Picture Dictations

Last week I was looking at how talking with children about the pictures they’ve drawn can be a useful thing to do in a classroom. This week I want to explore a slightly more structured activity which works with this idea.

The picture dictation has become a classic language teaching activity. I can’t remember where I first heard about but I’ve been using it ever since I first started teaching more than 25 years ago. It’s a great way to develop listening skills, and to practice lots of areas of language that students find in their coursebooks, and it works well with large classes and low level learners.

In a standard picture dictation, the teacher looks at a picture but doesn’t show it to the class. She describes it and the students try to draw their own picture which is as close as possible to the original. Some teachers insist on silence during this activity but I prefer it if the students can talk to their partners while they’re doing it and look at each others’ drawings. They can also ask questions to the teacher. This way we encourage more interaction, and hopefully more learning. When they have finished, everyone gets to see the original picture, and differences can be discussed, either as a whole class, or in groups. This is a nice way to bring in a focus on language for comparing things (‘My man is older than yours’ ‘Your tree has leaves on it’ etc)

One way that I use this activity with stories is to choose an image which is central to the story and to do a picture dictation with it before I tell the story. This is a good way to create interest among the learners in what the story is going to be about. For instance with the story of The Jackal and the Crow I have used the picture below.


Learners can also do picture dictations in pairs or groups, with one learner looking at a picture and the other(s) drawing. In fact this is a good way of following up a teacher led picture dictation (with different pictures of course!) A very interesting variation on this, which I learnt from a trainee teacher from Malaysia, is where sometimes the picture that is being described is completely blank, and the describer has to invent a picture in their mind’s eye. Those who are drawing have the extra task of deciding whether the picture is real, or being imagined.

Of course this also something that can be done with pictures that students draw themselves. With the group in the video excerpt below, I asked everyone to draw a picture. It could be a picture of whatever they wanted to draw. Then some of them came up to the webcam and dictated their pictures to me. There’s quite a lot of scaffolding going on in the interaction that followed. I think that this version of picture dictation can serve as a useful lead in to pair or group work,  as there’s a lot of modelling of the kinds of question that learners can ask themselves (What kind of tree is it? Is it on the left or the right? How many windows are there? etc)

So over to you! Can you use picture dictations in your classes? If so, in what ways and for which purposes?




4 thoughts on “Picture Dictations

  1. Hello, Nick! Thank you for the post. Interesting! Drawing is fun, no matter you’re talented or not. I used to use picture dictations a lot with beginners, 2nd and 3rd grades. It’s perfect to teach items of clothes, colours, furniture, food, prepositions, parts of the body..etc. To make things easier, I think students should work on working sheets to draw the missing parts of a picture according to the listening text they hear.
    I taught my students, once, clothes and colours, and they practised on a working sheet of a picture of a man and a boy. They had to draw things like a blue hat, green shorts, black trousers, yellow t-shirt, pinck trainers..etc. It was quite nice even for low achievers.

    As for upper inter-mediate students, 8th and 9th grades, I often use picture dictation as a warming up activity for listening lessons. Students listen to a text and they draw whatever they hear. Then, students put up their pictures on the board, discuss and guess what the lesson could be about. We can also use it as a rounding up activity. The teacher writes a word on the board, say dream for example, then students draw and colour their dreams on papers.

    Last year, we carried out a project to teach English idioms. One of our activities was based on picture dictation. Some students were given cards with idioms and they had to draw them while some other students were given the meaning of the idioms and they had to draw them, too. For example, a student was given the idiom,”It rains cats and dogs” and she drew it. Another student in the class was given the meaning, “It rains heavily” and she drew it. After that students, with the help of the teacher, moved around the class trying to find the meanings for their idioms. Finally they put up their pictures and discuss the idioms and their meanings. It was really fun and exciting.

    I hope I’m not beating around the bush 🙂


    1. Thanks for broadening the discussion Amal to include other interesting ways of using drawing in class. I like your adaptation of picture dictation to make it even simpler by providing a framework which they add to. I guess that helps people who think that their drawings have to be ‘good’ in order for them to do the activity. My experience is that children start out thinking that they can draw and unfortunately this self belief can get gradually knocked out of them at school. When my eldest son was little, a teacher at his school told me a funny story about my son. She said that he had drawn a man’s head with neck and shoulders but with no eyes, mouth or nose. When she asked him if was going to add these he said, ‘No because it’s from behind’

      There’s a funnier story about a child drawing in this great video from one of Ken Robinson’s talks
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iG9CE55wbtY (It’s 3.45 minutes in)

      Thanks too for sharing your ideas about getting students to draw areas of grammar and vocabulary. I think this is a great way to make the language stick.


  2. It’s a nice activity if the purpose is describing ,listening ,speaking or communicating, but it dosen’t measure students’ mastery or command of writing words .I wonder if we can add to this activity ,urging the students to describe the picture in their own words .Teacher may highlight unfamiliar words , if any .


    1. Yes – nice idea. So do you mean that half the class have one picture and the other half have a different one? They each write a description of their picture in as much detail as possible. They then swap their descriptions with someone from the other side of the class, and this person has to draw the picture based on the description they get. They then compare their drawing with the original. I think this could work well if you have enough time. Nice idea. I’ll try it when I get the right group of students.


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