Thinking outside the box: English through pictures

Devanshe Chauhan Lidgley, Tama University, School of Global Studies; Michael Lidgley, Tokai University, FLC


Quick guide

  • Key words:Picture dictation, picture description, story-telling
  • Learner English level: Adaptable to all levels
  • Learner maturity level:Junior high school and above
  • Preparation time:20 minutes
  • Activity time:45-90 minutes, plus homework
  • Materials:Photocopies of pictures depicting activities



Students practice describing an image using appropriate structures, such as the present continuous tense, prepositional phrases, and clarification and repetition expressions.It is a versatile activity, which can also provide practice for Part 1 of the listening section of the TOEIC, by predicting sentences related to photos.



Choose a picture depicting an activity likely to be of interest to your students. Look in newspapers, magazines, company literature, textbooks, and so on.



Step 1:Write a few sentences on the board illustrating how to ask for clarification and repetition. For example: Excuse me, could you go over that again please? and I didn’t quite get that. Did you say …?

Step 2:Without letting the students see the picture, describe it, while they draw what they hear. Be clear, describe objects one at a time, giving them time to draw. To keep the pace going, reassure them that it doesn’t need to be a piece of art; simple stick figures will do, as long as they can depict what is being described. Encourage them to compare their pictures, and to ask you clarification and repetition questions if needed. Tell them it’s OK to interrupt.

Step 3:Hand out copies of the original picture and have them compare their illustrations with the original. This usually stimulates some amusement. Check relevant vocabulary and elicit expressions needed for describing pictures in general (e.g.,present continuous, there is/are..., and prepositional phrases). Write these on the board. To elicit, for example, the use of the present continuous you can either ask directly Which tense should we use?, or you could give them a choice, e.g., He wears / is wearing / wore a hat, and ask them which is better.

Step 4:Put students in pairs and have them take turns describing the same picture to each other, using the target vocabulary and structures on the board. Have them make true/false statements and make guesses. Monitor, prompt and provide help where needed.

Step 5:Put students into new pairs, with a similar but different picture. For example, the original picture may depict a man performing a domestic chore, so the second picture could be of a woman performing a different chore. Partner A describes the picture, while B draws.

Step 6: Raise the level of creativity, after drawing, by moving on to thinking questions, e.g., What do you think is happening / has just happened / will happen next?

Encourage students to develop a story for their pictures. For example, ask them to:

  • Name the character(s) and place.
  • Give a background history of the person(s).
  • Describe a past event that has led to the present scene.


For individual students this might be daunting, so put students into small groups, and hand out a different picture per group. Set a time limit and have them create one story per group. Ask them to choose a team name and leader (rock-scissors-paper usually works).

Step 7: Each leader narrates the story to their classmates, who listen and ask questions. Alternatively, re-group the students, and each group representative narrates their story to the new group members. For a really creative class, students can try to create a new story within their group involving all 3 or 4 of their pictures.

Step 8:As a final task, have them write down their stories for homework.



Throughout, the teacher makes notes of areas of difficulty for later feedback. This activity is structured yet student-centered, and can be developed by stages as the students become more creative. The teacher needs to be aware of the class dynamics in terms of louder students overshadowing quieter ones, and which students work best together. It can be very rewarding to see more inhibited students coming out of their shells as they get used to taking part in these activities over time.