Freeze Frame! How to Use Pictures in Your ESL Classroom

Freeze Frame! How to Use Pictures in Your ESL Classroom

Susan Verner
by Susan Verner 47,386 views

If a picture is worth a thousand words, why use them in the ESL classroom? After all, aren’t we language teachers trying to get our students to communicate and use the language they know rather than communicate through pictures?

If they do not have the language for a particular situation, shouldn’t they seek out the language they need rather than side stepping the issue with a photo or stick figure drawing? In truth, the old proverb may be true when it comes to storytelling, but pictures are invaluable in the ESL classroom. They may, in fact, end up eliciting a thousand words from each of your students, provided you use them with a purpose.

Pictures in Conversation Class

Pictures can be a great inspiration for conversation class. They will inspire and challenge your students when they use an unfamiliar picture during class. Try one of the following ideas with your students.

  1. 1

    Pictures First

    The next time you introduce a new unit or start a new topic in class, give your students some pictures related to the subject before you start throwing out new material. This will get them thinking about what they already know about the topic before you introduce new vocabulary and structures. By linking new information to what they already know about the topic, your students will have better retention and absorb more linguistic information.

  2. 2

    What Are They Talking About?

    Using a picture of two or more people, ask your students to perform the dialogue that those people might be having. You can use your personal pictures or those from magazine advertisements. Try to get a variety of settings or tie the settings into your current unit as well as a variety of people types. A conversation between an old man and his grandson sitting on a park bench will be different from a conversation between a pretty young woman and a charming young man on the same bench!

  3. 3

    Picture Story

    Pictures can tell a story, and you can use them to challenge your students to do the same. Give a pair of students a series of pictures which tell a story. You may want to copy pictures from an illustrated book, print out a comic strip and white out the words, or even take pictures of your television screen at several points throughout a program. Then have your students use these pictures to formulate the story in their own minds. Once each person has an idea of the story he will tell, have him share that story with his partner.

Pictures in Vocabulary Class

Using pictures in vocabulary class is an obvious application, but have you used these not so typical ideas with your students?

  1. 4

    Classroom Photo Dictionary

    Encourage your students to bring in their own pictures of unusual objects and activities to contribute to a classroom photo dictionary. When someone brings in a picture, have her create a page for the dictionary using the picture and a definition along with a sample sentence using the word. After checking the page, add it to the three ring binder in its alphabetical location and allow your students to peruse the dictionary during independent study periods.

  2. 5

    Vocabulary Challenge

    If you can collect some complicated pictures with many objects in them, you can make your own vocabulary game to use in class. Pictures from I-Spy books work well for this game since your students will be looking for twenty-six objects each round. Have students write the letters A to Z on a sheet of paper and set an appropriate time limit, depending on the language level of your students. Each round your students will try to find something in the picture that begins with each of those letters. The person with the most correct words wins the round, and you can take the opportunity to suggest vocabulary to your class that they may not know.

  3. 6

    Memory Matching Game

    Have you introduced new vocabulary to your class lately? Let them review that vocabulary with a memory matching game. Have each student create a pair of cards for the game featuring their own pictures. One card should have just the vocabulary word; the other should have a picture that represents that word. Lay all the cards facedown in grid format and challenge your students to match the correct picture to the correct vocabulary word. Because your students are creating the cards themselves and checking their classmates as they play, the vocabulary words will be cemented in their lexicons!

Pictures in Writing Class

You cannot go wrong using pictures in your writing class. Your students will find them inspiring, creative and energizing in their writing. Start by trying one of the following ideas.

  1. 7

    Start with a Picture

    Pictures can serve as great inspiration for story writing. Starting with a picture, have your students write out some ideas about the setting and/or the character of their story. Then have them write out the plot in bullet points. Now your students will have a firm foundation upon which to build their stories, and the writing will come readily. If you like, display the final story with the picture that inspired it.

  2. 8


    Are you looking for a smaller writing project for your students to tackle? Send them outside to take some pictures with their cell phones and then print them out to use in class. They can then use these pictures to create their own postcards to “send” to overseas family members. Use the opportunity to talk about addressing a postcard and the different salutations and closings that are appropriate for friendly notes.

Pictures can be great in the ESL classroom because they communicate without language, but so much more than simple definitions can be elicited with pictures.

Try using one of these ideas or coming up with your own creative uses for pictures in your classroom!


If you have a picture perfect idea that you have used successfully in your classroom, share it with us in the comments below.

P.S. If you enjoyed this article, please help spread it by clicking one of those sharing buttons below. And if you are interested in more, you should follow our Facebook page where we share more about creative, non-boring ways to teach English.

Like us!

Entire BusyTeacher Library
Get the Entire BusyTeacher Library:
Dramatically Improve the Way You Teach
Save hours of lesson preparation time with the Entire BusyTeacher Library. Includes the best of BusyTeacher: all 80 of our PDF e-books. That's 4,036 pages filled with thousands of practical activities and tips that you can start using today. 30-day money back guarantee.
Learn more

Popular articles like this

Instagram = Instant Fun
10 Simple Ways to Get Students Talking with Pictures

0 19,561 0

A Picture's Worth a Thousand Words
8 Reasons You Should Use Picture Books in the ESL Classroom

0 22,483 0

7 Idiom Activities to Get Your Students' Creativity Flowing

0 35,192 0

Why You Should Use Cell Phones in Class
8 Activities For Putting Phones to Positive Use in the ESL Classroom

0 84,314 0

The Power of Words
5 Easy Tools to Help Your Students Learn Vocabulary

0 16,380 0

Taming the Grammar Monster
5 Fun Language Games for Students Who Like to Draw

0 43,343 0