Images in Language Teaching

Images – as visual aids- have long played an important role in language teaching. “It would be hard to imagine a language-teaching context without the presence of flashcards, wallcharts, coursebook images, downloaded photos, time lines, board drawings, learner-produced art-work, and so on” (Goldstein 2008:1). The reason why images have become an indispensable part of language teaching could be the benefits that they offer both learners and teachers. Some of them are as follows.

 Images can

  •  be used at all levels.
  •  introduce ‘outside world’ artefacts into class.
  • provide prompts for language production (e.g describe and draw).
  • make linguistic concepts easier to grasp.
  • act as speech cues in exams.
  • play a part in many classroom activities, e.g information gap tasks, etc.

ELT teachers should use images actively in class to

  • stimulate language use
  • illustrate language
  • engage students on an imaginative-level
  • reflect our world’s ever-increasing dependence on the visual image
  • develop visual literacy.

According to Goldstein, we can also look from the frame and

  • explore the cultural significance of images and related social issues.
  • consider images as communicating open-ended messages (rather than taking them at face value).
  • analyse the formal composition of images and their relationship to text (multimodality).
  • develop learner’s skills in interpreting images and creating their own.

The role of images in ELT  & some classroom activities

A image can be used as a decoration, visual aid,  complement to text, subject  for analysis, signs,symbols or icons and a form of subversion. We can use images with different activities like describing images, interpreting images etc… The images below (illustrations and signs) are  taken from the book “Working with Images” by Ben Goldstein.


Different activities can be done through images. I want to share some practical ideas that can be applied in a language classroom. With this image, Goldstein suggested an activity that aims to practise various lexical fields: materials,function etc. Adverbs: sometimes,often,usually, etc. and their position in the sentence. In this activity, students create a mental image of an object, describing it in the first person to others who have to guess what it is. The activity is called I am… and this personification of objects is something students enjoy because it allows them to conjure up a number of different and unexpected images. Teachers can prepare their own flashcards based on lexical sets they want to revise, e.g. furniture, animals, buildings, food, everyday objects etc. To make the activity more clear, the teacher may read the text below as an example and ask students listen and guess the object.

I’m sometimes made of plastic. I’m usually round. I have many different shapes. But I’m often quite small. I have numbers. I often sit next to bed. You usually use me during the week. You need me but you don’t like me.  Answer: Alarm clock


The picture above includes different signs which can be used as an ELT material, as well. Goldstein suggests another activity by using these different signs. The main focus of the activity is to teach  functional language in sign language and different registers (formal/informal). The activity is simple but seems engaging. First, distribute different signs to the students in pairs or small groups and make sure that they know the following different sign types: ‘warning’, ‘security’, ‘advertising’, ‘request’, ‘road safety’, and their concepts and present the class with the following questions:

– What kind of sign is each and where would you find it?

– How could you communicate the message of each in one simple sentence? e.g. Sign 1: Don’t even think of parking here –  It is illegal to park here.

As a second activity, students choose adjectives from the list (polite, threatening, humorous, insistent, friendly, official) and identify the style of each sign. Activities can be expanded. These questions can also be addressed to students.

In what ways are these signs unconventional or original?

What would a conventional equivalent look like, in each case?

Why could signs C and E be considered the odd ones out?

As it is clear from the examples, images can be used at all levels. The first exercise can be  done in elementary or pre-intermediate classes whereas in the second one the target level could be intermediate, upper-intermediate or advanced. I think the best thing about images is you don’t need any other materials, just an  appropriate image. If you still haven’t tried teaching only with  images , why don’t you leave all the materials aside for a day and listen to them in the class as the expression says  ‘Images Speak Louder than Words’.


Goldstein, B. (2008) Working with Images: A Resource Book for the Language Classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



Filed under Materials

2 responses to “Images in Language Teaching

  1. Hi, Esin.
    I agree with you that we can use images for activities in classes, just choose the right one. 😉 Based on my teaching experience, this worked very well with students, especially children or beginner level. I used a lot of simple images. I think this is easy way that students can learn language because when they see, they know and they remember.

    • Esin

      Hi, Pat. Using images is really advantageous as they can be used at all levels. I completely agree with you images increase learners’ retention as you said ‘when they see, know and remember’. Thus, they help to build learners’ memory skills. They also aid comprehension and help teachers to express themselves more precisely.

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