There seems to be a growing interest in images in coursebooks. Several sessions at the IATEFL conference in Manchester focused on this topic.
I attended two:
- Maximising the image in materials design by Ben Goldstein and Ceri Jones (MAWSIG PCE Day)
- Can a picture tell a thousand words? by Hugh Dellar
The main message for me in both sessions was that in the past images in coursebooks were mostly used for decorative purposes, but today, they are often more central to the unit (Ben and Ceri), in fact, sometimes even the driving force for a whole page or eve double page (Hugh Dellar). Having trained as a photographer and having worked with images a lot, I was happy to hear this.
Hugh Dellar listed the following functions that images can have in coursebook:
- to illustrate the meaning of lexis > limited, often nouns and actions BUT these are often not problematic to sts, – these don’t help sts speak
- to test sts have remembered lexis
- to serve as decoration
- to act as prompts for grammar drills / practice > peculiar use of English (he is cooking)
- to check receptive understanding
- to set the scene for role plays
- to generate language and ideas
- to generate discussion, opinions, stories, etc
He suggested that the last three are the more interesting uses.
I would say that all uses, including decorative uses of images are good if the images are chosen well and don’t confuse the learners. But I agree that images can and should sometimes have a more central role.
Due to my personal interest in images, I have often based a whole lesson around them, sometimes around a single image. Not only do learners often feel engaged by images if they are well-chosen and meaningful, but as their isn’t much or any text, a lot of language emerges from the learners.
I’d like to give one example of an image and how I used it for a lesson. This is just one example, and in this case, it was I who chose the image as I felt strongly about it. However, I also knew my students and their interests well and knew they would have a lot to say about the image. Of course, learners can be asked to bring their own images to the class and possibly even create their own questions and task around them, or simply talk about them.
In this case, the image was that of a new church that was being built in my city then, but not many people knew about it yet, and this was crucial as otherwise the activities I had planned wouldn’t have worked. It’s also important that it has got some relevance to the students. In this case it was an image of a local building in a newly developed area. Also crucial when choosing an image is that it shows something controversial or something that would trigger highly emotional reactions. The architecture of the church was extremely unusual and it was planned as an ecumenical church, another hot topic for many.
Here are two images of the church — the one I used was black&white and there was no green park and no glass windows.
I had several students who were taking general speaking classes and liked talking about different topics of interest. I don’t remember the complete lesson plan, but I started by showing the students the image which I had cut out from a local newspaper and asking the students questions about the building:
- What kind of building do you think is this? (Answers varied from museum to prison to bunker; none said church).
- When do you think was it build?
- Where do you think is it located?
- Which adjectives would you use to describe it?
- How does it make you feel?
Once they new what it was, I had prepared more questions:
- Do you think it was designed by a male or female architect? Why
- Would you want to visit / attend mass in this church? Why/Why not?
- If you had the chance to talk to the architect, what would you tell them?
- What would you change about the church so you’d like it more?
I had more questions ready which gave the students the opportunity to produce and practice different grammar, vocabulary and skills.However, I didn’t always go through my list of questions with the students. Sometimes, they wanted to talk more about one question or aspect of the church or the controversy, etc. A student who was a regular worshipper was interested in different questions or aspect than one who was more interested in architecture, for example. Sometimes, a student would take over and make it completely their own lesson, talking about things I hadn’t thought about.
I used the image mainly in general English speaking lessons, but it can easily be used for practising other skills. The students could, for example, be asked to write a letter to the mayor, the architect, or the newspaper to state their opinion, etc.It could also be used in ESP classes with a different set of questions.
The lessons with this particular image were always interesting for the students and for me; the discussions were never the same and I always learned something new from my students too.
This is only one example of a lesson based around an image. It could have been done entirely differently. What also works well is image comparisons with multiple images. Another “classic” image activity: The teacher brings some personal images and tells stories about them; then, the students are asked to do the same in the next lesson. I’m sure you know many more. I’d be happy to hear about your favourite image activity.
Can such lessons flop? They certainly can. There’s a lot that can go wrong when images are used, which might be worth another blog post…