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Feb 2019 - Year 21 - Issue 1

ISSN 1755-9715

Using Pictures and Stories in the EFL Classroom

Karen Saxby began her TEFL career as a teacher also becoming the director of her own EFL summer school. This was after Karen worked as a graphic artist in Switzerland for eight years. For almost 30 years, Karen has written many of the Cambridge Assessment exams. She is also a published author (CUP and OUP) of Young Learners teaching material. Karen particularly loves creating material for use in the YLE classroom. You can find several downloadable activities on her website, email:



I have travelled to many countries to present my ideas about incorporating more creative and communicative activities into tradition teaching methodology. I think it is very important indeed to encourage, enthuse and empower young learners of English. This seems to be a sure way to boost learners’ intrinsic motivation to learn and USE their developing language skills.

You will see from the website that I particularly like using pictures and stories when teaching this age group (6-11 year olds). Young learners are hard-wired to enjoy looking at pictures and, with a bit of practice, any teacher can use any picture to activate all kinds of creative work. I will give you some ideas for the picture included here. I will list these according to level (Starters pre-A1, Movers A1 and Flyers A2).

Young learners are also hard-wired to enjoy listening or reading a good story. They automatically want to know what happens next and, if the story manages to trigger an emotional response, e.g. worry, fear, joy, then research shows that the processing of language is very different from learning a list of vocabulary and practising new grammatical structures.

Language learnt through doing picture work and story work seems to be more meaningful and memorable. Activities that are fun, creative and communicative and allow for learners to contribute their own ideas can really help students to learn faster and better. If you sign up to the website, you will find short stories and picture work activities as well as test preparation ideas, poems with actions, tips for learning new words, and games and ‘make it’ activities, too. A student’s well-being depends on their being able to use their arms, hands, legs and feet not only their brains!

I fully understand that allowing a class more student talking time and pair and group work can be scary for some teachers so I suggest beginning with short creative ‘out-takes’ from your usual lesson format (maybe just five minutes long). This allows you AND your students to get used to the change in interaction patterns. But only YOU know what is best for your class, so go with your instincts as well.

Why is it important to bring more creative work to our language lessons?

Well, it is crucial that we keep our young learners’ imaginations alive and well. In the future, they will be competing with robots and other forms of artificial intelligence for so many jobs. It is thought that a huge percentage of traditional jobs will disappear over the next twenty years. We have no idea, do we, of what ‘work’ in the world will look like by then? Only five years ago, the word ‘tablet’ meant a pill you took when you were feeling unwell. To most people, ‘Amazon’ was the name of the river in South America. Maybe we will all be ‘wearing’ L2, L3 and L4 language microchips in ten years time. Who knows!!!!????

But what robots and most intelligent technology isn’t good at (yet?) is to be imaginative or ‘human’ in the sense that we humans CAN listen to others and use our critical thinking to decide how to deal with any problems we meet. We CAN communicate ideas and opinions and we CAN create new ways of doing things and work well in a team.  

Educators are realising that imaginative thought and soft skills are going to be more important in many ways than tradition ‘knowledge’ in the future. Google has all the information we will ever need! So, although we are teaching our young learners English, it is just as important to be helping them to learn how to use the language skills: to THINK, to REASON and to COMMUNICATE. So they are going to need lots of opportunities to use their imaginations to develop creative ideas and then to share those ideas with others in order to develop plans and innovate systems, product development, IT, services of all kinds, etc.

So, what does all this mean for us as educators of young learners?

I suggest that it means that your job as a teacher is REALLY important. But perhaps your role is not only to teach vocabulary and grammar and give lots of test preparation practice in your lessons. Just as, in first language acquisition, little children learn language incredibly easily and quickly through communicative need and creative play, we should consider that carefully when we prepare our L2 lessons.

By stimulating our young learners’ creativity and allowing them to share ideas and opinions in class, our students will be learning to use their English to develop not only their chances of gaining better grades but also their ‘people’ skills. This can naturally be very motivating. There will be a clear PURPOSE to the lesson. That should lead to more engagement and enthusiasm, not only regarding your young learners, but also, I am told, regarding your role as their teacher.

Check out a few fun ways you might use this picture in short creative activities and then develop your own! Please remember, that having fun with language is also helping your young learners to prepare for their reading, writing, listening and speaking tests! Your young learners might not realise that. They will be too busy having fun and their brains will be too busy logging new language!


Picture work

Ideas for use in the classroom

Seven ideas for Starters (pre-A1)

  • Pairs choose 4 things in the picture to draw lines to, then write This is a / These are. Pairs swap pictures and complete sentences. Answers are checked by the first pair.
  • Write 12 riddles on the board: You sleep in me. You sit on me. You play games on me. You put your things in me. You can make friends with me. You can throw / open / wear / eat / stand on / play with / listen to me. Pairs race to write the answers. 
  • Pairs choose 5 things to colour with their own choice of colours. They show their pictures and say In our picture (e.g.) the fish are orange. The alien is blue. etc. 
  • Say Tell me more about the robot. (e.g. 5 can do’s, 5 can’t do’s) Learners invent their answers in pairs or groups. Say Tell me more about the teddy bear / the girl, too.  (e.g. name, age, likes doing / eating, favourite colour etc.)
  • Learners draw a box in the picture. They choose where. Then ask learners What’s in your box / that cupboard? What’s under the girl’s bed? Pairs invent answers. Help with vocabulary and ideas if necessary.
  • Pairs choose 6 questions to ask the alien and its 6 answers. Role play the Q/As.
  • Ask What are the alien, mouse and robot saying? Pairs make, write and stick 3 speech bubbles to add to the picture.


Seven ideas for Movers (A1)

  • Review / teach (Movers vocabulary) mountain, comic, moon and (Flyers vocabulary), Earth, calendar, cushion.  Groups write 6 sentences. These can be long or short. Each must include at least one of these words.
  • Learners draw, then write and then cut out thought bubbles and glue them onto the picture to show what the alien, the robot, the fish and the girl are thinking e.g. ‘I’d like some cheese because I’m hungry!’ Celebrate the difference between answers. Learners become the authors so every idea deserves respect. Ideas can be funny or silly too. In this activity, they don’t have to be serious or predictable.
  • Review / teach Movers prepositions: opposite, out of, above, below, by. Pairs write 4 ‘I am here’ sentences, eg. I am next to the fish bowl. I am above the computer. Pairs take turns to read out their sentences / guess answers.
  • Give colouring instructions for e.g. the stars on the bed, the bigger fish, the pencils on the floor, the CD that’s in front of, not next to, the radio, the hand that’s above the robot’s head, not below it. If time allows, let learners colour other parts of the picture with their own choice of colours, too. Ask different learners to tell the rest of the class about one thing they coloured, which colour they chose and perhaps why.
  • Learners complete the girl’s sentences with invented details, e.g. I’m really good at… I often go to… My favourite day is… because…  My favourite hobby is…  I don’t like… .
  • In groups of 3, learners imagine and then write a 6 / 9 line conversation that they are having with the robot and the girl in this room. They then role play it in open class.
  • Pairs write a three or four sentence story called ‘My day with an alien.’ Help by brainstorming some vocabulary at first. Focus on the imaginative work rather than accuracy. Use a later lesson to correct important mistakes in open class. Don’t single out the student or group that made the mistake.


Seven ideas for Flyers (A2)

  • Review / teach instrument. Pairs list instruments they know and find 5 more in a dictionary (YLE vocab: guitar, piano, drum, violin). In open class, ask Which is the most difficult to play / makes the most beautiful sounds / which is the heaviest / smallest? Encourage differences of opinion.
  • Write instrument on the board. How many other words (3 letters or more) can learners find in that word (sun, ten, time, run, net, must etc.) You could make this a speed work competition.
  • Pairs invent a sentence (perhaps 5-8 words) in the alien’s language. They use mime and gestures and say this in open class. Others try to guess what it means!
  • Pointing to the poster, ask Do you have a favourite rock/pop band? Learners write a text/diary page about an imagined day they went to their concert (30-40 words). Help by brainstorming useful vocabulary first.
  • Review / teach calendar and the months of the year and their numbers of days. Learners find or draw a picture and make a calendar page for the next month.  
  • Say, I travel through space really fast. What am I? (a spaceship) Show learners that this word is space + ship. Groups design and draw their own spaceship poster.
  • In pairs, learners complete three sentences: I can see…. . I think…. . What/Where/Will/Who ……. ?

e.g I can see a spaceship in the sky. I think it came from another planet. Will the alien open the window and ask the girl for some water? Pairs share their three sentences with the rest of the class.


Please check the Creative Methodology for the Classroom course at Pilgrims website.

Please check the Methodology and Language for Kindergarten course at Pilgrims website.

Please check the Methodology and Language for Primary course at Pilgrims website.

Tagged  Lesson Ideas 
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