Using Pictures in the ESL Classroom

Pictures are one of the most obvious and common resources for teaching English as a second or foreign language. After all, as the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. If we can get our students to respond to a single image with a thousand of their own words, or a hundred, or ten or even one, under certain circumstances, that can be a significant step toward language production. In this post, I discuss some ways to use photos in the your classroom.

Years ago, before the Internet, I was an academic coordinator in an ESL program in California. We had an extensive library of resources, and yet I think the best materials were the extensive collections of photos that we had curated in albums according to themes. We had collections related to jobs, family, animals, nature, cities, and many more. I had devoted a significant amount of time to creating activities, lessons, and classes around these materials.

Some of these activities and lessons were inspired by the picture stories books by Ligon and Tannenbaum. These books presented brief stories through a simple series of images with little or no text. The images encouraged learners to produce their own text to describe the pictures (or select them from potential texts provided by the teacher) and create a meaningful sequence. These texts can be presented to the rest of the class in a written or spoken format.

At the most basic level, this activity may be used to have students associate vocabulary with images. At a more advanced level, it can be used to create a comic book or graphic novel. In fact, a number of websites support the creation of online, digital, or printable comic books based on this concept. There are so many that creating comic books (and possibly graphic novels) will be the topic of next month’s blog post. For now, we will stick with images since we can use them in so many creative and engaging ways. Let’s begin with finding potential images to use for instruction.

Digital Image Archives

Today, the Internet offers many options for finding, archiving, curating, and implementing images. Teachers, or learners, can of course simply search Google and find thousands of relevant images. You can even design this activity as a basic vocabulary activity, using the initial step of searching for images to help students produce particular lexical targets or phrases or combinations of words. Students can even conduct these searches using Google Voice. Those who are not familiar with this practice may benefit from this screenshot:

Your students can also use voice search.

Some websites that do a great of job of curating and archiving images for English language teachers (ELTs). For example, ELTpics invites teachers to share their own images through Facebook and Twitter. The images are archived on a Flickr stream. This project began in 2010 and currently has 27,560 photos. These images are diverse, intriguing, controversial and compelling. They can be useful for ELTs in a variety of ways, but even better, I recommend that a school, TESOL group, or community of teachers adopt this model to create their own set of images for their own purposes.


Using memes in the English language classroom may be the easiest way to get started combining social media and images to promote language production. The creation, sharing, interpretation, and discussion of memes can offer students a wide variety of opportunities. You can find websites that make creating memes easy. Some of the simplest meme generators are Make a Meme, Meme Generator, and imgflip.

If appropriate, students can share their memes through social media and engage in the participatory culture that it promotes. Typically, these practices are so engaging that they compel participants to share and engage with one another extensively. If students are too young, or there are cultural reasons not to use social media, you can mimic social media practices with memes. Students can share these locally, either digitally or printed, and exchange feedback in various ways. Having students take or gather their own images can make projects more meaningful and allow them to create meaningful connections between the context of the images and their learning.

Native American image

Although memes may be very simple on the surface, they can convey complex, sophisticated, and potentially controversial messages. For example, the meme above  combines a simple question and response with a powerful image. It conveys a complex issue of immigration that is relevant and timely for many English language learners and can serve as s prompt for extensive activities. Engaging students in discussions around such topics is critically important for promoting citizenship and democratic responsibility.

Conversely, the meme below is more playful, focusing on a new form of language that learners should be familiar with. It could also be used in many different ways to prompt get discussions and writing activities.


Picture Stories

Creating picture stories adds new layers of complexity. In collaborative group activities, students can negotiate the sequencing of images that incorporate narration, dialogue, and even acting, with a movie or a digital story as the final product. Of course, students could also write a story using the pictures. In fact, you can find numerous websites that enable your students to create comic books, picture stories, graphic novels, or whatever you choose to call them, for example, Pixton and Canva.

Having students share these stories with others can create opportunities for interaction that include various forms of feedback. For some additional ideas, here are some resources:

You can also use Instagram for teaching ESL:

About Greg Kessler

Greg Kessler
Greg Kessler is professor of instructional technology in the Patton College of Education at Ohio University. He has written numerous books, articles, book chapters, and other publications. He has delivered keynote and featured talks around the world. His research addresses technology, learning, and language use with an emphasis on teacher preparation. He has held numerous leadership positions, including as Ohio TESOL president, CALICO president, and TESOL CALL IS chair. He is the editor of the CALICO book series, Advances in CALL Practice & Research, the Language Learning & Technology journal forum, Language Teaching & Technology, and many other comprehensive collections.
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5 Responses to Using Pictures in the ESL Classroom


    This article will give me inspirations of how to teach English to students of Grade 5.

  2. Islam Mohammad Hashanat says:

    Well, I started using picture, photos, posters and stamps for ESL classes since 2001. I found learners are getting more interest when we started using them as a language learning tool. later, with the access to internet, some how the level of interest decreases among the learners to use photos or pictures for ESL. That surprised me a lot. I always use pictures or photos that suits the group as well as individual leaner. While they speak, they not only tell what they see, but also they have to tell what is behind the picture, based on context, time, atmosphere, etc. Till date I like to use the tools for teaching and learning in ESL.

  3. Yakub Hosain says:

    After reading the topic, I got some teaching aids, like using picture, memes.
    Moreover, teaching is really exciting when is touch the heart of students as they can apply in the relevant sectors.

  4. Jani Reddy Pandiri says:

    Picture based interaction would help students to engage students meaningfully. This also help them to enhance their their schema in different themes further it will be useful in their reading comprehension. Picture based activities would help liw proficient students.
    Thank you Gerg Kessler for your ideas about usage of pictures in classroom.

  5. Dear Dr. Kessler,

    I greatly enjoyed your article. I am certain that it will be extremely useful to me when teaching ESOL in the upcoming school year.

    In addition to ESOL/ESL, I have also taught world languages for years. I have looked for sources of photos to help students to learn the languages I teach. I know that other teachers have done so as well. You may wish to contribute blogs such as this to the ACTFL (American Council for Teachers of Foreign Language) website. I am certain that many (probably most) FL teachers would love to use some of these techniques when teaching their world language classes.


    Susan C. Dihle

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