The weekly column
Article 17, June 2000
Fun with Pictures for ELT
Introduction: What Kind of Pictures?
We all know that picture flash cards are useful for language teaching, for instance using pictures of people for teaching the language of clothes or appearance and pictures of rooms for prepositions are familiar, as is using pictures to teach vocabulary or pictures of actions for practising verb tenses. However I have found that with a little more imagination they can be used in many more teaching situations, especially if you have a good number of pictures, say, 30 or so. The pictures should be large enough to be seen by the whole class, backed by pieces of cardboard. These can be cut from magazines, and the more variety the better. I have a mixture of people, places and objects. I live in Turkey so as well as pictures of young fashion models, I have older men and women, some in traditional Turkish clothes, cut from a local travel magazine. These usually cause some amusement, especially when compared to the former. Such pictures may take time to find and mount, but I hope the following activities will persuade you that it is worth the effort. After all, as the cliché has it, a picture is worth a thousand words.
The first activity is one that uses pictures to practise intonation of surprise, I call it Believe it or not. Take a picture (pictures of people work best for this) and hold it up for the whole class to see. Say some statements about the person in the card that are credible, eg, Hes 40, hes a bus driver. Get the students to repeat the statements after you, as in a straight-forward drill. Then say something that is either not believeable or very surprising, eg Hes had a head transplant!, He won a gold medal in the olympics! Repeat these sentences yourself with the intonation of disbelief or surprise, as a model. You may like to analyse your own way of showing surprise through stress and intonation before you do this. Practise this with the students for a while, with a mixture of believable and unbelievable sentences, and let the students show their reaction in the way they repeat the sentence. You may find the students have different ideas of what is credible. Finally, the students can be given their own pictures to make up believable and unbelievable statements for, and allowed to practise in pairs.
Guess my story practises past tense question forms. For this you need about ten cards, showing a variety of people, places and things. Stick them on the board. Before the lesson, prepare a story that includes four of the pictures. Show which four pictures are used but dont say what the story is or in which order the four pictures come. Tell the students they have to ask yes/no questions to find the story. Encourage questions like Did the man drive the car? Was there an accident? Did he steal the car from someones house?, according to the pictures. The questions should be of the yes/no type, but it is up to you how much help you give them to find the story. When they have discovered it, get students to make up their own stories using 3 or 4 of the pictures. Put them in pairs to guess each others stories.
Using pictures of people doing things are useful for All-Tense Revision. For example, take a picture of a person shopping. You can use gestures for the tenses, such as pointing forward to represent the future to represent he is going (to go) shopping or making a circular motion with your hand to suggest present action hes shopping, while you hold up the picture. Want to practise negatives? Turn the picture upside down. Questions? Draw a question mark in the air with your finger after showing the tense. Perhaps you could think of symbols of your own for other tenses. While it is not realistic language practise, it is a simple and fun way of revising tenses. I have used this at the beginning of a course to find out exactly how much the students know.
Fly on the wall is an enjoyable way to practise prepositions and vocabulary. You need a large picture, the bigger the better, so the whole class can see. Choose your pictures according to the vocabulary you want to practise. Point to a place on the picture, of, say a man standing up, or stick a black piece of paper on it. Say This a fly, where is it? to elicit on his ear, in his hair under his foot etc. Practise this for a while, and have volunteers to come to the picture to point and class members answering. Then clear the room as much as possible. Tell the class that the picture on the board is now represented by the whole floor of the classroom and give a few points of reference, eg for a picture of a man, the window of the classroom is the mans left leg, the board the top of his head. Then ask one student to stand anywhere in the room. Tell the class that he is the fly in the picture and ask them where they thik he is. After several guesses, eg on his shoulder, under his chin etc, ask the fly where he thinks he is. Then put the students in pairs, one fly and one person to say where the fly is. The flies should keep buzzing aroud annd settling until a number of locations have been said. Let them do this for a few minutes and then get them to change roles.
Another very simple activity with prepositions is to describe a picture using prepositions, saying where things are relative to other things, eg the light is above the table., and their place in the picture The mans head is at the top of the picture. Tell the students to visualise the picture. For a bit of extra practise, turn the picture upside-down and describe it again, so the table is now above the light, and the mans head is at the bottom of the picture. Students can now work on this in pairs, with one student describing a picture which his partner does not see, and the latter listens and says whether the picture is upside-down or not, (or even on its side). Here, students listen and visualise the picture, so they have a reason for listening. I call it simply Upside-down pictures.
Pictures can also be used to present and practise tenses and here we look at the future and future perfect tenses.In Future Faces use two pictures showing different people, which should be of the same sex, but with a significant age difference, eg a young woman and a middle-aged woman. Get the students to describe the pictures and compare them. Then tell the students that they are in fact the same person, the younger one as she is now and the older one, a computer generated picture of her in the future, say, in ten years time. This situation can be used for eliciting/teaching She will be fatter/better-dressed/happier. She wont look much older. ie future tense, but also She will have become more confident, she will have dyed her hair, she will have had a face-lift. Here we are using the future perfect tense to talk about things that have happened between now and a point in the future. It does not matter if the two pictures do not look the same, in fact the more different they are the better. Students can then compare two more pictures in the same way, or to more comic effect, can be given a computer-generated picture of themselves in ten years time!
Heres a chance for more advanced students to practise a bit of colloquial English, and have some fun. Its called Catch Phrases and it is based on the idea that people often have a phrase that they say a lot and these phrases can be brought out when conversation dries up. Put some pictures of people on the board and write a catch phrase for each one, eg My backs killin me. What you been up to then? Great game on Saturday etc. Write these on the board, and drill them round the class. Make sure students say them as naturally as possible, pointing out that people miss words in sentences and letters off words. This can be done by drilling and pointing at the picture, then just by pointing at a picture to elicit the catch phrase. Then put them in small groups, tell the students to choose one character to be and then they have conversations about anything they think suitable. Of course, if the conversation dries up, theyll know what to say! Get them to change characters every few minutes, so they can practise different catch phrases.
Describing pictures is a common ELT activity, but here is one with a novel twist. Its called Describe Around. Before you do this activity, you might like to do some work on picture descriptions. Then get students to sit in a circle in groups and give a picture to one of them. Ask him to make a simple sentence describing the picture, eg Theres a woman. He then passes it to the next student, who repeats the sentence and adds to it, eg Theres a woman with a red dress. It continues like this with students either adding to the original sentence or adding new sentences, until one student cannot remember everything. Although this is quite a demanding exercise, the student speaking has the picture to look at and this acts as a prompt.
Finally, if these activities have still not persuaded you to make your own picture flash cards or even borrow someone elses, here is one flash card activity that needs No flash cards! Divide the class into 2, the right hand side and the left. Tell the class you are going to show some pictures to one half of the class, but the others will not be able to see them. Tell half the class who cannot see, that by judging the reactions of the students who see the picture, they should try and guess what each picture is like. Make a gap between the two sides, stand in it and turn and face one side, with your back to the other. Now show the pictures, which are not pictures at all, but pieces of paper with instructions written on them, eg Laugh be silent talk excitedly, Say aaaaaaahhhhh , which the students should do, hopefully without further prompting. After each picture, those who cannot see the picture should shout out their guesses as to what the picture is. After 4 or 5, show them what the pictures really are.
I hope these activities have shown what a flexible and convenient tool picture flash cards can be. Most students like looking at pictures and they bring variety into lessons; because each picture is different the language produced by each is different. Some other aspects of pictures useful to teachers could be the distance between, and height and weight of things in it, guessing what is outside the picture, and imagining what it is like to be in the picture. Probably you could think of many other ways of using the cards for motivating and enjoyable language activities. Sometimes a picture itself will suggest one kind of activity, but also you can use each picture in different ways. There is no need to be limited by a picture; with some imagination you will be able to find many uses for it, as a cue for language, in information gap activities, or as part of a story.
I think that the secret of a successful activity is to have several different elements, but not so many that the activity becomes too complex. In Describe Around there are 3 elements, the passing of the picture, the descriptions, and memory. If the students didnt have to remember what was said before, the exercise might not be challenging enough. On the other hand if another element was added, forexample some students introducing sentences which were not true, which the other students would have to eliminate from the description, then the activity might become over complicated.
These kinds of activity is fine for a bit of fun at the end of a lesson, or even a change of pace in the middle of a lesson, but they are serious activities because I have found them to be very effective ways of practising language. Some of them could be integrated into grammar input lessons, eg Fly on the Wall as the practice stage for a lesson on prepositions, and Future Faces could be the presentation stage of a lesson on the future perfect tense. In fact , I feel we can use pictures for both fun games and serious input activities, showing that sometimes there is not much difference between the two and that using pictures can be serious fun!
Simon Mumford teaches English at the Aegean University, Izmir, Turkey. He is especially interested in the use of pictures and different types of cards in language teaching. email@example.com
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