Using Pictures to Promote Language Development

A picture is worth a thousand words, or so the saying goes… but what happens when your students don’t have that many words in their language arsenal? How can pictures be used to support English for Additional Language Learners (EAL)?

It might seem counterintuitive, but using text-driven books can actually reduce a student’s ability to engage in authentic inquiry, to be imaginative and make meaningful connections. Indeed, students can become overwhelmed when confronted with too many words, and while exposure to new vocabulary is an essential part of language learning and language development, pictures can also provide a rich environment for supporting EAL learners through provocations, predictions, inferences and more. 

This term, IEP Class A students are investigating the theme of human migration and the challenges, risks and opportunities that are embedded within. To begin our unit, we are exploring the wordless novel ‘The Paper Boat’ by Thao Lam that recounts the author’s own story of escaping Vietnam after the war in a small fishing boat with her parents. Rather uniquely, Lam draws parallels between her experience as a refugee and that of the ants that are featured on the first page of the novel crawling on a table, strewn with food, war propaganda, money, jewellery and other clues as to what is to come.

I employed two different learning strategies with my students (which can be used during face to face or virtual/hybrid learning) – Harvard’s Project Zero Visible Thinking Strategies and Calhoun’s Picture Word Inductive Model (PWIM). Each method promotes student agency even with teacher modelling or teacher led questioning. For example, we began the class by creating a mindmap (of sorts) about what we already knew about the word ‘migration’. 

We then started to make connections to other words/meanings/contexts and through questioning arrived at the idea that people migrate for many different reasons. Students gravitated towards positive reasons why people migrate (opportunity) based on their own lived experiences and I didn’t want to give anything away (challenges), so we then dove straight into ‘The Paper Boat’ and took some quiet time to look and share our thoughts. 

What I noticed was that all students, no matter their level of English, were able to make meaningful contributions to class discussions, be it through circling parts of the pictures or writing their thoughts down and sharing with the class. I will continue to document our learning journey and collate our thoughts onto a class Padlet that we can use to reflect back on throughout the unit of inquiry. 

In summary, there are many ways that you can use pictures or photographs to meet students’ needs and learning outcomes. There is a misconception that pictures are only for early years or primary students, but that is not the case; all students can benefit from this approach and gain valuable insights across all content areas. Pictures are not only engaging and thought provoking, but they help make difficult concepts accessible to all students. There is no right or wrong way, so long as you are using the pictures to develop language in all of the domains: listening, speaking, reading and writing!



Cara Templeton,

Head of the Intensive English Programme

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