Training a student’s visual eye: Photography for communicative activities

Joachim Castellano, Kanda University of International Studies


Quick guide
  • Key words: Digital photography, speaking
  • Learner English level: Intermediate and above
  • Learner maturity: University
  • Preparation time: 3 hours +
  • Activity time: 4 full classes 
  • Materials: Newspapers, magazines, internet enabled PCs, digital cameras
Photography can be a very generative communication activity, particularly with speaking and writing. The activities described here move beyond typical uses of pictures in lessons, which are usually limited to superficial description or discussion activities. Instead, students can learn how to analyze and interpret photos deeply by training their eyes to look at a photograph’s form and function. This set of lessons provides students a framework to analyze and interpret photos rigorously. A photo essay group project ties together their new visual literacy skills with productive use of digital cameras and slideshow software to explore and express aspects of their own identities.
Step 1: Collect newspapers and magazines with pictures. News media works best because photojournalistic images are rich in narrative elements. Alternatively, prepare a set of news photo websites for students to explore (e.g., New York Times, AP, Reuters).
Step 2: Become familiar with vocabulary of the visual elements of photography such as focus, color, vantage point, etc. (For a complete list with definitions visit <>). It’s most effective to visually demonstrate each element using example photos in a slideshow presentation. Prepare a slideshow explaining visual elements of photography using photos from the Internet or your own.
Step 3: Read about the New York Times “A Moment in Time” photo project (<>), and be sure you know how to use digital cameras and slideshow software such as PowerPoint.
Class 1 – Students will learn how to describe photos deeply.
Step 1: Ask students to pick a photo they find interesting. Instruct students to describe everything they see: facial expressions, non-verbal gestures, clothing, objects, background, and setting.  
Step 2: Have them explain their photos to multiple partners in pairs. 
Step 3: Next, have students analyze photos by teaching them the IAM questions: What is your Impression? What is the photo About? What is the photo’s Message? Be sure to demonstrate by analyzing your own photo in front of the class. Practice IAM questions in pairs to multiple partners.
Class 2 – Students will learn about visual elements of photography.
Step 1: Show your slides explaining various visual elements.
Step 2: Give the students digital cameras and have them demonstrate a visual element by taking their own pictures. 
Step 3: Have students share their photos in small groups. The students in the groups discuss the prominent visual elements of each photo, and discuss IAM questions.
Class 3 – Students will learn about photo essays. 
Step 1: Demonstrate photo essays from news sites such as the New York Times or BBC. Explain that photo essays are powerful visual stories. 
Step 2: Students will create their own photo essays modeled after the “A Moment in Time” project. Each group has to pick a theme such as work, nature, family, play, arts, etc., and take a picture related to their theme. The students agree to take a picture at that same time of day. For homework, students meet with their groups to create one cohesive photo essay that they will present to the class.
Class 4 – Students will present their A Moment in Time photo essays as a group project.
Step 1: Have students analyze and interpret their photos by describing completely, answering IAM questions, and selecting how particular visual elements influenced their analysis. Ensure that groups explain how each photo contributed to the narrative of the group’s photo essay.
Step 2: Students who are listening can record their own interpretations by writing reflective notes while they watch.
Photography affords rich opportunities for linguistic output. Photography is not likely to raise students’ affective barriers since there is no written or spoken language to overwhelm them: It engages students at their own level. This set of lessons trains students in visual literacy and photographic production. In addition, students can apply these skills to painting, information graphics, and other visual media.