Chances are you’ve thought about using pictures as a prompt in the language classroom. They’re great for discussion, to guide listening, to aid reading, and to jump start writing! There are so many things to do with a well-chosen picture.
When I was teaching for the first time, I often depended upon pictures to talk about vocabulary, theorize about what was happening, and so much more! One of my favorite things to do was to give my students a picture that showed a few different individuals and ask them what their relationship was and what their names were, and then to ask them why they came up with that answer.
Today I want to talk about the benefit of using pictures to jumpstart your students’ writing. So often, students are stumped before they even pick up a pencil. They don’t know where to start. Not only can art provoke creativity in students, it gives them a great place to start. They don’t have to “come up” with a story, they already have the basis for their story in front of them. If your students are still struggling with writing, check out this article!
I’ve found that using a picture as a writing prompt allows my learners to engage with the activity in a different way. I try to make sure that my students understand that, when writing creatively, there is no “right” or “wrong” answer. They are simply to write creatively and freely. The language is more important than the answer.
This is why I’ve put together four different english writing practice activities based on pictures to use with your adult learners. Below you’ll find ideas for basic picture-based activities, as well as variations to “spice it up.”
Student Groupings: Individual
Teacher Prep: Prepare a picture or a variety of pictures for the class.
Teacher Notes: Make sure your students have the vocabulary necessary to describe the picture you choose. If they don't know business-related words, don't use a picture of a workplace. On the other side, if you want them to practice filling in the gaps of their language, challenge them to describe something they aren't super familiar with.
Materials Needed: Projector (to project a picture) or printed pictures
- Choose a picture that is somewhat complex. Make sure it has something interesting going on and a few different elements. For example, you don't want to use a picture of just a coffee cup; however, a picture of two people looking angry while having coffee and talking in a crowded coffee shop is much more engaging!
- Ask your students to write a description of the picture. Depending upon what you're focusing on in your classroom, you can highlight different things. Ask them to write a description without using colors, or to write a description using metaphors.
- If your student seem lost, ask them to write a description for someone who is blind. How would they describe what is going on? What is more important or most interesting? How would they paint the scene with words?
To "Spice it Up:" If your students enjoy competition, set a time limit! Or, if they need more of a challenge, set parameters (they have to use at least 5 of their vocabulary words, they need to write a description with as many adjectives as possible, etc).
Suspects and Objects
Student Groupings: Individual or Pairs
Teacher Prep: Prepare a picture or variety of pictures.
Teacher Notes: Make sure the picture has a variety of people or objects in it, or choose a few different pictures.
Materials Needed: Projector (to project images) or printed out pictures
- Tell each student or pair to describe one of the individuals or objects in the picture(s) without telling their peers who they have chosen.
- Give students a few minutes to write a description, including name, physical description, attitude, history, etc. If you'd like to make it more difficult, tell them they aren't allowed to write a physical description.
- After students have written their description, collect them and shuffle them. Then, read them out loud one-by-one and have students discuss and decide which individual or object the description matches.
- When all descriptions have been matched with pictures, allow students to correct any misplaced descriptions.
To "Spice it Up:" Set up the activity like a police investigation. Announce that a crime has been committed and they have a series of suspects. Each student has to write a description of one suspect and then decide which description goes to which suspect. Afterwards, have them decide together who they is the most likely to have committed the crime. Be creative!
Write a Postcard
Student Groupings: Individual
Teacher Prep: Either have students bring in postcards or bring in your own for each student to use. If you can't obtain postcards, print out postcard-like images.
Teacher Notes: If your students are not familiar with postcards, bring in a few examples and talk about what one would typically write on a postcard. Have them practice writing an address, if that's not a skill they're familiar with.
Materials Needed: Postcards
- Allow students to choose which postcard they would like to use.
- Tell your students to write out a note to their family and friends as if they were vacationing or visiting the location on the postcard. What do they think they would be doing? Are they having a good time? How is the food?
To "Spice it Up:" This activity can either be travel-related (by following the directions above) or you can make it more close to home by having them bring in a postcard or image from their native country and write as if someone was visiting that country. What would they recommend that person to do? Or have students pick a postcard from the country they are currently living in and have them write about their experiences there.
Student Groupings: Individual
Teacher Prep: Choose portraits.
Teacher Notes: Choosing famous art portraits (like Mona Lisa) can turn a simple writing activity into a cultural lesson!
Materials Needed: Pictures of famous art portaits
- While looking at portraits, have students write a description. Ask them who the portrait was based on, what they were like, what time period it was, etc. Talk about picking up clues from expressions, the background, or different elements in the portrait.
- After the descriptions are written, talk about the actual history behind the picture. Was there anything that surprised them? What did they get right?
To "Spice it Up:" If you don't want to use famous art portraits, choose photographs that convey emotion or meaning. Or have your students bring in a famous piece of art from their culture and swap with their peers. Have your students write a letter to the portrait to ask them questions about their life and what they would like to know. You could also have students write a letter as if they were the individual in the picture. Have them focus on theorizing about the person's life and accomplishments.
Using pictures as a writing prompt is a great way to encourage your learners to begin writing. After all, they can't improve until they start. However, if your learners are still struggling, be sure to check out my article on how to help your struggling writers here.
As always, if you use one of my activity ideas I'd love to hear how it went! Shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment down below.
I Want to Hear From You!
Have you used pictures as a writing prompt? What's your favorite activity?
How do you overcome the struggle of getting your students to begin writing?