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Activity: Using Picture Prompts in the ESL Classroom

written by: Gillian Hendrie • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 12/9/2013

Encourage your students' love of story-telling or description by giving them a picture as a prompt. Get their creative juices flowing as they consider the "before" and "after" to the picture.

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    Butterfly If a picture paints a thousand words, your students should be able to come up with at least a hundred or so to describe an image. For younger students, choose an image that seems to come from the middle of a story and which contains some people or animals. Older and more advanced students could be given an image of a landscape.

    It is fairly easy to search for images on the Internet to view or download. Links to useful sites are in Resources section below. You could also use clip-art, cartoons, magazine images or even your own photographs. Action shots work well, as do photos of people or animals in unusual positions or with strange expressions on their faces.

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    Ask the students:

    • Who/what is in the picture? (Give the characters names, ages, etc.)
    • Where are they? Have them describe the setting as best they can.
    • What is happening now?
    • What do you think has happened before this point?
    • What do you think will happen next? (Try to elicit more than one outcome.)
    • Will there be a happy ending?

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    As you go through the questions above, list all the vocabulary suggested on the board. Try not to preempt the students: this should come from their reactions and their ideas about the picture, not yours.

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    Depending on your students, have them work either on their own or in pairs to write out the story. It should have a beginning, a middle and an end, as discussed during the question time. Encourage them to make it funny.

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    Resources For Sources of Images

    Enchanted Learning Intended for K to Grade 3 learners, some of the images are too "babyish" for older students. Images are mainly black-and-white. You must be a member to view the full screen printouts ($20 for a single user; $125 for a school subscription for one year).

    101 Picture Prompts to Spark Super Writing! by Karen Kellaher. Available as a paperback on Amazon with photos, artwork and cartoons, this book includes suggestions of how they can be used to prompt story-writing in Grades 3 - 5.

    Story It has some picture prompts for Grades 3 - 6. Some have a beginning already written out for continuation.

    SRI&ETTC This site provides some action photographs - fire, sports, etc. - suitable for middle or high school.

    Bright Ideas provides a photograph with a written prompt. Suitable for middle school.