Every story paints a picture

In the course of my career, I’ve been lucky enough to observe a vast number of language teachers in many different contexts, and many of the things that I do as a teacher, or teacher trainer, are things that I learnt whilst watching other teachers at work. This week I want to explore a very simple but effective activity for working with young learners, which I first saw when observing Maha Sharba’s class at the Arabic club for kids in London. Maha is from Syria and she’s a teacher of Arabic as a foreign language to children. When I came into the room, all the kids were drawing pictures. Maha was walking around the class talking to the children in Arabic about what they were drawing, sometimes on a one to one basis, and sometimes to a small group. They were quite a young class with quite a limited level of Arabic so, apart from saying isolated words for the vocabulary that they knew, they  were mostly responding to her in English.

It seemed to me that that what Maha was doing was just right for this group of children. She was taking a real interest in what they had drawn, and, through this, exposing them to a lot of useful Arabic. Because they had drawn the pictures themselves, they had the perfect personalised context to connect the language to. I liked the fact too that she wasn’t turning this into a controlled practice activity by making the children repeat the words that she was saying. There was a very relaxed atmosphere in the room and I think the children really appreciated what she was doing.

Linking language to images is something that I mentioned in last week’s post about the Kamishibai storytelling technique. There, I was focussing on the use of pre-constructed images to clarify meaning in storytelling. But, of course, the opposite process is also happening when children listen to a story. As children hear something that they understand they automatically construct an image in their mind’s eye to illustrate what is going on. It’s an active, creative process involving a lot of imagination, and it’s quite different from what happens when we listen to something where all the images are already provided (such as watching a cartoon for example).

Perhaps images created in the mind’s eye are more memorable than those which are already provided. Earl Stevick (1993) seemed to hint at this, placing the creation of mental imagery at the heart of learning….

‘Our imagining equipment is intimately associated with our remembering equipment…In order for this wonderful equipment to serve our students best, we need to provide occasions for its use..and some kind of distinctive, meaningful response to what imagination has produced.’

So what kind of responses can we provide to what imagination has produced in our classes?  Well, one thing is, after telling a story, we can simply ask learners to discuss how they imagined the different characters or places. There’s no right answer of course, and everyone will have probably imagined things differently, so it can lead to an interesting discussion. Or we could ask them to draw what they imagined, and then do Maha’s activity of going round the class and discussing their drawings with them. I can’t go round the class when I’m working remotely of course, so here’s my attempt at doing the activity with the kids in Jabalia, where they’re taking it in turns to come up to the webcam.

A set of pictures and the readers’ theatre script for the story they had listened to (Juha and the meat) is now available to download on the resources page.

So what kind of activities can you do in your classes where students create pictures in their minds? Do you ever ask your students to draw in class? What do you do with the drawings they produce?

Reference:  Stevick, E (1993) Imagination and Memories: Friends or Enemies; Journal of the Imagination in Language Learning and Teaching

6 thoughts on “Every story paints a picture

    1. Hi Asmaa. Thanks for your comment. You’re right to raise the issue of large classes. I know that classes can be big in Gaza. When I first saw Mahar doing the activity in her Arabic as a foreign language class, the kids were sitting in groups and she was going around talking to them about their pictures on an individual basis. Could you do it like this in your classes? In my opinion there is a lot of learning that can happen during this interaction between teacher and student, when the teacher is monitoring.

      Having said that, I think there is also learning that can happen if we encourage the learners to talk to each other in pairs or groups about the pictures that they have drawn, or, as I did in the video, if the teacher talks with one learner at the front about his or her picture (providing the other students are listening of course! 🙂 )


  1. Hello, Nick! Thanks for the interesting post. I’d love to share my experience about this. Actually, a previous experience popped into my head as you were asking the boy about the woman with the scarf. Two years ago, I competed for the ISA (International School Award) with my school. One of our projects was about drawing a scene from a story and exchanging the drawn pictures with a partner. We did the activity with a partner school from India. My students and the Indian students were told a story and they had to draw a specific scene from the story. Of course the two partners drew the same scene. It was wonderful to watch students drawing and transfering their imaginations and thoughts into papers. I was really impressed by the characters, colours and clothes they drew because everything in their pictures tells something, maybe things about them. When we exchanged pictures with the Indian students, my students were amazingly attracted to the pictures. The pictures, of both students, showed a cultural dimention represented in the clothes and colours. They both had the same scene to draw but each one drew something that belong to the background they come from. It was really fun and quite interesting activity. I with their teacher had to arrange for another activity in which we exchanged our traditional clothes.

    I want to say that such activities, picture drawing activities I mean, don’t show only what images students have in mind, They go far beyond that. That’s why, I believe, drawing is one of the most motivating activities inside the classroom. Students express their thoughts colourfully without being under the pressure of using words which create such an inner peace within them.


    1. Thanks Amal for your very interesting comment. That sounds like an amazing activity and your description of it illustrates much better than I could how we all use our imaginations differently when listening to a story. These differences are heightened of course when learners from two different cultures work together (as in your case) but, even within the same culture, there will also be differences because everyone has a unique perspective on the world.

      What a nice project for your students to be involved with 🙂 You’re giving me ideas now. I’m wondering if I might be able to set some links up with a school here in the UK to try out your activity.


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 )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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