Content-based creative writing using photographs

John Holthouse, Kwansei Gakuin University; J. Paul Marlowe, Kwansei Gakuin University


Quick guide

  • Keywords: Academic writing, creative writing, content-based, photographs
  • Learner English level: Pre-intermediate to advanced
  • Learner maturity:  High school to adult
  • Preparation time: 30 minutes
  • Activity time: 75-90 minutes
  • Materials: Copies of selected photographs, writing materials, information sheet

Textbooks for EFL academic writing classes typically lead students through a largely predictable series of exercises aimed at fostering structural and lexical competence, firstly at the paragraph level and later with various genres of essays. Although pedagogically sound, this pattern can gradually affect student engagement if followed in every class. In order to keep motivation levels high, it is worthwhile to occasionally replace textbook routines with creative, communicative activities. The following activity can be used as a stand-alone creative writing activity and an interesting way to focus on world events.

Step 1: Select four to five photographs from magazines, or an online image search, that illustrate an event or have an emotional impact. We chose dramatic photographs taken around the world within the past year. Selecting somewhat obscure photos is preferable because if students have already seen the photo, they may know the story behind it, thereby negating the fun element of speculating about it. Photos of more than one person tend to encourage more imaginative responses about possible relationships.
Step 2: Copy and number all the photographs onto single A4 sheets of paper (Sheet A), with roughly one copy per two students.
Step 3: Also prepare separate A4 sheets of paper (Sheet B) with only one of the Sheet A photos copied onto each (one per student). Be sure to utilize equal numbers of photos.

Step 1: Give groups of four to five students two or three copies of Sheet A and ask them to discuss the photos starting with questions such as What is happening here?, What are these people doing?, or What is going to happen next? Also, have students compile a group list of descriptive adjectives based on how they think the people in the photographs feel or what feelings the photos inspire in them. Elicit these and other student-generated vocabulary and expressions and write them on the board as a writing resource for student use in Step 2.
Step 2: Assign a different Sheet B to each group member and ask them to write a brief descriptive or cause-and-effect paragraph to explain the story behind their image. This works especially well if students have recently studied and practiced writing in these genres. Remind students to use the vocabulary on the board if they need it.
Step 3: Put students who wrote about the same picture together in new groups allowing them to enjoy reading each other’s interpretations and discuss any amusing aspects of their stories.
Step 4: After students have compared their own stories, either orally explain the real story behind each image or give students a handout with descriptions for each photograph.

For those with access to computer labs at school, this can be done as a blogging activity or on a learning management system such as Blackboard or Moodle. Another variation is to distribute close-up photos or portraits of randomly chosen (not famous) people and have students speculate about their lives and write short biographic sketches or diary entries for their assigned individual.
Pictures may not always be worth a thousand words, but writing teachers can certainly expect well-chosen photographs to draw hundreds of words from their students. Photographs can be stimulating in terms of the feelings or ideas they convey and the variety of interpretations they generate. This activity works well because it creates an information gap which students want to cross in order to discover both their classmates’ interpretations and, ultimately, the story behind the photograph.