Vocabulary Through Pictures Grouped by Themes

David Horsley, Toyama College of Foreign Languages

Quick Guide

  • Keywords: Vocabulary building, describing pictures
  • Learner English Level: Pre-intermediate to intermediate
  • Learner maturity: Junior high school to university
  • Preparation time: 1-2 hours
  • Activity time: 50 minutes
  • Materials: Projector, blackboard/whiteboard or smart board, chalk/dry erase markers, tape, worksheets

While following the maxim that vocabulary should be introduced to second language learners in context, teachers often encounter a situation in which their students are required to learn large amounts of vocabulary quickly. This activity is useful (and fun!) when that vocabulary is related to everyday objects or activities that can be clearly identified by a picture. The mixing of media (digital projector/OHP with a board) retains the benefits of both media; and having the students interact directly with the screen/board encourages activity and discussion.


Step 1: Do an Internet search for pictures related in theme to the target language. Either black and white or color pictures are possible if the board is white; however, color pictures will not show clearly on a dark-colored board. The pictures are best found by looking for royalty free pictures, line drawings or etchings (two useful sources are http://etc.usf.edu/clipart/ and http://thegraphicsfairy.com). In all cases, the pictures should clearly depict an object or action. Cartoon-like pictures are suitable for younger learners, but pictures resembling those found in dictionaries and encyclopedias may be more appropriate for adults.

Step 2: Choose between 20 and 30 pictures and assemble them into a box on a handout, which should occupy about three quarters of the top part of an A4 sheet; the bottom quarter of the handout should have a box which contains the names of the objects (see Appendix).

Step 3: Print out one sheet for each student as a worksheet and prepare one set of the words listed at the bottom of the sheet enlarged so as to be visible from the students' desks. Cut out the words.  

Step 4: Prepare a projector and tape.


Step 1: Set up the classroom with the projector.

Step 2: Project the pictures onto the board, covering the word list at the bottom of the page.

Step 3: Elicit as much vocabulary as possible, clarifying and describing as necessary. 

Step 4: Once all the pictures have been discussed, hand out chalk to the students and have them write the names of the objects (or activities) directly onto the board over the picture in question. Do not correct any spelling errors. 

Step 5: When as many of the pictures as possible have been labeled, inform the students that you will now help them by giving them the names. Demonstrate by cutting out one enlarged word from the list of words, taking a piece of tape and attaching it to the appropriate picture on the board.

Step 6: Give each student one word and clearly pronounce it for them. Tell them that if they do not know which picture the word labels, they are to attach it to either side of the board as one of their classmates may recognize it and attach it to the right picture. Encourage discussion amongst the students. Have the students move all the words onto the pictures, even if it is done incorrectly. 

Step 7: Correct the board, model pronunciation, and answer any questions. 

Step 8: Have the students return to their desks and hand out the worksheets for students to label. Allow the use of dictionaries and smartphones (Wikipedia, Google Images) for further clarification.


This activity can also be used with a smart board, which (unlike a typical projector) isn’t easily obscured when students pass in front of it and can produce clear and colorful pictures (or even animations). Over time, students collect a file of these vocabulary sheets. Though they are presented thematically rather than in the context of a written narrative, the vocabulary can be easily reviewed and make up a useful resource for the students' reference. The benefits of using a board as a screen are many: both teacher and students can write on it, questions and discussions (both individual and group) are a natural consequence, and the students are physically active.