Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Warming up with pictures (Using Pictures in ESL Classroom)

I. Abstract

There is no doubt that images can be of great importance and relevance to second language teaching, particularly for lower level students. Nevertheless, very few instructors seem to make the best use of pictures in their classes. In a reading session where texts can sometimes be complicated and uninspiring to students, pictures are one of very few aids that teachers can use to grab their students’ attention as well as to motivate them before starting the actual reading. Through this paper, the advantages of using visual aids in the warm-up phase of a reading class will be presented. Participants will be able to absorb a great many ideas on the significance of pictures and become aware of the fact that they can be a tremendously useful and convenient tool.

II. Introduction

An exciting reading lesson requires more than just asking the students to read the article in the course book by themselves, letting them do the vocabulary matching exercise, and then answering comprehension questions. All instructors are aware of the fact that one of the most important stages in any lesson is the Warming-up Phase; and yet some pay little attention to this stage of the lesson. Activating the students’ schemata (prior knowledge) is extremely important. A good pre-reading activity sets the purposes of the reading, gives the students a good reason to read, motivates the students, and builds their background knowledge (Sasson, 2007).

III. Learners’ Styles

Before moving on to the advantages and the different ways in which pictures can be used, it may be important that we discuss different learners’ styles. According to the ‘Technical Advisory Service for Images’ (2004), the two sides of the brain “have different attributes and respond to different stimuli”. The left side of the brain is “analytical, verbal, sequential, and linear; while the right is visual, spatial, holistic and relational”. Accordingly, the left is more logical and responds better to textual material, whereas the right is imaginative, responding better to visual content. This shows that different learners have different learning styles.

According to Haynes, there are six types of learners, all of which are explained briefly as follows:

(i) Auditory Learners: This type of learner learns best through listening and speaking. They are more interested in learning through interviewing, debating, talking, and listening to other people’s opinions.

(ii) Tactile Learners: This refers to the type of student with the strength of learning through touching. They learn best through drawing, playing board games, or making something by following certain instructions.

(iii) Kinesthetic Learners: Learners with this style wish to involve their whole body in the learning process. Similar to tactile learners, they prefer playing games that engage their body, learning through movement activities, or acting out.

(iv) Global Learners: This refers to those who learn best through group activities, holistic reading methods and cooperative learning strategies. They would like the teacher to present information in an interesting manner where they can interact with others.

(v) Analytical Learners: Students with this learning style prefer to work individually and tend to focus a lot more on details and analyzing.

(vi) Visual Learners: This type of learner is the main focus of this research paper. Visual learners are students who learn by observing graphs, charts, maps, posters, and text with a lot of pictures. They are ‘sight’ readers and are highly motivated by pictures and videos.

For the reasons mentioned above, it is especially important for teachers to find a variety of activities to suit their students’ various learning styles. Most of us tend to ignore the importance of pictures, which means we have already lost a very big part of our potential in teaching. Some learners can benefit greatly from pictures and those advantages will be demonstrated in the next part of this paper.

IV. Why Pictures?

There is no question that pictures are a good source of teaching materials; but what are those benefits? This section shall examine those advantages closely, one by one.

- Motivation: A reading class, as many would agree, requires the students to be more highly-motivated than any other classes. This is probably because the questions are boring, or understanding the article itself demands a lot of patience from the readers. For this reason, delivering an inspiring lesson is a hard task and requires a great deal of effort from teachers. Using pictures, however, these difficulties can be overcome.

Assume that you are going to give the students a reading article about, say, ‘Sports’. With enough pictures of famous sportsmen and sportswomen from your country and around the world, you can easily engage the participants actively. One simple activity is that you can get the students to work in groups of threes or fours and ask them to use their background knowledge to identify the names of the sports’ celebrities and then find out what sports they play. Not only do the pictures motivate the students, but they also provoke lively discussions and thus demand the students to give their ideas (in English, of course!). Try this in your class, and you’ll find that the 10-15 minute preparation is certainly worth your while.

- Pre-teaching vocabulary: To continue with our ‘Sports’ example, let’s imagine we are going to teach our students a new word, a particular sport called ‘Rugby’. Instead of using pictures, some of us may anticipate exhibiting the different movements that rugby requires. However, we may only have to include a picture of a rugby player, for instance, ‘Johnny Wilkinson’ (England Rugby World Cup winner) with his Rugby jersey on, or draw a picture of a rugby ball, and then we can get the idea across very easily.

Once I had to explain to the students what ‘Egyptian hieroglyphics’ were. It was never an easy task because I myself did not know what they looked like. The dictionary only defines them as a ‘system of writing which uses pictures instead of words, especially as used in ancient Egypt’ (Cambridge Dictionary, 2003), which is clearly not enough. So I spent a few minutes searching for a few pictures of hieroglyphics and consequently, I was able to get the meaning across to the students very easily.

A teacher can pre-teach vocabulary on, for example, adjectives describing feelings and actions with ease. Just hand out a number of pictures of faces of people that express different moods (happy, sad, angry, upset, etc.), the students will learn new vocabulary effectively while having fun.

Pictures allow you to pre-teach, practice, or review any vocabulary items if you take some time to think about how to manipulate them, and what and who you should include in the pictures. Sports, celebrities, flags of countries, electronic gadgets, buildings and clothes are just some of the many examples of the different types of topics that allow you to use pictures as a tool for teaching.

- Students’ Confidence: What better way to raise our students’ confidence level than asking to them to use their general knowledge in the learning process? Students who are not active in the class do not necessarily point out that they do not know the answers to our questions or their speaking may be poor.

Sometimes this may result from the fact that they are not confident enough to talk. Seeing pictures of celebrities, electronic gadgets, or things that they already know allows them to talk proudly and confidently to their peers and teacher, and even more so if the other class members cannot identify the pictures. The following example shares the experience that I have had with one of my classes.

In 2007, I was presenting a reading lesson about ‘Celebrities’ to a pre-intermediate class. There was one teenage, male student, who, just as there is in any other class, never spoke more than two sentences or looked as if he was interested in the class. Maybe it was because he was shy or because he should not have been at this level in the first place. I started distributing pictures of some famous celebrities to the class; and guess who the most active student was… it was him. He was the only one in the class who could identify Michael Schumacher, Victoria Beckham, Tom Cruise, and Roger Federer, and more. He was certainly very proud of himself and from then on, he started to become more and more involved in the class. This particular example shows that pictures can play a vital role in increasing the confidence level of the students.

- Convenience: Finding pictures is very simple and does not take a lot of time. Pictures come from many sources: magazines, newspapers, posters, search engines, to name a few. Since many pictures are available from so many sources, it takes very little time for teachers to choose and prepare the lesson. From my own experience, it only takes about five minutes to find some pictures related to a reading article and another ten to fifteen minutes to organize them into teaching materials. How to get pictures from different sources will be explained further in this paper.

- Comprehension: It is an old saying that ‘a picture speaks a thousand words’. Images are more ‘evocative’ than words and can initiate a variety of associations. Oftentimes students are asked comprehension questions based on the text they have read. Comprehension questions are important but it is equally important for teachers to get students to discuss and reflect on pictures as well. While texts can communicate facts, information, or an argument, images allow imagination, creative thinking, and objectivity to come into play. If teachers can establish a balance between the use of pictures and words, they can as well increase the learning potential of their students (Technical Advisory Service for Images, 2004).

- Expanding Students’ General Knowledge: Not only do pictures inspire students in their learning, they also play a vital role in activating and building their background knowledge. Students can get together, discuss, and share their ideas and experiences with their classmates. Adding to the comprehension of the texts, students may also learn about people they have never heard of, places they have never been to, or names of objects they could not identify.

Assume that we are going to teach our students about heroes in the past. We can include biographies and pictures of great individuals such as Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, King Jaya Varman VII, and so on. As pictures provoke great enthusiasm, students would definitely find it a lot more interesting doing research on those people if they know those people looked like rather than without their pictures. This shows that pictures play a big part in developing our students’ background knowledge.

- Integrating other skills: Apart from vocabulary building and reviewing, pictures also allow teachers to integrate other skills including listening, speaking, and writing to a reading lesson. Depending on the goals of the lesson, a teacher can always incorporate different techniques to strengthen the skills of his or her students.

The previous examples on celebrities and sports clearly illustrate the importance of pictures in developing students’ speaking skills. Pictures encourage students to get together in groups and work on their task and most importantly, to talk with their group members.

V. Where to Get Pictures

There are many sources from which digital images and pictures can be accessed. Search engines, magazines, newspapers, classroom posters are just a few of the many sources from which to select pictures. Here is a brief look at each one of these sources:

- Using Search Engines: The Internet has become the most exploited tool in many aspects of our daily life, above all in language teaching and learning. Searching the net is a lot less time-consuming than, say, searching for a picture in books or going through magazines. Search engines contain ‘millions’ or even ‘billions of entries’ (Technical Advisory Service for Images, 2004). There are now ‘image search engines’, offered by companies such as Google or Yahoo, from which only images can be downloaded. This makes it a lot more convenient for Internet users.

An easy search for images on the Internet would be to go to, select the ‘Image’ tab and type in key words in the search bar; for example, type ‘mobile phone’ and hundreds or even thousands of pictures will be available on you computer screen. Some Internet sites such as and also offer a great number of ESL Flash Cards and pictures.

After the teacher has selected pictures which are clear and interesting for their students, they can use them in many different ways, one of which would be to print the pictures out and hand them to the students or print them on an OHP slide and show the pictures to the class.

- Pictures from Newspapers or Magazines: Despite the fact that pictures from the Internet can free of charge and easy to get, printing them in colour for students can be very costly. For this reason, magazines and newspapers can be very useful. As most teachers do, one can just pick up different magazines, spend a few minutes going through them, and cut some pictures out. Most pictures from magazines (or some newspapers) are nice and colorful, and thus generate great interests to students. The South Eastern Globe, The Popular Magazine, The Phnom Penh Post, and The Bangkok Post are some of the most popular magazines and newspapers available in Cambodia that contain bright, colorful pictures which can be used in our teaching. A bank of pictures held centrally in a school for all teachers to use may also be a great alternative.

- Posters and Maps: Classrooms in general display posters and maps; and they too can be useful resources. Maps and posters are colorful, large, and meaningful. Therefore, a teacher should never ignore the powerful teaching resources that they already have in the classroom. Depending on what topic they are trying to explain to the students, posters can be of great help.

- Asking Someone for Help: Browsing through the Internet, going through magazines and newspapers, and finding the right posters are typical strategies for finding images and photos. However, these sources do not always reveal the images you are looking for. Another very simple way is to take advantage of your ‘communication’ potential by asking for help from other people, particularly your colleagues.

Some specific images can be very difficult to find either because finding the location is complicated, or it is stored in someone’s ‘physical collection’ (Technical Advisory Service for Images, 2004). It is not difficult to ask someone where a certain picture is.

VI. Choosing the Right Pictures

Now that you have found a large number of pictures to choose from, which ones are most appropriate? Here are some of the main issues that you may want to take into consideration.

- Size and Quality: Some digital images are small in size while some are high in resolution and pleasing to the eyes. Choosing the right images will depend on how big and clear you want them to be. A tip would be to find an image with high resolution. This type of image allows you to enlarge or decrease their size without affecting the quality of the image.

Colour should also be considered while choosing an image. If you are to print a picture out in colour, then you might want to find one that has bright colours. However, if your decision is to make black and white photocopies for students, choosing a picture with a dark background would not be very effective.

- Students’ Preferences: Understandably, every teacher wants to choose pictures that are fascinating to their students. It is also true that ‘no art is the same, [and] that not all objects are equally interesting to all viewers and equally accessible in terms of meaning’ (Guidelines for Image Selection for Beginning Viewers, 1998). In order to choose the right pictures to suit our students’ interests, we have to understand them first. We should take into consideration their age, their jobs, their sex, and if possible, their attitude as well.

In Cambodia, male students are likely to identify pictures that are related to sports correctly while females would more likely identify pictures of young female pop stars. For this reason, if female students make up two-thirds of the class, a teacher may not want to bring in pictures of ‘Ronaldinho’.

In addition to sex, age is also an important factor. Older students with a lot of professional experience and interest in politics would love to have pictures that are related to their professions or politics; but younger ones may find them very boring and would rather have cartoons or pictures of superstars instead. A teacher should take this into consideration before choosing pictures to be of great interest to his or her students.

- And finally…., Copyright and Usage Restrictions: The fact that digital images and pictures are available from almost any places does not necessarily mean that we are given the right to copy them. It would be morally and legally correct to cite the sources for these pictures, or even better, ask the owner for permission (Technical Advisory Service for Images, 2004). It is always best to check if the picture is copyright and if so, contact the owner to ask for permission or negotiate a sale. Citing the sources may also allow the students who are fascinated by the pictures to retrieve them for themselves.

VII. Techniques for Using Pictures

As mentioned earlier, pictures can be used in many ways. Here is a closer look at some of the different techniques that can benefit from using pictures.

1. Reading: Pictures as Motivators

Before handing the students the text itself, a good warm-up activity is to give them a handout containing several pictures related to the main idea of the article. Students can work in groups and try to identify who the people or what the objects in the pictures are. By so doing, students will be more attracted to the topic of the reading and get involved in some speaking as well.

An alternative would be to present pictures of people or objects that you think are very important in the article. For example, if the students are to read a story about ‘Cinderella’, you may want to select pictures of Cinderella, the prince, the glass slippers, the magic wand and so on. Then ask the students to make connections for all the pictures: students try to guess the relationship between the pictures. It does not matter if they cannot work out the connections between the pictures. After they have read the story or article, you can ask them to do the task again. Then they use the pictures to retell the story.

2. Vocabulary Building or Review

For lower level classes (i.e. elementary), teaching new vocabulary is not the easiest thing to do unless a teacher translates the word in to the students’ first language. Translating can be difficult if the students come from several linguistic backgrounds. To minimize First Language speaking, a teacher can provide the students with pictures that show the meaning of the words. For example, if you are teaching students about different jobs and think that your explanation in English may not work well, you may just give the students pictures of people doing things or wearing clothes related to their professions. This can make the class more interesting and the students can remember the words better than merely translating those words into their First Language.

3. Speaking and writing: ‘Find 10 Differences’

Apart from reading, pictures can be used in teaching speaking and writing as well. For speaking, you can arrange the students into pairs and give each pair two different pictures and ask them to find 10 differences in the pictures. If you want to focus more on accuracy, you can ask them to write the differences on a piece of paper (Werff, 2003).

4. Grammar: ‘If I were there…’

The language focus of this technique is the ‘Second Conditional’. Give the students pictures of different locations such as: bar, landscape, hospital…etc. Then ask the students what they would do if they were in that location (Werff, 2003).

For example, a student gets a picture of a ‘bar’.

T: What would you be doing if you were there?
S1: If I were there, I would be dancing and talking to my friends.
S2: If I were there, I would be drinking some beer.

5. All Four Skills: ‘Picture Dictation’

This activity is very popular because it involves the students in all the macro-skills: listening, speaking, reading and writing. Following are the steps that make up the activity:

- Pre-Activity: Before coming to class, the teacher needs to select a short text suitable for the level of the learners. This text quoted from John Haycraft (1978) in an online journal by Ioeng (2003) is a good example:

There's an island in the middle of a lake. In the middle of the island there's a house with a big door and four windows on the ground floor, and six windows on the first floor. There're a lot of big trees to the left of the house. On the lake, to the right of the island, there's a boat with two men in it. One of them is fishing.

To the left of the lake there's a hill with a church on the top. It's midday and the sun is in the sky.

- Listening: The teacher then asks the students to draw a picture according to what they hear. An alternative would be to ask two students to draw on the board.

- Speaking: The teacher asks a few students to look at their own pictures and retell the story.

- Listening and Writing: After retelling the story, the teacher then uses the traditional dictation method. The students listen with care and write down on a sheet of paper the text they hear. This is also good for ‘Bottom up’ Listening Skills.

- Reading: After the students have written down the text, the teacher asks them to do peer editing. Students read their partner’s writing and try to locate and correct the mistakes.

VIII. Conclusion

To sum up, digital images have proven that they are incredible resource of materials. Not only can they be free resources, but they can be taken from virtually anywhere. However, teachers should take into account how to select their pictures, which pictures they should select, and cite their sources properly. In a reading session where some texts may be of little interest to the students, pictures can inspire the students and give them a clear purpose of their reading. In addition, pictures can also be used to improve other skills. Depending on the goals of the lesson, a teacher can manipulate the use of pictures in many different ways. For these reasons, pictures do play a vital role in teaching and should never be forgotten.


Cambridge Advanced Learners’ Dictionary (2003) [Computer Software], Cambridge University Press.
Haynes, J. EverythingESL. ‘Teach to Students’ Learning Styles’. Retrieved December 15, 2007, from
Ieong, S. S. L. (2003). ‘Using Picture Dictation Exercises for Practising All Four Skills”. Retrieved February 15, 2008, from
Sasson, D. (2007). “Improving ESL Reading Skills”. Retrieved December 15, 2007, from
Technical Advisory Service for Images (2004). “Finding Images Online’’. Retrieved January 11, 2008, from <>
Technical Advisory Service for Images (2004). “Using Digital Images in Teaching Resources: Using Images to Reinforce Learning”. Retrieved January 11, 2008, from
Visual Understanding in Education (1998). “Guidelines for Image Selection for Beginning Viewers’’. Retrieved January 11, 2008, from
Werff, J. v. d. (2003). “Using Pictures from Magazines”. Retrieved January 11, 2008, from

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