Thoughts on Using Images

© Robert A. Buckmaster 2020

In this ‘thought’ we are going to look at some ways of using images in language teaching.

Photos are useful in three main areas:

  • as input (e.g. vocab teaching)
  • as prompt (e.g. for a story)
  • as test (e.g. describe a picture)

In this thought we will make some suggestions about how to use photos in these three areas, as well as discussing how we can describe photos coherently and effectively.

[Note that this thought is based on a presentation I gave on the 29th December 2020 for the Latvian Association of Teachers of English.]

In order to describe photos we need some basic language:

These can be combined with more precise language which enables us to describe the contents of the photo in relation to the whole photo as a frame. This is one way of describing photos. It is useful to superimpose the language on the photo, like below, during early practice stages.

Another way to describe a photo is to choose one point or feature of the photo and then talk about the other things in relation to this point of interest. To do this you would need this kind of language:

This kind of language can be combined with diagrammatic guidance frames like the ones below superimposed on a photo to guide the learner in the sequence of the description.

‘The photo shows the interior of a Serbian cafe [F1]. In the foreground, on the right is a table with a coffee cup [F2] and an ash tray. On the left, in front of the bar, there are two men sitting at a table [F3]. The man on the left [F4] is wearing a dark jacket, jeans and trainers….and so on.’

The focus numbers guide the learners to a coherent description of the scene in the photo.

Comparing photos is a common examination task:

There are two main ways to do this task:

One: Describe the first picture in detail, then describe second picture in detail and make comparisons with the first.

Two: Say what the first and second pictures show in general and then compare and contrast particular features of each in turn.

Photos can usefully be used to introduce and clarify the meaning of words – think picture dictionary:

Lines can be added to clarify concepts – the valley is a u-shaped rather than a v-shaped valley:

Complex sets of lexis can be presented visually:

Photos can be used to create tests:

And keys:

Words and images can be combined. This is a prompt for a speaking task – what considerations are important when buying a waterproof jacket?

Photos can be used for listening tasks. One of these photos could be chosen and one of the people in the photo described. the learners should note the key information from the description.

Single photos can be used as the basis for several tasks. This female soldier could be described physically, or her biography could be written, or she could be introduced as your ‘best friend’. These kinds of tasks are infinitely repeatable with different photos.

Photos of places can be the basis for many speaking and writing tasks. Give the learners a set of photos and then ask them to choose a place for a holiday. They then have to plan the holiday, and then present their plan, together with explanations and justifications. The other learners listen, make notes, and then write up what they heard.

Similarly, the learners could be given a place to visit and then the task of planning a mini break there.

This could be extended to a round the world trip with an animated slide showing the route and places visited on it as the presentation material.

Photo stories can be used to add an element of absurdity and fun with the combination of incongruous elements:

All of these photos can be sourced or created by the learners themselves:

The main thing is to make sure that the photo does provoke a lot of language and is not just taken in in a glance and then dismissed.

The photo below could be used to introduce vocabulary, or as a description task, but it is best used as the basis of a story. On the back wall of the dilapidated house there is the portrait of a young girl which has survived in the house even though the roof and windows haven’t.

In this kind of story task you could specify a word range, word limit, or exact word count. The exact word count option is the most challenging as the learners have to make decisions about which words to add or omit to meet the strict word requirement. You should also specify the required content e.g. describe house; give history of house and occupants;
but most of all explain the picture of the girl. Remember that creativity comes from working within constraints.

Remember: a photo is worth a thousand words– but only if it provokes 1000 words.