2011 PAN-SIG Presentation Summary: The role of graphics in business English textbooks

The following is a summary of the presentation given by my colleague (Leon Bell) and I at the 2011 JALT Pan-SIG conference.

The role of graphics in business English textbooks

Due to complaints from students about the prices of textbooks, last year the administration of our university decided to cap the price of textbooks at ¥3000 — no teacher could require a text that cost more than that. While a text that cost more than ¥3000 seemed to be reasonable to us, we did notice that many of the books the students were required to buy for their non-English classes were cheaper, sometimes significantly so. One difference that we noticed was other books were black and white and mostly text. Did the full color images in the ELT books make them more expensive? We decided to look into graphics and ELT materials.

We came across a study by Levin (1981) who created an eight point typology for including images in teaching materials. Misanchuk (1992) refined it down to two basic points: decorative and instructional. We also found a study by Hill (2003) who also came to the same conclusion. He thought that images could be decorative or useful.

We decided that while it would not answer the question about the cost of textbooks, we wanted to find out if, like Hill, the majority of graphics were decorative or instructional. Anecdotally in our experience, we thought that business English textbooks had more images that were of little instructional value than so-called regular or general studies ELT texts.

Our department has a resource center full of texts for teachers look at and we pulled out all of the business English texts. We decided that would count photographs, illustrations and maps, but decided to disregard charts and logos (because they were mostly text) and icons because they were repeated so often. For example a set of headphones indicating a listening activity. When looking at the graphic, to determine whether it was instructional or not, we asked the question: “Are there written instructions in the text on how to use the graphic?” If the answer was yes, we counted it as instructional. If no, we counted it as decorative.

In total we looked at 2265 images in 15 books. 610 or 27% had an instructional purpose and 1655 or 73% were decoration. By way of comparison, Hill (2003) found 45% were useful and 55% were decorative for two books he looked at.

This led us to several questions:

  1. Did it really matter? We felt that for a large number of images it didn’t.
  2. Was there a third category between instructional and decorative? We found many images that weren’t strictly instructional but correlated to the text adding context and we thought these were good images.
  3. Were some images a distraction? We did find images that completely overwhelmed the page and even made it difficult to focus on the language.
  4. Were some images detrimental to task? We also found images that did not add any context to the task and in fact conflicted with the task. They showed something opposite.

In the end, we didn’t find out if including full color graphics are making the texts more expensive, but we did find that for the books we looked at far and away the majority of images are decorative. Which we felt is fine as long as the images were adding context or didn’t overwhelm, confuse or distract the learners from the task at hand.

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