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

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?




Every picture tells a story

Kamishibai, literally ‘paper theatre’, is a form of storytelling that originated in Ancient Japan. It became very popular in the twentieth century when the Kamishibai man would travel around on his bicycle with a set of brightly coloured images to go with each of his stories. As he told the story to groups of eager children, he would show the pictures that went with it, one by one.

It seems to me that this form of storytelling is a useful way of working with children who are learning English as a foreign language. In the same way that mime is a powerful way to clarify meaning, so too are pictures. In fact, with a good set of pictures, children could imagine a story even without understanding anything at all of what is spoken.

Now I’m not a Kamishibai man, (and I don’t even have a bicycle!), but I’ve made a video to demonstrate how the technique might work using my version of the traditional Palestinian story Tunjur! Tunjur!


If you want to use the kamishibai technique in class, and you have a projector available, you could simply display pictures for the story and click through them as you tell it. Alternatively, large versions of the pictures could be printed off and shown instead.  On the resources page of this blog, I’ve added the pictures that were used for Tunjur! Tunjur!, as well as the pictures for the much simpler story – The lion and the mouse. Also included is a script for both these stories. These can be used as models for telling the stories, but they can also be performed by the students working in groups, with different learners taking on different roles.

Kamishibai is also a technique that could be developed as a class storytelling project, with students telling their own stories, using pictures that they’ve drawn themselves. This is something that I’m looking forward to trying out when my online sessions restart in the next few weeks. Is this something that could also be done in your classes?

The inners and outers of classroom language

Here’s a simple activity that we did with a group of kids from the Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza. They were divided into a girls’ team and a boys’ team. I showed each team a series of 10 flashcards and asked one person at the front to try to remember as many of the words as possible. The rest of the team could help. When I’d finished with the girls’ team I did the same with the boys (the extract below) so it was a competition to see who could remember the most. In fact both teams remembered all of the objects! While I was going through the cards, I tried to engage in conversation with the person at the front as much as possible by asking questions. This was a useful bit of exposure to English at a sentence level for them and, by personalising it in this way, it may also have helped them to remember the words. Of course it was great that Haneen was there at the other end to clarify and translate where necessary.

When I was watching the video I was reminded of Jane Willis’s (1992) way of categorizing classroom language into what she termed inner language and outer language. Inner language is the target structure or vocabulary of the lesson; the things that we might drill, or write on the board, or use in some kind of controlled practice. It’s the language that is in the coursebook, English for Palestine, and the language that they will inevitably be tested on at some point. In the extract above the inner language is the vocabulary on the flashcards.

Outer language, on the other hand, is language that we use to “socialize, organize, explain and check, and generally to enable the pedagogic activities to take place” (Willis 1992 p. 162) There’s quite a lot of outer language happening in this short extract. For example…

Socialising: ‘Hi! I don’t know your name…?’ , ‘You’ve got very short hair..’ etc

Organising: ‘The next one is…’ ‘Are you ready?’ etc

Explaining and checking: ‘How do you say lettuce in Arabic?’ , ‘You have to beat 10’ etc.

Of course outer language doesn’t immediately become part of the learners repertoire in the same way that inner language might, but we know as teachers that if we use English for this purpose then learners do quickly get used to it, and start picking things up. It strikes me that activities like the one in the video that encourage processing of both inner and outer language can be useful ones to have in a language classroom. But getting the balance right is the key. Too much inner language and learners don’t develop an awareness of language as a tool for communication; too little and they end up wondering if they’re actually learning anything.

But it’s easy for me to say all this. I’m a native speaker of English so it comes naturally for me to do all of the outer stuff in English (and I certainly wouldn’t be able to do it in Arabic anyway!). I’m also very lucky to have Haneen at the other end to help me out and translate what I’m saying if the kids don’t follow. To what extent is the way of working in the video feasible in your classes? What sort of balance between inner and outer classroom language do you want to have when you teach?


Willis, J. (1992) Inner and Outer: spoken discourse in the language classroom in Coulthard, M. Advances in Spoken discourse analysis; Routledge p 162 -183