Worth a thousand words


Despite all the hype about learning styles in recent years, it’s a well known fact, backed up by research, that our ability to remember images outperforms our ability to remember other forms of data, such as written words, sounds, or smells. In one study, cited in Medina (2008), people were shown 2500 different images – each one for just 10 seconds. Several days later they managed to remember which images they’d seen with 90% accuracy. After a year the recall rate was still very high at 63%.

I think that one of our jobs as language teachers is to make use of this fact as much as possible. We can do this through exploiting the pictures in the coursebook wherever we can, and by linking them to the words, chunks and grammar that we want the students to learn or practice. We can also do it by bringing in other images to class and doing lots of language related activities with them.

Here are a few pictures from different stories from the Stories Alive material. Before telling the story to the class, I’d suggest that there are lots of activities that we might do using pictures like these, with the purpose of both helping them to follow the story later, and to develop and practice their English. Below are five different ideas. In the Stories alive notes for teachers at the back of the book, you’ll find many more.


Elicitation of key language

Look at the pictures, one by one but not necessarily in the correct order, with the whole class together – either as large blown up flash cards (preferably A2 size), or using a data projector if available. Elicit vocabulary from the class about what they can see in the picture. You could ask the children to call out suggestions for what they can see, or alternatively ask them to put their hands up and take suggestions one by one. Whichever way you do it, it is really important to make sure that everyone is clear about which element of the picture is being referred to so that they can learn vocabulary from their peers. A good way to do this is to point at the part of the picture they are talking about as the learners say the words.

The questions that we ask during elicitation can provide a lot of support for learners. So we could ask for example, ‘What’s this person doing?’ to get the response ‘Leaving’ but with lower level learners we could provide even more support when it’s needed by using a closed question, like ‘Is he arriving or leaving?’

For example:

Teacher: What can you see in this picture?
Student: Person.
Teacher: A person or some people
Student: Some people
Teacher: What’s this man doing?
Teacher: Is he arriving or is he leaving?
Students: Leaving            etc…


02.G colour copy


Picture visualisation

Choose one picture which shows one of the key moments in the story. Look at it yourself but keep it hidden from the students. Describe one element of the picture and then try to engage the students in dialogue to get more information about it. For example…

Teacher: There’s a boy sitting. He’s not sitting on a chair. Where do you think he’s sitting?
Student: ….Table….. Sofa
Teacher: No not a table or a sofa. He’s not inside. He’s …..
Student: …Outside
Teacher: Yes. He’s outside. He’s sitting outside on …..
Student: شو يعني أرض با نجليزي؟ 
Teacher: Yes that’s right he’s sitting on the ground. (mimes) He’s sitting on the ground in front of a….
Student: house
Teacher: No, not a house
Student: Tree.  شجرة  صح؟
Teacher: Yes a tree.  He’s sitting on the ground in front of a tree. He doesn’t look happy. He looks sad. Why? Why does he look sad? etc etc.


When you feel you’ve got as far as you go with this, show them the picture so that the students can see how it compares with what they imagined. In this kind of dialogue with the class you are trying to provide a safe ‘scaffold’ in which the students can notice and experiment with new language. You want them to understand what you are saying but at the same time you’re trying to push them a little to work at the limits of their abilities and to engage with new language. There is potentially a lot of learning that can happen in such a situation.


Remembering detail

Choose one of the pictures from a story and display it so that everyone can see it clearly. Tell the class that they should look at it for a minute and try to remember as much detail as they can. Now take the picture away and start to ask questions about the detail to see how much they can remember. For example

There are two animals in the picture. True or false?
The crow is on the left. True or False?
Is there an apple in the picture?
How many flowers are there in the picture?
Where is the chicken? etc

You could do this as a memory competition with one side of the class competing against the other. With a low level class it’s a good idea to write some of these question types mentioned above on the board to use as a model. You could now do the same activity the other way around. That is, the class can see another picture from the same story but it is hidden from your view. They ask questions to you to see how much you can remember. You score a point for each question you answer correctly. They score a point for each question you answer incorrectly. Finally the same activity can be done in groups with the remaining pictures from a story. After studying their picture, one learner from each group asks questions to the other people in her group to test their memories. They can swap pictures with a different group if they finish quickly.


lion and mouse image

Whole class sequencing of the pictures

Six or eight different learners come to the front of the class and each is given one of the large pictures from the story in a jumbled order. They hold the pictures up in a line so that everyone can see them. The teacher now discusses with the rest of the class what the order of the pictures could be. The students at the front change their position according to the order that is agreed. For example..

Teacher: So which picture do you think goes first? Faten?

Student: Khadija picture
Teacher: Why do you think it’s Khadija’s picture that goes first Faten?
Student: Because man and boy looking to mountain.
Teacher: Because the man and the boy are looking at the mountain? Do you agree everyone? Students: Yes
Teacher: OK Khadija. Can you please move to the front of the line? Now which one is next? Etc..

This activity could either be done before listening to the story (as a way to generate ideas and vocabulary, and make the listening process easier) or after listening to the story (as a way of checking that they understood it). By doing it with the whole class together you are providing a very useful model of the kind of language that students can use if they do the same sequencing activity in groups using the smaller versions of the pictures.



Something beginning with…

Display all of the large pictures at the front of the class by sticking them to the board, or use a projector if one is available. Think of something that can be seen in one of the pictures. Tell the class the first letter of the object and see if they can guess what it is. You could use the line ‘ I spy with my little eye, something beginning with…’ to introduce each word that they have to guess. When you’ve done a few examples the students can do the same activity in groups. This activity works well as a follow up to elicitation. For an extra challenge you can play the game using two words instead of one. So it would be ‘I spy with my little eye, something beginning with b h  (blue hat) ’ or ‘I spy, with my little eye, something beginning with o j (orange juice)’.


How do you use pictures in your classes with your students. Please add a comment below and let’s start sharing ideas.


Medina, J (2008) Brain Rules; Pear Press

5 thoughts on “Worth a thousand words

  1. Thanks for sharing really interesting and effective activities with story pictures. I will apply some of them to my lessons today and all of them from now on :D. There are some more actvities I use with pictures.
    After eliciting new words/ phrases, miming that new vocab basing on the story pictures to help students (ss) remember is really effective in my young learner classes. Teacher can mime that word/ or phrase and have ss compete to guess what word/ pharse is that. Make sure that all new vocab you elicited is already written on the board before u mime so that your students can guess more easily
    For remembering the story’s order and the speech of each picture, I make the speech bubbles for each picture and print out the pictures in small size to have ss work in groups reordering the pictures and matching the speech bubbles with the right picture.


    1. Thanks very much for your comment Nga. I love your ideas for combining pictures with mime and thanks for your tips for making that work as smoothly as possible. Using speech bubbles is a great idea too. Perhaps I should write a new blog post just about this.


  2. Hello, Nick! Yes, pictures stick and they make words, concepts, events … etc. much more memorable and employable.

    Hmm….if you are going to teach a word, make your picture as clear as crystal 🙂 They should never be distracting or confusing. You hold the picture, students should directly know what you’re talking about. If I’m to teach the word “bicycle” , for example, why would I show a picture of a bicycle in a garden behind a tree?! :)) I had a very nice experience regarding this. I tried, once, to make my flash cards funny. I downloaded a caricatured picture for a whale. When I hold up the picture, a student jumped up in her seat and said “A DOG”!!!! Well, I spent the following few hours contemplating the picture and asking colleagues,”What can you see in this picture?” 😀

    As for the ideas of using pictures in the classroom, we may use the “spotting the difference” game also. It’s very interesting and quite helpful. We can use it for practicing both structures and vocabulary. We just need to display two near identical pictures and students have to find a number of differences between the two pictures. The nice thing about this is that teachers can use the very same two pictures for different goals. Students can practise the structures, “I can see…, I can’t see…, there’s a…, there isn’t… there are, there aren’t…, there’s a… there’s an..”..etc.


    1. Hi Amal,

      Thanks for your comment and thanks for mentioning the classic ELT activity of ‘spot the differences’. You’re right. It’s a really nice way of practising lots of areas of language, and of course we can make it more communicative by doing it as pair or group work where only one person can see one of the pictures. This way students have to talk to each other to work out what the differences are.

      I know what you mean about wanting pictures to be as clear as possible. About twenty years ago I was teaching a class of beginners and the word ‘lobster’ came up and none of the students knew what it meant. Now I’d be able to quickly find a picture of it on my mobile, but this was before the internet was widely available, so I decided to try to draw one on the board. I’m not the best drawer in the world and the class guessed monkey, chicken, lion – in fact every kind of animal you can think of! 🙂 So yes, clear images are good for clarifying meaning quickly and clearly. On the other hand, ambiguous images (like my lobster drawing) are good for generating lots of language from the students, and this might also be something we want sometimes. I suppose what I’m trying to say with this post is that images are good for making the meanings of words memorable, but they’re also good for making the conversations around them memorable. The activities I’ve mentioned above, and your spot the differences activity, are really principally about conversations.


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