Using Newspaper Photos as Conversation Prompts

We’re near the end of the six-week summer term, so my co-teacher Margot and I decided to try something a little different. We spent the first hour of class last week on the assigned lesson in the Let’s Talk book. After the students came back from break we put the book aside, divided them into two small groups, and tried to get them really talking.

Even the best ESL textbook creates a somewhat artificial context for communication. The students learn vocabulary and grammar, and practice speaking and writing, but the pictures are often cartoon characters and the situations are contrived. It’s communication, but it’s not real-world communication. How could it be? Textbook content has to be generally relevant to everyone, so it’s specifically relevant to no one. It’s published at a point in time and not updated for years, if ever. It can’t relate to day-to-day events happening in the world, in the local community, or in the students’ lives right now.

A newspaper can. Bringing local newspapers into the classroom makes the instruction instantly relevant and real-world. Students are aware of what’s going on around them, and being able to talk about it in English helps them become active participants in the society.

Most advice about using newspapers in the ESL classroom seems to assume that students will read the articles. At LETC, most of our students don’t yet have that level of English proficiency. But the photos alone provide rich material to get a conversation started.

I tried this last spring right after the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. Before class, I clipped a dozen or so photos of the disaster from the Washington Post and New York Times and brought them in. It was a small class, four or five students, so we formed one conversation group. Each student took a photo and described to the class what seemed to be happening in the picture. The conversation took off from there.

As the vocabulary came tumbling out, I wrote new words on the board: earthquake, tsunami, flood, rubble, nuclear power, radiation, evacuation, rescue, shelter, and so on. They talked about what causes an earthquake and a tsunami, and how a nuclear reactor makes energy. This picture provoked quite a bit of discussion:

An elderly man is rescued after the tsunami in Japan. Photo by Kimimasa Mayama/EPA.

When choosing photos, it’s helpful to look for ones like this that have a strong implied narrative. Something should be happening; there should be a story behind the image. It’s also good if they are large and in color.

So last week we did the same thing, except this time we divided our class of nine into two small groups, each facilitated by a teacher. I like doing conversation in small groups (as opposed to, say, pairs), because the facilitator’s role is so important. Our presence in the circle keeps the conversation in English. We can help the flow of discussion by asking questions, and we can draw out quiet students so they get a chance to speak.

Each group looked at four pictures, spending 10 minutes on each one. I began by passing the photo around and asking the students in my group to guess what might be happening. Since I left the captions attached to the photos, they figured out that they could look there for clues. For example, the caption to this recent photo explained that the people were job seekers at a career fair in Arlington, Virginia, opening the way to a discussion of unemployment and the economy:

Job seekers at a career fair in Arlington, Virginia. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

Perhaps the most thought-provoking image was this one, taken in Haiti eight months after the January 2010 earthquake. The students were clearly troubled by it. All had heard about the earthquake in Haiti, though not all knew the name of the country in English. This photo too generated lots of new vocabulary. Haiti had an earthquake. Displaced people are living in tents. The boy is bathing in contaminated water that can spread diseases like cholera. Haiti had a cholera epidemic.

A boy bathes in a fountain at a displacement camp outside the presidential palace eight months after the earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post.

From a practical point of view, one of the best things about this activity is that it takes very little prep time. All you have to do is clip photos from a newspaper or news magazine, or even print them from the Internet, as long as they’re timely and interesting. Pass them around, sit back, and let the students take it from there.

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2 Responses to Using Newspaper Photos as Conversation Prompts

  1. Dad says:

    Cathy, that was very well done. The idea is a very good one, and you have written it with just the right tone and with all the necessary information. Many years ago, when I was a rising education editor, I was hired by a school district on Long Island to judge 9th graders’ writing. The project employed a variation of the news picture technique. Needless to say, very few of them could write a coherent paragraph, but one of the pictures used was the famous one of the Frenchman crying as the Germans marched into Paris. I think it first appeared in LIFE magazine. I know your students are learning to speak English, not write it, but you might try it sometime on a few of the advanced ones.

  2. Eunice Lee says:

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful idea! I will definitely incorporate it into my first multilevel ESL class of adult learners this fall. :)

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