Making use of pictures in the language classroom

Making use of pictures in the language classroom

We make a lot of use of pictures in language teaching. If you look at most of the exams like FCE, PET etc, you will see that pictures are widely used to help generate language. I was an examiner for FCE, PET , KET and all the young learner exams and so I have heard literally thousands of students talking about pictures.

This article is going to look at a useful framework that you can use to help train students to describe pictures. It will help their fluency, their confidence and it might even help them to get a better mark in their exams. I have also suggested a few super simple activities you can do with pictures.

Describing a picture

When we describe a picture, we tend to talk more in broad terms and then come down to the specifics. Good students will also tend to personalise the picture.

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A good way to start then is simply for the student to say ‘This is a picture of….’ The students can then go onto say where it is.

So the student might continue with ‘The picture is taken in….’. The problem starts when we begin to talk about what is in the picture. This is where my useful trick comes in that helps students fluency and builds confidence.

A framework

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I always write this framework on the board. It helps students to describe different parts of the picture and the great thing is that students can combine the phrases. So for example a student can say ‘ On the left at the top’ or ‘At the bottom on the left’ So for example a student might say ‘At the bottom, on the left I can see some books and a pen’

For low students ( and intermediate) this is a really nice building block. It gives them a real sense of fluency as they combine the phrases with what they can see in the picture.

Some ideas

Here is a quick list of activities you can do with pictures.

Describing a picture with a twist

One obvious activity is to describe a picture and get the students to draw it. I like doing this activity with a twist. I tell the students I am going to describe a picture but that 5 things I say about the picture are going to be wrong. So I describe the picture, the students draw it and then after I project the picture onto the screen put the students into pairs and to try and work out what things I described that are not actually in the picture. This can be good for practicing negatives like ‘There isn’t …’

Busy picture listening activity

I have used this idea many times. It is really about listening. You need to find a ‘busy picture’ which shows a scene with lots of people doing things. Here is an example of what I mean. You can find hundreds on the internet.

Put the students into pairs and give each student a copy of the picture. Now tell them that you are going to name people in the picture and they have to listen, work out who the person is and then write their name on the picture next to the correct person. So for example


Tom is stroking his dog ( students write Tom next to picture)

Mary is holding her dog (Students write Mary next to picture)

You can easily change this into a speaking activity. Put the students into pairs and give each student a copy of the picture. Student A writes names on the picture next to the different people. Student A then describes the picture and Student B listens and names the people in the same way as student A has done. At the end they compare their pictures.

Copyright issues

You can’t just take an image off the internet and print it out and use it in class. Here is a link to a list of sites that DO allow you to use their pictures. They only ask that under the picture you show attribution in a link showing where the picture came from.

What has changed?

This is such a simple idea but yet it works really well and you can do it using PowerPoint. I simply create two slides but change some things in the picture. For example in low level class I might use these two slides.

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I show slide one for 10 seconds and ask the students to memorise as much as possible and then I show them the slide 2.Students can now talk about the differences.


The triangle was red

The arrow was black

It has moved

This idea works great using PowerPoint. You can use this same image in another way to practice using the framework I suggested at the start. Show the students slide one for 10 seconds and then show them slide two. Can they remember what has moved and where?


The circle was on at the top on the left. Now it is at the top on the right

The start was in the middle. Now it is at the bottom.

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Pictures are a great way of practicing and activating language but it is important to give students a framework to help them scaffold an activity. The framework I have provided you with here as well as the guidance on how to structure a description should help students to build confidence and organise their thoughts.


Russell Stannard


Russell Stannard is the founder of TeacherTrainingVideos.Com and the Associate Trainer at NILE. He was the previous winner of the Times Higher ‘Outstanding Technology Initiative’, the British Council ‘Technology Innovation Award’ and the University of Westminster ‘Excellence in Teaching Award.’ He trains teachers all over the world, especially in the use of technology in language teaching.

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