10 ways to use photos in your lessons

Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, Tinder; digital photos are everywhere.  It seems like a lifetime ago when we were able to do anything we wanted without the threat of it being immortalised thanks to someone’s smartphone.  Selfies have become so ubiquitous that the thought of asking someone else to take our photo in a beauty spot or tourist destination actually seems absurd.  As digital photo galleries grow it, therefore, makes sense to utilise photos in the classroom, after all, everyone is familiar with them and your average student probably spends a large portion of their day poring over images so why not use this opportunity for some communication!

Here are 10 easy ways that you can use photos in your lessons. Just say “Cheese!”

  1. Photo hunt – This simple, low-prep activity will develop students’ descriptive skills as well as their logical reasoning.  It’s a simple communicative activity which is particularly useful for students who are studying for exams which require descriptions of pictures, like the Cambridge Preliminary exam for example.  How does it work? Take several photos and cut them into pieces, distribute the pieces to students around the classroom randomly, depending on class size and how long you want the activity to last for can determine how many pieces you distribute.  Bear in mind, however, the more photos you distribute, the trickier this challenge is! Students then have the challenge of describing their piece in order to try and find the rest of the photo.

2.  Most students are never more than a finger-length away from their mobile phone if they can help it, so why not utilise it as part of the lesson?  Get students to do a show and tell to their partner or mini-group about their favourite photo on their phone/ their screensaver or even the profile picture they have chosen for their most coveted social network and explain why it holds such an important place in their hearts.  You could even go one step further and set up a dedicated photo gallery either within the classroom or on a class blog where students display their photo with an accompanying piece of writing justifying why their photo is so important (at least for that moment!)

3.  Do you ever think a photo really speaks to you? You do? Then you’ll love this activity where students are set to task creating the spoken dialogue which photographs immortalise.  Choose 3 photos from your coursebook, a magazine or a stack of photos (brought in by the teacher or perhaps more interestingly, by the students, if you’re brave enough!) and write a dialogue about them.  Make the characters, objects in the photos tell their story, particularly interesting where the pictures are of landscapes or inanimate objects because students can have a whole lot of fun with personification.

4.   ‘Every picture tells a story’ or at least that’s what the age-old adage claims so why not put that into practice in your classroom.  Use them as a writing stimulus: short stories, poems, dialogues, you name it, let your students imaginations go as wild as they like.  A fantastic website for this is the amazing onceuponapicture.co.uk is a great source of inspiration, as is good old-fashioned google images.  No/low prep and a whole world of production. Perfect.

5.  Another classic activity which will really get your students focusing on the descriptions that they give, and revising prepositions of place and modifiers is by using photographs as the subject of a dictodraw.  Cut an image in half and get students to describe what is in their half while their partner draws it.  After their partner has repeated the task with the other half of the photo ask students to put them together and compare them with the whole image projected on the board. Hilarity is sure to ensue!

6.  Turn the classroom into a photography studio and make a human camera, asking students to recreate a photo using their bodies and classroom objects.  By giving students the opportunity to think (and act) outside of the box, there is sure to be an impact on the way that they approach whatever language task is thrown at them.  Studies have shown that the more creative the environment we find ourselves in, the more likely we are to break our comfort zone and approach tasks in a way that feels foreign to us, resulting in a different experience.

7.  We all know the value of linking visuals with language and most of us use imagery to recreate picture dictionaries or mnemonics at some point but can we take this one step further and get students to take photos of things which represent the target language of the lesson? The beauty of digital photography, online platforms, and file-sharing means that it’s now easier than ever to share results with the rest of the class.

8.  Photographs as a listening stimulus.  Get students to listen to a conversation and decide which photograph inspired it, sums up the content, is being described, is what the speaker can see while talking, is what the speaker had for dinner… You can set the parameters, or even better, hand it over to your students and ask them to come up with whatever tenuous link they can find!

9.  We are all familiar with flicking through glossy magazines and losing ourselves in the images.  In this activity, we are letting our students lose themselves in images that strike up important links with language, something which is sure to help them memorise key language, making it easier to retrieve in the future.  Give students magazines and ask them to find photographs that represent certain themes or words, for example, ‘loneliness’ or ‘holidays’.  This highly subjective task also sparks some great debate about why the images they have chosen represent the highlighted terms.

10.  Distribute photos around the class, give students topics to talk about but tell them when they hear the bell that you will sound, they have to turn the picture over, look at it and incorporate the contents of the photo into their speech.  Depending on the topics the students are talking about, this activity can be very interesting and certainly get the creative juices flowing!

These are just a few of my ideas for using photographs but I’d love to hear yours.  How do you use photos? Do you think cameras and image creation has a place in the language classroom? What photography activities am I missing out on?

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