Picture Storytelling in the Eiken Test

Page No.: 
Alan Jackson, Kobe Shoin Women's College


  • Key Words: Testing/Evaluation
  • Learner English Level: Pre-intermediate and Intermediate
  • Learner Maturity Level: High School to Adult
  • Preparation Time: 15 minutes
  • Activity Time: 3 x 20 minutes

The intermediate-level Step 2 Eiken test is taken by over 350,000 candidates in Japan each year, many of them at high school or college. In this article I describe how some of my students have been practicing for one element of the test's oral interview-the picture story.

In this part of the test, students look at a sheet of paper with two pictures in narrative sequence and are instructed to "describe the situation in the pictures." The second of the two pictures is usually labeled with words such as "a few days later" to indicate the time relationship.

Figure 1: Eiken Step 2 Picture Story-Typical picture layout


Picture 1

(a few days later)

Picture 2

When students attempt this part of the test without preparation, they frequently exhibit the following problems associated with the structuring and presentation of narrative:

  1. Time: They fail to locate the two pictures in time and move in a confused way between present and past tenses.
  2. Deixis: They rarely refer to the participants in the narrative in a consistent way.
  3. Explicitness: They fail to cover all the important points in the story.
  4. Imagination: They almost never go beyond what is clearly visible in the pictures.

As a result, without preparation they tend to produce stories such as this (from Session 1 "Without Preparation" see Table 1 below):

"She is in ... When she went at ... store ... she bought clothes ... 40 percent ... but ... she went to B store she ... what she bought ... 50 percent sale"

These problems probably arise for four reasons:

  1. Long turns: Some students are simply not proficient, even in their native language, at organizing an extended monologue.
  2. The nature of the task: Though the pictures are in narrative sequence, they are presented to students as picture-scenes in the here and now, and it is quite natural for students to begin using the present continuous tense to describe a scene in front of their eyes.
  3. The presence of the examiner: As the examiner can see the pictures and clearly knows the story, test candidates often fail to tell the story explicitly.
  4. Risk aversion: Testees rarely go beyond what is clearly visible in the pictures. They don't say when the scene in the first picture took place, as there is no indication; they identify the participants as "the man" or "the woman" instead of something more interesting like "the young college student" or "a tired office worker"; and they rarely mention how they think the participants feel or how the situation might develop in the future.

To overcome these problems, the teacher can alert students to features of story structure and story-telling technique that will apply to any picture story they encounter in the test. In other words, they can improve their ability to handle short narrative monologues in what Yule and Brown have called "transactional long turns." Helping test-takers with story structure in this way lowers the communicative stress of the task and frees up student attention for the job of finding appropriate vocabulary and grammar for the story content.

In the Classroom

In my first-year college classroom, as part of Eiken test practice I decided to bring the following points to my students' attention:

  1. They should adopt the past tense for telling a narrative.
  2. They should establish the time frame of the first picture using phrases such as "one day" or "last weekend," and link the two pictures with a time phrase such as "a few days later."
  3. They should state clearly WHO was doing WHAT and WHERE in the first picture.
  4. They should be imaginative and refer to story participants more elaborately than "a man."
  5. They should refer to the participants' feelings or the results of the actions depicted.

The actual training was carried out in three thirty-minute training sessions in the language laboratory at four-week intervals. A different picture story from past Eiken Step 2 interview tests was used in each session and the students' production was recorded and scored according to the presence of key elements of structure or content. In each session, the students first attempted the story without preparation, then had ten minutes of instruction on the above-mentioned important aspects of story structure, and then recorded their stories again. The results were as follows:

Table 1: Eiken 2 Picture Story-Scores and Total Words "Without Preparation" and "After Instruction" (n = 18)


Without preparation
Score Words
After Instruction
Score Words

Session 1

(Discount Ptice)



49% 34



80% 55

Session 2

(Relieving Stress)



59% 37



80% 51


(Volunteer Work)



68% 36



88% 54

Examples of Session 3 Without Preparation and After Instruction performances are as follows (same student as in the Session 1 example given above):

Without Preparation: "A young man and a young woman wanted to volunteer ... one day they found volunteer information in magazines ... they decided to take part in volunteer ... a week later ... he went a park and she caught garbage ... there are many people ... they feel happy"

After Instruction: "One sunny morning a young man and a young woman found information about volunteer work ... at phone ... they want to volunteer and they decided to take part in volunteer work ... a week later they went to nearby park ... there are many people ... they picked up garbage ... so the park is clear ... and they feel happy and comfortable because they did a good thing"

As might be expected, in any one training session there was an immediate improvement, both in quality (score), and quantity (words) of student production. What is more significant, however, is that the students' Without Preparation scores improved greatly, from 49% in Session 1, to 68% in Session 3. In other words, when confronted with a previously unseen set of pictures, the students could perform considerably better than before-perhaps enough to make the difference between passing and failing the test!


Brown, G., & Yule, G. (1983) Teaching the spoken language. Cambridge: CUP.

Nihon Eigo Kentei Kyokai (The Society for Testing English Proficiency Inc.) Home page: www.eiken.or.jp

Yule, G. (1996) Pragmatics Oxford: OUP.