A PICTURE? What is its value in the EFL classroom? 

By Michelle Caruana-Dingli 



Many justifications for integrating art into the EFL classroom could be offered to the teacher, who might, with good reason, wonder if this joining of two disparate courses of study really yields results. After all, it does seem paradoxical to suggest that a picture of sunflowers could stimulate students to speak and write better English. But it is precisely because art expresses itself in visual images instead of words that it can be an effective counterbalance to the overwhelming dominance of text-based learning. 


Art is a creative and intuitive form of expression, and an interesting picture appeals to the affective domain of the learner, and it can stimulate a great number of interpretations. There is seldom a single correct answer, as is the case in grammar-based lessons. But besides providing the basis of creative writing and speaking through their open-endedness, pictures support language use and communication in another way. They convey information, which can be shared, and they remind the learners of their background knowledge. 


Besides the sound and logical reasons for using art, there is also another benefit, which is that you do not need loads of preparation time. If you are taking over a class from another teacher at a moment’s notice, it is very unlikely that she/he used the same pictures that you have with you, therefore, now you have an interesting, constructive lesson. 


The following are some ideas on how one could use pictures in the classroom, possibly some are a reminder and others hopefully are new: 


1) Bulletin Boards 


Here any theme can be illustrated with a board display. You give the students the responsibility to choose or create pictures, for example places they have enjoyed visiting in Malta, and then they write meaningful captions themselves. Your sole job then is to suggest a theme, which may be related to the work you are carrying on in the classroom. Another activity I have carried out with the students is that they get a personal photo, either themselves or their family. Each student writes a few sentences about the photo, then collect and mix them. Give them out at random and the students have to guess which photos match the caption. Then you mount them on the board. The language aim of this activity is to encourage students to use the present continuous tense along with a variety of prepositions to describe their photo. Their familiarity with the context of the photo enables them to produce a few paragraphs of description with little prompting from the teacher. 


2) Hidden Picture pairs. 


Partners A and B are each given a folder in which is a picture of a person, situation or place. The teacher should have 10 to 15 pictures, and some should be similar to each other to complicate the task. The partners ask each other questions to elicit a description of the pictures. After 8 to 10 minutes of questioning, the teacher collects all the pictures (partners have not seen each other’s) and sets them out along the ledge of the chalkboard. Some extra pictures can be added if appropriate to make the exercise more difficult. Students then proceed to find their partner’s correct choice. It is a good idea to allow each student only a single guess to ensure serious questioning rather than simply relying on the process of elimination. The student who needs the fewest questions could be declared the winner. As a follow-up, the class may discuss what information was most helpful in locating a particular picture. This exercise may be used to reinforce the use of the question words Who, What, Where, When, How many, What kind of and How. Because they cannot see the picture, the students rely on skills of inference and interpretation. They must collect information and draw conclusions 


3) Giving titles to paintings In some course books you find this exercise and I often cannot interpret the actual painting let alone give it a title. The difference being here is that you can choose works of art that you like and therefore they are more likely to be of interest to the students. Bring in several different kinds of paintings, pictures or take them to the Fine Arts museum in Valletta. Try to select paintings which depict fairly accessible scenes. You may tell them the real title after, if you know it, but it is not necessary. This activity does not focus on a specific aspect of grammar, but it stimulates students to synthesize as they struggle to create a title that aptly summarizes the various strands of a painting. 


Other ideas include; Advertising Captions, Memory exercises, Cutting out shapes, Posters and Postcards. 


[This article appeared in theSpring 2000 newsletter]


© Malta Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language