Still images and language learning

Rereading some of the “oldie but goodie blogs”, I came across this one and thought how well it could work in some of the Zoom sessions that I’m doing with students connecting from home. Most of the activities suggested here would work in online groups, using a combination of breakout rooms and simple adaptations. In fact, I think I’ll try some this week..

Still images, or tableaux, are a common convention used in the field of educational drama. They basically involve the learners working together in small groups to create a human statue of a frozen moment in time. The still image could depict a key event in a story (for instance when Cinderella’s sisters try on the glass slipper), a social problem (eg. a dysfunctional family), or a word or concept (the beach or a robbery).  I recently spent a week doing a lot of still image work in a series of drama workshops with children from UNRWA schools in different Palestinian cities. Here’s one that was created by some children in Hebron on the topic of exams.

exams - still image

Wherever you are in the world, I think you’ll be able to identify with some of the universal aspects of exams which are portrayed in this image: the struggling boy at the back, the confident one who’s already finished in front of him, the ‘cheating’ that’s going on at the front, and the teacher’s reaction to this.

In multilingual classes where English is the common language this activity generates a lot of useful discussion in English at the planning stage, but in a monolingual class, however much we insist on English being used, it’s almost inevitable, in my experience, that learners will plan their still images in their mother tongue. This doesn’t matter at all, in my opinion, as English language development can happen at the feedback stage. Here the role of the teacher becomes very important in providing opportunities for language exposure, language activation and critical thinking.

For example with the above still image, the teacher could ask questions which expose the learners to language (Who’s the teacher here? Who’s happy? Who’s trying to ‘cheat’? etc). They could follow this us with questions to activate language (What’s Sahar’s job? How does Khalid feel? What is Ahmed doing? etc), and they could also ask more open, personalising questions to generate more critical thinking ( What do you see here? What’s Maryam thinking? What’s going to happen next? Which person do you sympathise with the most? Why? )

Of course, with classes that are new to this technique, as was the case with the most of the learners I worked with in Palestine, they may need a lot of support before creating their own still images. With the same group in Hebron, we did a stage where I invited two learners up to the front and basically told them how to position themselves (see below)

group composed still image

The conversation then went something like this :-

Me: Who are they?
Learner 1: Teacher and student
Me: OK. Where are they?
Learner 2: In school
Me: I see. What is the teacher doing Ibrahim?
Learner 3: She help student.
Me: Yes, she’s helping the student


Me: What if this is in a restaurant, Yousef?
Learner 7: Waiter show menu and say this mut’abel very good
Me: I see, yes it looks like she’s recommending the mut’abel, yes?


Here’s another activity which I think works quite well as a preparation for learners creating their own still images. I invite one learner to come up to the front of the class and to make a still image on her own of anything she likes. This works best, in my experience, if they don’t think too much about what they are doing. Now another person comes up and spontaneously creates a statue which interacts in some way with the first. A third learner now comes up and says a sentence to explain what she thinks is going on, using ‘Once upon a time…’ as a sentence head. For the image below with a girls group in Gaza (in which I was demonstrating the activity) the third learner produced a sentence like ‘Once upon a time a man tried to steal a woman’s bag

fight scene

Learners can come up in threes and take it in turns to create their own spontaneous images in front of the class, with each of them having the chance to be one of the three roles. These kind of activities are great in my opinion for encouraging creativity and for providing a very memorable context in which to situate language. I find it interesting how, when we look at still images like these, our minds automatically start imagining stories. What stories can you see in the still image below (also created by the girls’ group in Gaza) ? Is it about a girl who found a missing kitten? Is it a marriage proposal? Have some gold prospectors just found a nugget of gold in a river? Or is it something else?


Have you ever used still images in your online classes? If so, how and for what purpose? Please leave a comment below.

3 thoughts on “Still images and language learning

  1. Marriage proposal? Why? Because she looks excited? I’d show the same reaction if someone offered me a bar of chocolate 🙂

    Very interesting, but I’m not sure how this would help my students to learn English. Yes, it’s a good practice for their imagination but how can I use it to teach a structure, for example? Something else, what’s the difference between using pictures and creating still images to teach something? Maybe still images are much more challenging? Well, I can find thousands of challenging pictures.

    I’m not critisising. I’m trying to understand how we can modify still image activities to help teaching different skills of English.


    1. Hi Amal, Thanks a lot for your comment. This is a very good question. I think that still images are a fun thing to do and they are a creative thing to do but they are also a tool that we can use for language development. As I tried to say above, in my experience learners often use their first language when they are planning the still images so the language development comes out when the still images are being discussed later. If the teacher asks questions carefully she can provide a lot of language support and scaffolding at this stage. For example with the still image about the chocolate, the teacher can ask questions which expose the learners to language:-

      Teacher: Who is happy?
      Student : Rahaf
      Teacher: Yes. Who is kneeling?
      Student : Malak


      She could then go on to ask more challenging questions which push activation of language…

      Teacher: How does Rahaf feel?
      Student: Happy
      Teacher: What’s Malak doing?
      Student: Kneeling

      Or she could ask even more challenging questions like …

      Teacher: What’s happening in this still image? What do you see? Why is this happening?


      Do you see what I mean? The big thing for me is that because the context is personalised and created by the learners, it’s likely to make the language that emerges through these teacher to students conversations more memorable.


      1. As regards your other point Amal about pictures, I think you’re right. There are lots of similarities between using pictures and still images. And, in the same way that students drawing a picture themselves can create a very memorable context to explore language, so too can still images.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your 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