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5 Ways to Effectively Use Images with Beginner ESL Learners

It’s an old saying that an image is worth a thousand words.

In English language teaching, we can take that saying and adapt it: ‘Every image can help learners speak a thousand words.’ Images can be our greatest allies!

Instead of worrying about trying to form grammatically correct sentences in a coursebook activity, learners always react positively when asked to discuss an image instead.

Images are great language learning tools for so many reasons.

Firstly, images are open to varying interpretations. This inherent ambiguity enables your learners to be creative and invent all manner of sentences based on what they see. Secondly, an image provides a natural talking point.

Shy and introvert learners often feel less anxiety about discussing an image than they do when doing a coursebook speaking activity.

Furthermore, images help to practice sub-skills like prediction, telling stories and recognizing main ideas.

Finally, images are just a bit more fun to work with.

The following simple activities will help you take advantage of all those images have to offer:

1.  Find the Differences

Everyone has played this game at some time or another, so it’s easy to set up and get learners playing. This is a great activity for practicing there is / there are and there isn’t / there aren’t.

  • Learners work in pairs.
  • Find two images with any number of differences between them.
  • In this version of the game, each learner has an image, but they don’t show their partner the image.
  • They have to find the differences by talking to each other. They describe their image and listen to their partner’s response.

Extending the Activity

  • Partners can report their differences to the rest of the class. Also, if you give some of the other partners the same images (but not everyone) they can try to guess if theirs are the same.

Read: Spot The Difference Information Gap Activity

2.  Choosing the Best Image

This is useful for practicing superlative adjectives and using ‘because’. You’ll need a few images that are connected to listening or reading you’re doing in class.

  • Learners read a text or listen to a recording and imagine they’re image editors.
  • Give them a choice of several images.
  • They have to choose the best image to illustrate the story and justify their choice.

Extending the Activity

  • Learners might also justify their reasons for rejecting the other images.

Read: Introductory Lessons for Teaching Beginners

3.  Observation Test

This activity enables learners to practice recalling language quickly under pressure.

  • In pairs, learners have a short time to look at an image.
  • Learner A is given the image and asks questions to see what learner B remembers.
  • Repeat with a different image, with learners reversing their roles.

Extending the Activity

  • Make this a team game. Each team is shown an image and then given a time limit to recall as many details as possible. The winning team is the one that recalls the most information.

Read:  Scaffolding: Teaching Beginners

4. Image Stories

This is great for practicing the simple past as a narrative tense. You’ll need a set of images that tells a story from start to finish.

  • Put learners in groups. Each member has an image and describes it without showing it.
  • When everyone has described their image, they negotiate the correct order of the story and put the images together.
  • They retell the story to the class.

Extending the Activity

  • Learners can write a paragraph describing their whole story.

Read: Picture Description as an Information Gap Activity

5.     Dictate the Image

This variation on a regular dictation works well with lessons on prepositions of place.

  • Rather than reading a text, describe an image that the learners can’t see. For example, ‘draw a table in the middle of the room. There is a cat under the table.’
  • Learners draw the things you describe.
  • After checking their image with a partner, they compare their versions with your original.

Extending the Activity

  • Put learners in pairs: one describes while the other draws. The learners then switch roles.
  • Alternatively, split the class into two teams. Describe an image and a member of each team draws a detail on the board, handing the pen to the next member.

Read: Authentic Material in Beginner Classrooms


Space in coursebooks is very limited, so images aren’t always a priority on the printed page. Consequently, it’s a good idea to start building your own collection of images.

Consider putting them on cardboard, or laminating them for future use.

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Replacing the Textbook in TESOL: Stimulating Student Interaction

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