Picture Description Activities for ESL Students

Instructor: Sarah Mills

Sarah is an educational freelance writer and has taught English and ESL in grades k-12 and college. She has a master's degree in both Literacy and TESOL.

In this lesson, teachers will learn about using picture description activities for English as a Second Language (ESL) students. The lesson will include strategies for implementing these activities into instruction.

ESL Students and Pictures

Teaching ESL students often involves modifying traditional teaching approaches to provide learners with comprehensible input. One approach that helps achieve this is incorporating pictures in the ESL classroom.

Pictures are a great supplement to traditional teaching methods. Most students, regardless of cultural and language barriers, can comprehend a picture. Pictures can help reinforce vocabulary, literacy, reading comprehension and language skills when combined with a writing or speaking activity.

Let's take a look at some specific strategies you can use in your ESL classroom to help students gain English language proficiency.

The Picture - Word Inductive Model

The Picture-Word Inductive Model (PWIM) is great for helping students acquire new vocabulary and practice pronunciation. You will need an image, such as an advertisement from a magazine or something printed off the internet. For example, a picture of a classroom, a pet store or children playing soccer would work. If you want to reuse these images for another class, you might consider laminating them. Now let's look at how the activity works.

Describing the Picture

Show students the picture and ask them to verbally identify what they see in the picture. Students with higher language proficiency might be more vocal during this portion of the activity, and that's perfectly fine. As students call out words, you should label them. For example, in a picture of a classroom, students might identify a clock, flag, globe, chalk board, teacher, students and books.


Next, read and review the words as a class. Have students engage in a sorting activity, making their own note cards and classifying the words into predetermined (for lower proficiency students) or individualized (for higher proficiency students) categories. For example, students might categorize the words into categories such as:

  • Nouns and adjectives
  • People, places and things
  • Living versus non-living things
  • Words I know versus words I don't know
  • Words with 1, 2 or 3 syllables


When the sorting activity has finished, ask students to compose sentences (or paragraphs, for higher proficiency students) about the picture using the vocabulary generated. Some students may need additional support, such as the ability to work with a more fluent partner or the use of sentence frames. For example, you can provide the following frames to students and ask them to copy the sentences onto their own paper and supply one of the vocabulary words in the blanks.

  • The _____ is above the clock.
  • There are many _____ on the book shelf.
  • Some students are _____ at the art center.
  • The door is near the _____.
  • The teacher has _____ hair.

The combination of describing a picture, sorting and writing work together in this activity to help ESL students acquire new vocabulary.

Picture Stories

You can help students advance oral language skills by having them participate in picture stories. Provide pairs of students with wordless picture books or copies of comic strips with the captions deleted. Allow them to make up their own stories and share them with classmates. Some students may need to write their story first.

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