Use Photos for Speaking, Writing Activities

08 March 2022

Language teachers are always looking for new ways to get their students to practice speaking in class. One way to get students to talk is to show them photographs and ask them to talk about what they see.

Many teachers may already have a collection of interesting pictures to use in class. If you are a new teacher, you can find excellent photos in our "Day in Photos" section. The daily collection includes images from around the world.

Newspaper photos

You can also use newspaper photos.

In 2013, The New York Times' free Learning Network website began publishing a special photo each Monday. The photo does not include any description or information. The Times invited teachers to use the weekly photo to start discussions with students. The Times calls the section "What's Going on in This Picture?" It suggests that educators ask these questions:

  • What is going on in this picture?
  • What do you see that makes you say that?
  • What more can you find?

Readers can post comments that say what they think is happening in the photo. Later in the week, the Times prints the description of the photo.

Ask at your students' level

Teachers can use photographs to help students practice new grammar points. You can choose to ask questions that they must answer using a verb tense you are studying or using certain grammatical forms.

Here are two examples.

Our first photo is from the January 20 Day in Photos. It shows people at a festival in Nicaragua. If you are studying prepositions, you might ask,

What do you see on their heads?

If you want your students to use the past tense, you can ask,

What did they do before someone took this photo?

After a discussion, you can ask your students to begin a story with a statement related to the photo. For example:

Yesterday, I was walking to school and I saw...

Our next photo is from the January 6 The Day in Photos. We see Japanese firemen showing firefighting methods. They are on long ladders high in the air. Questions about this photo might include:

What are these people doing?

How do you feel about what they are doing?

What do you notice about how they are dressed?

Teacher ideas

In a recent class with teachers, my coworker Anna Matteo and I learned how some English teachers in Bolivia use pictures. Here are their ideas:

  • Have students write a caption or description for the picture. If this photo was in a news story, what would the headline be?
  • Show only part of a picture and ask, "What do you think this photo is about?" Slowly show more and more of the picture, until all of it is seen. Ask students to write about it and read their stories to each other.
  • Use a photo of a popular place for travelers. Ask students to make it the center of a tourism marketing campaign. They may make an Instagram post with a few words or a magazine advertisement with words or expressions to help "sell" the place.
  • Use a picture of a local art or craft and ask students to write about its cultural importance and their own experience with making or using it.

Now you try it

Our final photo today is an historical image taken in the United States during the 1940s. Some men are carrying covered cans. Their clothing and faces are marked with dirt. They are wearing a special hat with a light on the front.

Look at the photo. Choose to be a teacher or student and answer the questions in the comments.

For the Teacher: What questions would you ask about this picture? Tell about two or more activities you would do with your students after viewing the picture.

For the Student: What is happening in this picture? What do you think is in the cans? Where are the men going? Write about the picture.

If you try this activity, you will find the old expression is true in more ways than one:

A picture is worth a thousand words.

I'm Jill Robbins.

Jill Robbins and Anna Matteo wrote this lesson for Learning English.


Words in This Story

practicev. to do something again and again in order to become better at it

photograph (photo)n. a picture made by a camera

sentence – n. a group of words that expresses a statement, question, command, or wish

captionn. a sentence or group of words that is written on or next to a picture to explain what is being shown

laddern. a device used for climbing that has two long pieces of wood, metal, or rope with a series of steps or rungs between them

tourismn. the activity of traveling to a place for pleasure

Do you use pictures in your classes? We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section.