They are enjoyable, they set the scene or context, they inform us, they interest us, they are a key resource. To be even more specific, picture stories are also common in everyday life. Look at the cartoon strips in newspapers or comic books and the enjoyment which we derive from them.
Picture stories are often neglected or used in a very predictable way in the classroom, usually as a starting point for a narrative speaking and ultimately writing activity, but they can also be of key importance in the communicative and interactive classroom.
- Why I use pictures
- Finding picture stories
- What I do with a picture story
Why I use pictures
As well as enjoying pictures they also form a key resource for accessing the different learning styles that each student has. Using pictures really appeals to visual learners who may suffer in a speaking and listening based classroom. They also offer an opportunity for movement and a multi-dimensional perspective which will reach our kinaesthetic learners.
- Pictures aren't based on level. Of course we can choose certain pictures to access a certain area of vocabulary if we wish but any picture can be the base of any kind of activity at any level. Reading stories can restrict our students but an elementary learner can access the most complex story through pictures so lower levels don't 'miss out' on the 'exciting' stories that the higher levels are looking at.
- Of course, as we take our enjoyment from pictures in everyday life so our students take enjoyment from the pictures in the story. They will add a touch of intrigue to the class and make the lesson much more dynamic as imaginations are aroused. This is especially useful with those students who find it difficult to use their imaginations. The picture story provides a support and ideas which the students can then build on more easily than inventing their own story all together.
- I find that picture stories also add pace to my classes. The students' reaction to a picture is almost immediate whereas the same reaction from a written story would take much, much longer. The students are interested and enthusiastic right from the beginning of the class.
Finding picture stories
Now that digital technology has become widespread and accessible to all, digital photos taken by either the students or the teacher are particularly useful for picture stories. Not only can the students then be involved in making their story but they could also use technology to manipulate them, changing colours, styles or sequences and deleting what they don't want or need.
The internet is a fantastic source of pictures and can be found related to any topic through major search engines. This adds the bonus of being right up to date, perhaps the latest film or cartoon characters or the students' favourite football players.
Magazines and newspapers
These provide a constant supply of topical pictures in a wide range of styles, colour, black and white, photographs and stylised images to name but a few. There are also ready-made picture stories in the form of cartoon strips and comics which could be used, perhaps after deleting any text which appears.
For those more artistic teachers and students among us there remains the option of drawing our own picture stories. If you feel you need more support however, there are pictures and picture stories in the English language course books that we are currently using which we can adapt.
Last but not least, let's not underestimate the power of sketches or stick men on little pieces of paper or sticky-backed notelets! They are accessible, fun and add another dimension to the usual class.
What I do with a picture story
As well as the well-known and loved written narrative based on a picture story, which enables students to practise their past tenses and linking words, there are many ways we can use picture stories to encourage our students to develop their spoken communication skills.
- Rather than writing a narrative, I find that students respond well to telling their stories out loud to others in the class. It is a challenging activity which can be done in pairs or as a group, depending on the size of the group and the personalities of the learners.
- To make the story-telling activity more interactive, those students who are listening make notes and react to the story with appropriate interest, asking questions if and when necessary.
- Instead of just responding to a picture story, students can be fully involved in making it, collecting their own pictures and perhaps then giving them to another group to develop the story. Students can rearrange the pictures to change the sequence of events and make quite a different story. A competition for the best story adds an extra incentive for being creative.
- While one student tells a story orally based on his/her set of pictures, the student or students listening do line-drawings to recreate the pictures their partner has. These can then be compared after the activity and students can check whether they explained and understood correctly.
- What happens next…? This kind of activity can be used as the basis of a class discussion. Once the students' interest has been stimulated by the picture story, they then need to speculate and predict the outcome. This opens up a new collection of tenses and grammatical structures to practise e.g. conditionals and modals verbs, in addition to the typical past tenses.
- Use picture stories not to stimulate a speaking activity about them but as prompts for another type of activity. For example students have to give a presentation (about any subject) and create a picture story to remind them of the main points rather than being dependent on notes which they may be tempted to read.
- Finally, why not let students become directors and act out the picture story they've been studying. If you have the facilities it is great fun to write the scripts and then film the final version.
As they say "a picture speaks a thousand words" and what more could we want from a resource in our English speaking classrooms?
- Pictures really help to reduce preparation time. Sets of pictures can be re-used, especially if you can laminate them, and can be used at any level in classes for kids, teenagers, exam classes and adults following general or business courses.
- When it comes to using picture stories in class, the key point is not to limit yourself to typical class activities and writing exercises. Students need as much spoken English practice as they can get.
Picture stories will help you and your students enjoy more dynamic classes while limiting teacher preparation. It sounds perfect doesn't it? Just try it!
If you have any suggestions or tips for using picture stories in the classroom you would like to share on this site, contact us.
Jennifer Goodman, Oxford TEFL, Barcelona