“Describe the pictures”: phenomenal teaching ideas for the B2 test and beyond

“In this part of the test, I am going to show you two photographs. I would like you to talk about them for about a minute and also answer a question about your partner’s photographs”. No matter which official B2 exam your students are taking, they are likely going to come across a task like this.
Happy-Girl--300px

If we refer to the GSE, students at this stage “can describe objects, possessions and products in detail, including their characteristics and special features” (59) and “justify and sustain views clearly by providing relevant explanations and arguments” (60). So if they are at the right level there is no need to press the panic button: your students are ready to do this.

Nowadays pictures are everywhere.  Media is visually-oriented and anyone can take a picture with their mobile device. People share their personal pictures and selfies, comics, movie covers, their kids’ drawings, screenshots, etc. So the task of “describing pictures” is real, related to the students’ world and, consequently, it should be seen as something natural.

How can you make the best use of pictures in your classes while preparing your students for that speaking section on the B2 test? Let’s look at five effective ideas to boost your teenage and adult students’ speaking skills around pictures (using language of description and domain-specific vocabulary, comparing and contrasting, commenting upon a topic and expressing ideas coherently).

ACTIVITIES

The following activities can be done as 5-minute warm-up or end-of-the-day exercises. However, some activities require a bit more preparation. I’m sure you will find these motivating, engaging and accessible tasks.

1. The chatterbox. Bring some pictures to class (or use any from your picture file, today’s news, etc.) and get students in groups of 3 or 4. One person will be the chatterbox, speaking for 1 minute. The rest of the people in the group will have to agree on a question related to the picture that they want the first student to answer. The students who are not speaking will have to 1) time their partner 2) note down relevant language structures or vocabulary used and 3) give feedback.

Tip: If possible, bring two pictures that are linked somehow (same topic) so that students can compare/contrast. If you don’t have time to prepare the pictures, send your students to the pictures from any exam-preparation coursebooks. It’s also a good idea if they have previously encountered the types of questions asked on the exam, as it will get them “in the head of the examiner.”

2. My life in a month. Before the start of a new month, tell your students that they will need to take a picture of something important to them each day of the month (objects, people, actions, etc.). It could be a hug from their kids / friends, a sport they practice, etc. Since these are personal pictures, there will always be a story behind them and probably an emotion. Students should also add one word or short sentence that describes the picture or the feeling of that moment. Create a template of a calendar where students can upload their pictures each day. When the month is over, students compare their calendars. Are there any similar pictures? Do they have something in common? Why are they different? Why did they take those pictures? What do you think your partner’s photographs represent?

Tip: It’s important that the students are creative and find different activities / actions / people / objects for each day. This way, the variety of topics the students will end up having will develop more vocabulary around different themes and give them more rounded practice overall.

3. Everything you wanted to know about…. Students bring one picture that represents an activity they’ve mastered or a talent they have (e.g., cooking, skiing, speaking several languages, making fast calculations, etc.). In pairs, they show the pictures to each other and, individually, they prepare 15 questions to ask their partner about that activity / talent. Then they interview each other. This exercise can be done several times on different days, by simply swapping pairs.

Tip: The more questions the students write, the more vocabulary and topics can be developed around one picture. Once the students have asked the typical questions (Where did you learn to do that? How often do you do it?), they will have to be creative to find more questions to ask and, therefore, answers will also be more sophisticated.

4. In your own words. Use Fotobabble, a very simple online tool to add a voice to a picture. Share two pictures on the same topic with your students. They sign in to their Fotobabble accounts and add a voice description comparing both photographs. The tool allows you to speak for just one minute, so it is perfect to make students aware of using time effectively and organizing their ideas. Then, students share their recording with 5 more classmates. These students will listen to it, leave a comment and vote for the best description (explaining why). Listen to the best picture description in class and then ask a topic-related question so that the students discuss it in pairs and give their opinions.

Tip: Have Adobe Flash Player updated to use Fotobabble (App also available for iOs). When you upload two pictures, you first need to make a collage (you can use any photo editor or even Instagram to do this). Share two different pictures for every 5 students so that there is variety. You can do this activity at the end of every unit, to review a specific topic. And remember you can always ask your students to find the pictures!

Alternative: the advanced snipping tool from Windows also allows you to add audio. Great to capture video stills, for instance.

5. The Test Critic: Students analyze other people taking any B2 speaking test in which they have to describe pictures.

What do the candidates say about the pictures? What language do they use to compare? And to give opinions? Is there any vocabulary or piece of language that you could use with any kind of photograph? What does candidate B say when he’s asked a question about A’s picture? Is it enough? What would you have said? Are the candidates spontaneous? Do they hesitate? Is there anything you would have said that they didn’t? Are there any unnecessary details?

This task is effective to prepare the students for the B2 speaking test. Criticizing and analyzing require deeper cognitive skills that will help students remember what to do and what not in this part of the exam.

Tip: Search online to find video examples. Then students can record themselves doing the same task and comparing it to the example they analyzed for self-evaluation.

Conclusion and Further Comments

  • Have a picture file folder created in your computer that you can easily share with your students and where they can also upload pictures (Google +, Edmodo, for instance) and make it private.
  • Work with pictures in class regularly and always provide a model for what your students need to do.
  • An image always tells a story. You can get ideas for topics from Gold or Expert exam preparation coursebooks (see contents page).
  • Working with images in ELT is cross-curricular and it can be linked to other subjects: history of art, history, language (semiotics), etc.
  • Add variety: use images, photographs, drawings, paintings, (newspaper / magazine) illustrations, cartoons, collages, etc.
  • If you are using any pictures which were not taken by you or your students, be aware of copyright. ELTpics is one of the best places where you can take pictures from without any legal issues. Pictures are divided in topics, so it’s easy to select a couple of images that represent a same topic. The image in this blog post was taken from Openclipart, another open resource.

Do you know any teachers who are great at working creatively with images in their classes? Enter now or nominate a colleague for the Pearson ELT Teacher Award. They can win an all-expense paid trip to IATEFL or TESOL.

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About Elena Merino

Teacher Trainer for Pearson. I lived 1 year in Ireland and 3 years in the USA, where I fell in love with the English language. I've worked as a teacher for twelve years in different contexts and with different age groups. PhD in Communication and Multilingual Education, I'm concerned about meaningful real-world tasks that get students to communicate, in other words, how can teachers facilitate learning and engage students in the English classroom?

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