divide via his Powerful Task Rubric. He worked with our Missouri Teacher Academy during the 2020-2021 school year and showed us several strategies that can promote critical thinking. This one is amazingly powerful and yet so simple.

Tried the rest found the best


Learning target: students can use the correct conjugated verb form of regular ER, verbs in a sentence. 

For that learning target, you need a picture that allows students to infer the verb needed, provides something to extend the sentence, and has multiple decisions that need to be made about the subject to use in the sentence. You can use this one day as an oral activity and a different day as a written activity. I like to have several slides of images so that students can practice multiple times. Every student has to come up with a unique sentence out loud based on the same picture. 

Instructions: Based on the picture say a sentence in the target language that can be inferred from what you see:

This image was created using Buncee.

Stormy day won’t see me sinking

In the first picture, students first need to figure out what verb will be in play. The platter of cheese indicates that they need to use the verb comer. The mixed-gender of the subjects means students have to make decisions about what pronoun to use if they decide to go that route for the subject. Possible sentences include:

  1. Ellos comen el queso.  =They eat cheese.
  2. Nosotros comemos el queso. =We eat cheese.
  3. Juanita y yo comemos el queso. =Juanita and I eat cheese.
  4. Jackie, Sally, y Jose comen el queso. =Jackie, Sally, and Jose eat cheese.

I can’t conceal it like I know I did before

Students can continue creating sentences by varying the subject. Different names and pronoun use keep the unique sentences available that students can create from just one picture. This can be a written prompt too. Students can be asked to write as many sentences as they can from the pictures you present either digitally or in person. 

This image was created using Buncee.

I got to tell you now the ship is ready

For the second picture, possible sentences would be:

  1. Nosotros corren en el parque. = We run in the park.
  2. Toby y yo corremos in el parque. =Toby and I run in the park.
  3. Ustedes corren en el calle. =You all run in the street.
  4. Paco y Jorge corren en el calle.  Paco and Jorge run in the street.

Waiting on the shore

As you can see, there are many possible answers, so students are required to analyze the pictures, make decisions about the subject, verb, and rest of the information to include in the sentence. If students are saying the sentences out loud in class, they have to constantly make those decisions so that their sentence is unique when it is their turn. That is a lot of critical thinking packed into one activity. You can create or find as many pictures for the activity as needed. I started with just three and we worked on them until the students began to get the hang of it. This activity can be used in all sorts of ways and with all sorts of content once your students master the concept of the activity. 

Dare to look face the test on the eve

Regardless of what content or level you teach, there are ways you can work in nonlinguistic representations into your lessons to help students cross the rigor divide into the higher order thinking. The activity, Caption This, that Matt Miller and I put together also fits into this category. In this activity, we provide the image and students provide the text. Nonlinguistic representations also include graphic organizers, physical (or if pandemic teaching, virtual) manipulatives, students generating mental pictures, students rewriting a math problem in images instead of numbers, kinesthetic activities, or other types of pictures, pictographs, or illustrations. To know if you have really crossed the rigor divide with your activity, consider these questions:

When you set sailing

  • Do my students have to make more than one decision in order to respond, work out the problem, or provide an answer?
  • Are there multiple correct answers or multiple routes to the correct answer for students to discover or from which the student choses the correct answer?

What you’ve learned what you’ve earned

If you answered yes to both, then you are well on your way to creating an activity that uses nonlinguistic representations to cross the rigor divide and deepen the learning for students. Remember, students do the heavy lifting here, not you, so take a deep breath, look at your learning target or objective, and consider ways you can use nonlinguistic representations.

Headings are partial lyrics from S.A.T.O by Ozzy Osbourne.

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