Picture whispers

Adrian Leis, Miyagi University of Education

Quick guide

  • Keywords: Speaking, listening, vocabulary
  • Learner English level: Low intermediate to advanced
  • Learner maturity: Junior high school to university
  • Preparation time: 5 minutes
  • Activity time: 5 minutes
  • Materials: Photograph, blank A4-sized paper, colored pencils (optional), timer.

The popular communication game of Whispers, or the dengon game, as it is known in Japanese, is often used in English classes at Japanese schools. Students sit in a line. Student (S) 1 reads and remembers a sentence or short story written on a piece of paper and then tells it to S2. After this, S2 relays the message on to S3, until it reaches the final student, who then writes it on the board. More often than not, the game reaches a humorous ending, as the sentence written on the board is completely different from the original sentence. 

Although this activity can be effective in practicing various grammar points, speaking skills, and listening skills, it has two major weaknesses. First, once the students have completed their role, they have nothing to do until the end of the activity. Second, usually the sentence or short story has been prepared by the teacher; thus, the English students are speaking is not their own. When doing Picture Whispers, students are active during the entire activity while being given an opportunity to use their own English.


Before class, prepare a photograph (one for each time the activity will be done) and a few sheets of blank A4 paper. The photograph can be printed or simply saved onto a tablet computer.


Step 1: Have students sit in rows of five with student one (S1) sitting in the first row and student five (S5) sitting in the fifth row. 

Step 2: Give one blank piece of A4 paper and colored pencils (if available) to S5 in each group.

Step 3: After telling students the time limit for the activity. I suggest 5 minutes. Have S1 from each group come to your desk to look at the photograph you have prepared (e.g., Appendix A). 

Step 4: Have S1 whisper a description of the picture to S2, who describes it to S3, and so on. Have S5 draw the picture based on the description heard. Ensure that S1 is able to return to your desk to look at the photograph again and tell extra information to S2. Likewise, S5, or other students are able to ask questions about the picture to get extra details.

Step 5: After the time limit has finished, ask S5 from each group to briefly describe the picture he or she has drawn. You can add some questions here to give hints for strategies when doing the activity again in future classes.

Step 6: (Optional) If you decide to do the activity again, I suggest changing the order of the students (e.g., each student moves two rows forward, while S1 and S2 move to S4 and S5 respectively). Before starting the activity a second time with a new picture, give students 1 minute to think of some strategies as a team to draw a better picture.


I have found the Picture Whispers activity to be beneficial especially in classes focusing on prepositions of place, or practicing the difference between there is and it is, a distinction many English students at the lower-intermediate level often have trouble with. Using colored pencils adds an extra dimension to the activity as students are encouraged to use even more descriptive language in their speech. 

One weakness with this activity is that students may use their mother tongue to describe more complicated pictures. This can be overcome by choosing a photograph that matches the students’ level and with encouragement from the teacher. I hope you will find this activity to be as effective for your students as I have for mine.


The appendix is available below: