How far would a conversation class go if the only discussion prompt was a single photo? No topic, no questions, no pre-determined outcome. Just the picture. Does it even make sense? This post describes how I decided to find answers to these questions.
Teaching a number of advanced (B2 and above, groups and individuals) students I have come to a conclusion that trying to ignite a discussion by simply announcing the topic (Fashion!) and distributing the list with questions (Is fashion important to you?) for the class to talk about is not the best approach. First of all, it is painfully predictable. It has been done too many times, especially with advanced learners who have probably been attending different courses for several years, to create any interest among students. Forced conversations, artificial setup…is anybody taking anything away from this class?
Trying to polarise the group by introducing a controversial topic (capital punishment, corporal punishment, race, religion, euthanasia etc.) has a lot of limitations. It might not work with every group/student and we might end up alienating somebody, or worse, offending somebody. On top of that, I have found students uncomfortable expressing their views on controversial topics and if they share their thoughts, they are usually politically correct and everybody tends to agree with everybody on what is culturally accepted. There is no discussion at all. Just a lingering feeling of discomfort.
At some point, I decided to let go of preparing conversation classes in the sense of searching for the topic, questions or possible language points that could be covered. I decided to let the visuals and my students take care of that. The Internet is full of images which I could easily imagine myself discussing (or have actually discussed) with my friends. Isn’t this what happens in real life? You see something and then share your opinion with other people? I was curious whether my students would find these images equally compelling and thought-provoking. The first ever image I chose for my students to talk about was this one:
Photographer: Jasper Juinen
I showed it to my students, asked what was in it, and waited. Their initial amusement quickly turned into:
b) even bigger amusement
c) doubt whether the photo hadn’t been doctored
I was excited to see so many different reactions to the same picture (I still count amusement as a reaction!). After my reassurance that the photo was a real deal, the discussion started and covered a variety of topics:
- being a football fan vs a football fanatic
- something as positive as sport releasing so much hatred and anger
- taking children to sporting events and introducing them to fandom culture
- children taking the cue from their parents and their environment
- anger management
- Where is this boy now?
My role in this discussion was quite limited; other than supplying some extra vocabulary and occasionally keeping order, I just listened and observed, quite delighted the photo I chose did the trick: it gave my students so much to talk about. We discussed several grammar issues at the end of the lesson.
I shared the story with a colleague after the class and she was a bit surprised how random this discussion was. At first I thought: “Well, she is right. If I had to fill in a lesson plan form and state the topic of this class, I’d have to write Discussing different things which probably sounds pretty vague. Am I being a lazy teacher?!”
I thought about the class on my way home and I realised I actually achieved a number of goals one would set for their conversation class:
- my students ALL participated in the discussion. They didn’t all participate to the same extent, but there wasn’t anybody sitting there on their phone!
- I watched my students utilise a range of grammar and vocabulary to express their opinions about something they cared about at the moment;
- I watched my students learn and use new vocabulary in context which naturally came up during the lesson;
- I watched my students engaged and interested in the course of the discussion which they themselves moderated and developed;
This photo entered a steady rotation of my speaking prompts for conversation and regular classes for advanced students.
It was soon followed by this one:
Possible discussion topics include:
- to what extent can humans domesticate animals
- pets as family members: thoughts
- growing up with a pet and its influence on our sensitivity
Then there was this photo (generated a discussion about vanity; trends; the meaning of style; what do clothes reflect about people who wear them, if anything; is there such a thing as inappropriately dressed child? ) at which point I realised I was focusing on babies way too much 🙂 Luckily, my students caught the bug of searching for discussion-worthy photos around the web and I soon had a growing image library to be used and reused with different groups.
Each time, the discussion went differently, not every image proved equally effective, and it was often hard to predict how the class would go, but I have genuinely enjoyed most of these classes. I was happy to see my students take the class into their own hands and use their English in a discussion emerging in a natural, spontaneous, and not very controlled way. Pretty much like it would in real life.
Here are some examples of images I have used with my students (found by them)
- the room full of animal heads
- longboard stroller
- misspelled tattoos
- the world’s first underwater hotel
- city landscape
- conceptual art in the form of a rubber duck
- robot restaurant
- beauty treatment
Take a look at more ideas about using visuals with students here.