Hieroglyphics for Teachers: Graphic Communication in the Classroom

Before I first started English language teaching, someone gave me the advice that shouldn’t try to reinvent the wheel.

Which is good advice. There are often things that have been written before, created before or done before. So, I am not going to reinvent the wheel, just Cave Art, although I say that rather hesitantly.

To me, cave art is fascinating. Cave art is humanity’s earliest form of graphic communication, which was eventually distilled into writing. Early writing systems like Egyptian Hieroglyphics, Sumerian Cuneiform and Shang dynasty Chinese Characters were all developed from pictures and cave art was the very beginning of that artistic process. Pictures aren’t worth a thousand words, pictures inspired a million of them. And when we need to communicate in a multi-language environment, we rely on pictures, symbols and icons to help us.

If you want to learn more about Cave Art and its relationship to written language, Genevieve von Petzinger gave this great TED presentation about 32 ancient symbols.

After I watched Genevieve’s presentation I was reminded of a colleague who uses a camera icon to instruct students to take a photo of their homework assignment and I wondered if I could build upon that. I wondered if there were 32 or more universal icons or symbols that are used or could be used in the classroom.

A quick google search brought up a few resources like this worksheet or this quiz and an image search brought up a few cartoons images, but I was looking for something more abstract. I was looking for the kind of symbols that you may find in airport for example.

In the end, I decided to develop my own set of icons that I could use in the classroom.

Hieroglyphs for Teachers - Example Set

Top Row: Work Individually; work in Pairs; work in threes; group work; circles; large groups
2nd Row: Mingle; perform or model; reporting stage; students decide group sizes; sit down; timed activity
3rd Row: Use your camera; use your phone; don’t use your phone; open your books; close your books or no books; swap books
Bottom Row: Pen and paper / write; need a pen; listen; look, watch, or monitor; recall or remember; rock, paper, scissors

Note: If there is a similar resource that already exists, please let me know and I will give credit and provide a link to it.

I am a fan of using visuals to support classroom instruction and I have written about it before. And like the Video Diagrams, I created these icons in PowerPoint.

 5 tips for creating activity instructions in PowerPoint
Video Diagrams – Help your students visualize your instructions
Video Diagrams – Part 2: Five activities to get students moving

I still use video diagrams in my classes, but I decided this year that I would use these 32 symbols of instruction with them.

The idea being that students could understand the activity instructions from the symbols and then the instructions could be elicited from the students. This would create an opportunity for language production and offer the students the chance to negotiate activities with the teacher.

Similar to hieroglyphics, putting several images in a row represents the instructions. Here is an example of some icons that I might show the students.

Hieroglyphs for Teachers

What do you think the instructions are?

I used the mingle icon, the pen and paper icon and a timed activity icon. I showed this example to someone and I asked them what they thought the activity instructions were.

They said:

Maybe walk around and talk to people for 5 minutes? Write down what other people say?

That was a perfect answer and there is still the opportunity to negotiate the time limit and how many people the students should speak to.

I should be honest and say that this ‘someone’ was actually my wife and she has a good level of English and teaching experience. So, it’s not an entirely fair example.

However, I do think it can work for all levels though.

The students will be able to understand the instructions even if they need  help to explain it in English. This is a good opportunity to practice using the imperative in the classroom and to get the students speaking. And of course, the students can always shadow your instructions until they are able to produce them on their own.

I have been using these icons for a few months now, and I have found them useful, not only do they give instructions to the students, but they also provide prompts for the teacher. However, you do need to be consistent with their use and offer opportunities for the students to negotiate instructions with you.

What icons or symbols would you include?

I would like to develop these icons further, I would like to create new icons and symbols to represent instructions, I would like to discuss more effective ways to use them in the classroom, and perhaps I would even consider developing them into a set of instructional cards for the classroom that I could share on this site.

Please leave a comment if you have any ideas, suggestions or you simply want to share your experiences of using images for classroom instruction.

Alternatively, you can send me a message by visiting the contact page, leaving me a message on my Facebook page or by following me on Twitter.

Thanks for reading and take care!

You may also like to read:

Hieroglyphs for Teachers Part 2 - Featured Image

The second installment of this article with a card set based on hieroglyphs for teachers as well as the original images available for download.


5 Tips - Link ImageI wrote 5 tips for creating activity instructions in PowerPoint in 2015. The post discusses how using SmartArt, alignment options, custom shapes, symbols and animations can help you make clear and easy to understand activity instructions for your students.

Video Diagrams Part1 - Link ImageI wrote Video Diagrams – Help your students visualize your instructions when I started to export my activity instructions as videos. They were easy to use and easy to insert into any presentation. Read this post to view a selection of video diagrams.

Video Diagrams Part2 - Link ImageI wrote Video Diagrams: Part 2 – Five activities to get students moving after I had created a few more video diagrams and tried them in the classroom. Read this post to see what the five activities are.

These icons and symbols were created in Microsoft® PowerPoint® 2016.

Many thanks to Owen Kozlowski for the idea of using a camera icon as a prompt for students. That idea led to the development of further icons and symbols.

10 thoughts on “Hieroglyphics for Teachers: Graphic Communication in the Classroom

  1. Hi T,
    As always, these are both practical and aesthetically pleasing. I can’t seem to find a download link for them though. I think they would be a good starting point when training teachers in how to give clearer instructions, as they highlight a lot of different aspects you need to consider when setting up an activity. They’d also be really useful for students with lower levels of literacy, and with young learners.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Sandy,

      Thanks. I’m glad you like the idea of using them.

      I hadn’t put a downloadable version with the article as I was just voicing an idea, but there has been a few people asking for a version to download, so I may think about doing it in a couple of weeks when I have time to finish the set.

      Are there any other icons you would recommend?



      1. Thanks. I’ll definitely add it to the set. My original set has been used in PowerPoint, and I have been thinking about turning the icons into a set of instructional cards. If you have any other suggestions for instructions for new teachers based on your Celta training experience, please let me know.

        As always,

        Thanks Sandy.


    1. Hi Frazer,

      I have just finished making a card set with the same hieroglyphs. Hopefully I will posting a follow up article with a downloadable version in the near future when things have settle down a bit.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s