From Words to Symbols and Back Again

Brian Cullen & Tom Fallon, Nagoya Gakuin University

Quick Guide 

  • Keywords: Pictures, symbols, visual narrative grammar
  • Learner English level: Beginner to Advanced
  • Learner maturity: Junior high and above 
  • Preparation time: 15 minutes 
  • Activity time: 30 minutes plus 30 minutes in the following lesson
  • Materials: Pencil and paper

Most Japanese students are interested in manga, and the average student is able to draw better than his or her Western counterpart. One fun and useful way to connect this to language learning is through visual narrative grammar (VNG). VNG suggests that sequentially ordered images take on narrative roles in the mind of the experiencer in much the same way that sequential words in language take on grammatical roles (see Cohn, 2013 for more details). While VNG can become very complex, this activity offers a simple way for students to explore the richness of symbols and their connection with linguistic communication. Students first translate words into symbols, and then use these symbols to create simple symbol stories which become the basis of verbal and written communication.


Step 1: Prepare a list of simple words (see example in Appendix A). In our example, the words included common nouns, verbs, prepositions, and a negative marker. You may also like to include some recent vocabulary that students have learned, but it is good to keep it fairly simple and concrete. Abstract words are much harder to represent in symbol form and may lead to confusion. 

Step 2: Prepare a short symbol story (see Appendix C) that you can use in Step 3 below. The symbols should tell a simple story. 


Step 1: Write the words on the blackboard. Tell students to express the words by drawing simple pictures or symbols (see Appendix B).

Step 2: Have students share their symbols with other students and find out if other students can translate the symbols back into the words. 

Step 3: Draw your symbol story on the blackboard. Ask students to write three sentences to describe the story. 

Step 4: Elicit student answers. Explain that there is no single correct answer. 

Step 5: Have students create their own symbol story using their symbols from Step 1.

Step 6: Divide students into groups of four. 

Step 7: Have students show their symbol stories to the other members of the group without explaining the story. The other students have 2-3 minutes to write a written version of the story. 

Step 8: Tell the students to receive the written versions of the story from the other three students.

Step 9: For homework, have the students prepare a simple presentation comparing the other students’ versions of the story with their own original story. Depending on the level of your students, some useful prompts for the presentation might be:

Did they write something similar to your original text story?

If their text story was very different, how do you think that happened?

Did anything surprise you?

Step 10: In the next lesson, have some or all students make a presentation explaining the original story and their comments on the other versions. 


If you have a large class, you can do this activity in groups. The group works together to create the symbols and the symbol stories. 


This is a fun activity which taps into students’ love of manga and allows them to creatively play with language. This approach highlights how communication is constructed of simple elements and is a great way of showing students that communication is far more than words and text. This activity also introduces students to symbols and metaphors and can easily be extended into related reading and writing exercises. 


Cohn, N. (2013). Visual narrative structure. Cognitive Science 37(3), 413-452. 


A handout is available below.