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:
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.
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.
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:
- Jennifer Goodman, Picture Stories in the Communicative Classroom
- Greg Kessler, Teaching ESL/EFL in a World of Social Media, Mash‐Ups, and Hyper‐Collaboration
- Justine Derrick, Using Comics with ESL/EFL Students
You can also use Instagram for teaching ESL:
- Noraien Mansor & Normaliza abd rahim, Instagram in ESL Classroom
- Claudia Pesce, 8 Awesome Ways to Use Instagram in Your ESL Classroom