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Reading Images: Illustration-based language practice

March 25, 2014 by Nóra Wünsch-Nagy

Illustrations in readers are excellent resources for a language teacher. Not only do they support reading comprehension by providing another layer of visual literacy and context, but they also offer great opportunities for vocabulary, grammar, speaking and writing practice. If you approach illustrations with concrete objectives and well-planned activities, you can also help your students improve their critical and creative thinking skills.

We have collected a series of activities and prepared a sample set of activities that you can download in PDF format.

1 Grammar practice

Write sample sentences on the board using one of the tenses, modal verbs or language structures below. With advanced students you can also prepare a set of cards, and give about five cards to each student. Write a sample sentence or a language structure on each card. If you prefer not to label the structure, provide context with an adverb or adverb phrase, for example 'yesterday'. Tell your students to use up all their cards when they are talking about the illustration.

Mystery at the Mill p16
Illustration from Mystery at the Mill by Elspeth Rawstron. Illustration by Nick Tankard. ©Helbling Languages

Illustration from Mystery at the Mill by Elspeth Rawstron. Illustration: Nick Tankard. ©Helbling Languages

Here is a list of structures and functions you can practice:

  1. Past tense
  2. Present perfect - e.g. The girl hasn't eaten her lunch.
  3. Modals 1: possibility and uncertainty - e.g. They might be friends.
  4. Modals 2: impossibility and certainty - e.g. The girl must be angry with the boy.
  5. Modals 3: advice and opinion - e.g. The girls in the background shouldn't be whispering behind the boy and the girl.
  6. Contrast: linking words - e.g.  They seem to be friends, although they are fighting now.
  7. Relative clauses:  - e.g. The girl, who has red hair, hasn't eaten her lunch.
  8. Place and preposition
  9. Giving opinions
  10. Emphasis

2 Speaking practice to improve observation skills

1 Provide key words for picture description.

Write key words either on the board or on cards. Ask your students to use at least 5 of these words to describe the picture. You can pick words you would like to teach or simply practise.

2 Compare selected text from the reader with the illustration.

Choose a short paragraph from the story. This paragraph can either contain the right text to describe the picture or you can choose something very different. Ask your students to read the paragraph and then find similarities or differences with the text.

The Great Gatsby p19
Illustration from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Illustration by Catty Flores. © Helbling Languages

It was a beautiful summer night, and I sat in my garden when I got home. Something in the distance moved and I realised that I wasn’t alone. My neighbour was in his garden too. He was standing with his arms stretching out towards the water. I looked out to sea but I could only see a small green light. Perhaps it was the end of a dock. When I looked back, Mr Gatsby had vanished, and I was alone again in the darkness.

3 Compare two similar images that describe the same story.

This activity might involve some further research. You can use the Internet to look for illustrations of classic tales, then choose two pictures that illustrate the same story. One can be from the reader you are working on, and another can be an illustration from the classic original. Ask your students to compare the two images.

Extension activity: Choose two paintings that describe the same scene from a legend or a myth, and ask your students to create a story to describe the images, or they can simply find differences and similarities to describe them. Then you can share the original story with them.

4 Compare two texts that describe the same illustration.

Hand out the same illustrations to each pair or group of students in your class. Make sure they do not show the illustrations to each other. Ask them to describe the pictures in 5-10 sentences on a piece of paper. There should be 2-4 descriptions for an image. Put the images on the board or your table. Collect the descriptions and read them out. Your students have to find all the descriptions for the same picture, then find differences in the texts.

5 Picture dictation

Choose a paragraph that is easy to illustrate or that is illustrated in the reader. Read it out loud and ask your students to make sketches while you are drawing. Then you can compare their pictures with the illustration n the reader.

3 Visual arts vocabulary to talk about pictures

This activity works well with higher level students, and you can use it as a lesson for integrating Arts and Language Education.

Focus on various aspects of the illustration, and try to understand how the illustrator makes meaning in the picture. Discuss the use of colours, lines, composition, balance,  size, the position of people and the choice of medium.

Download our list of Visual Arts Vocabulary. Practice these terms by pointing them out on illustrations. Ask your students to use at least 5 expressions when they talk about a picture.

 4 Poetry writing activities

1 'A Composition with No Verbs'

On page 91 in our resource book, Creative Writing by Christine Frank and Mario Rinvolucri, there is a fun activity called 'A Composition with No Verbs'. The objective of this activity to describe a place without using any verbs. For example: 'High ceilings, typical of late 19th century. Very quiet. Noise in one place, quiet everywhere else. Lots of space, and cool in summer …'

Ask your students to write a poem without verbs describing the illustration.

2 'List Poems'

Another fun activity in Creative Writing is called 'List Poems'. The objective is to describe something in 12 lines, in the form of a list. Ask your students to describe the illustration in 12 lines. First they can brainstorm some words and ask you for help with words they don't know in English. Then they can organise their collection into a poem.

5 Put yourself in the scene

This is a great activity to describe the place and summarise the plot from personal point of view. Ask your students to imagine that they are part of the illustration. They have to describe what they can see, feel, taste, smell and hear. Then ask them to describe how they got there and what they are doing there. You can also ask them to describe the people they can see around them.

Extension activity*: This can be a fun writing activity. After brainstorming ideas and writing down key words, ask your students to write the story in 6 words to describe how they feel and what they can see in the picture. You can also ask them to imagine that they are one of the characters. Then give them some time to organise their thoughts into a 6-word story.

*This extension activity is inspired by the Art Museum Activities offered by MOMA Learning.


Illustration from The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Illustration by Caterina Baldi © Helbling Languages

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