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Tech Tools for Teachers: Digital Images

Type: Article, General lesson plan Video material Print material

Nik Peachey explores the world of digital images and how they can bring life into the classroom and be used to create motivating language-learning activities. Nik provides a comprehensive overview article on the use of digital images, including a list of tools for exploiting digital images like Flickr and Bookr, a downloadable lesson plan, a video screencast tutorial and a printable how-to guide.

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In this how-to video, Nik Peachey shows you how to create digital photobooks using the web-based tool, Bookr.

Exploiting digital images

It’s a common cross-cultural expression that a picture is worth a thousand words so, as teachers dealing in the business of words, images can be of enormous use to us. In this article, we look at the use of digital cameras, camera phones and digital images to see how they can be combined with the use of web-based tools to produce motivating language-learning activities for our students. All downloadables relating to this article can be found in the ‘Related files’ section on the top right-hand side of this page.

What’s special about digital images?

  • One of the wonderful things about digital images is that they are so instant. You can take a picture and start using it on your computer, mobile phone or in your classroom within seconds.
  • Pictures can stimulate a very personal response and are easy for students to identify with.
  • Digital images are easy to share in multiple ways on the internet and can be combined into all kinds of social-networking activities and digital projects.
  • With the huge growth in the number of students who now have mobile phones with built-in cameras, we have a marvelous opportunity to get students using these to help support language learning.
  • There are huge resource banks of digital images freely available to use online and we can get these into our classroom in seconds.

Equipment needed:

  • To create your own digital images, you will need a digital camera. This could be a proper camera, or one that is on a phone or webcam on your computer. If you don’t have a digital camera, it would be a very good thing to buy. Digital cameras have never been cheaper and there are many ways you can use them in the classroom to create personalized learning for your students.
  • If you don’t have a camera, don’t worry – there are literally millions of free images online that you can use for educational purposes under a Creative Commons licence. This means that the owner of the pictures gets to keep their copyright but you can copy and distribute their work, provided you give them credit.

Why are digital images useful for language teaching?

  • Images have the ability to instantly convey information that is language-independent and are therefore very effective for conveying meaning.
  • Images can instantly establish contexts which we can then relate back to language.
  • Images are one of man’s earliest forms of communication and were being used to convey meaning long before the human race developed writing – so they already form part of our natural L1 literacy.
  • Images can be very stimulating, especially for visually-orientated learners, and can help students to understand and remember language through association.
  • Images can be rich in cultural information and can therefore help students to develop greater cross-cultural awareness.

Tips for using digital images

  • Although there are huge resource banks of online images that you can use freely, it’s also good to have your own collections of images, particularly if you work with younger learners, so that you can restrict the images that your students access. Flickr, mentioned in the ‘Tools for exploiting digital images’ below, is one of the best places to store your collections.
  • When you upload images to Flickr, or to any other web-based service, be sure to add descriptive tags. ‘Tags’ are key words that search engines use to identify the content of the image and they will help you (and other people) to find and reuse your images.
  • Most image-sharing websites, like Flickr, give you the choice to keep full rights and ownership of your images, or to share them under various licences. Publishing your images under a Creative Commons licence will enable other people to use them for non-commercial projects and will also help you to use the images with other web-based applications.
  • If you are using images of your students, particularly younger students, be sure to always put their safety first. Make sure they know not to publish any location-specific information about themselves or contact details on any website that is open to the public.
  • Get permission from your school and from parents if you intend to publish any images of your students online.
  • If you use sites or applications that access pictures that aren’t your own, be sure to check them first to see if they are culturally and age appropriate for the students. It’s very easy to innocently find inappropriate content that you might not want to expose your students to.

Teaching suggestions and activities

Illustrate poems or text

As a way to follow up reading activities with poems or short texts, you can ask students to find or create a number of images that will help them to remember what the text was about. Once they have collected these, you can ask them to write a short summary of the text or say how each image reminds them of the text or poem. They could also write their own text or poem and use a web-based tool like Bookr to illustrate it. See the Creating an illustrated poem lesson plan which accompanies this article at the link at the top right-hand side of this page.

Human dictionary

As your students learn new vocabulary words in class, assign each word to a student, ask them to hold up a piece of paper with the word on and take a head-and-shoulders picture of them holding the word. Tell the student that he or she is now responsible for making sure that all the other students in the class know and remember that word. Put the pictures of the students with the words in a special ‘dictionary corner’ in your classroom. Do regular vocabulary revision activities with your students. These could be getting students to test each other on the words they are responsible for, or having cross-teaching sessions where students teach their words to others in groups. You can also do things like creating gapped sentences and seeing if students can guess who owns the word that goes in the gap, etc.

Picture tours

Ask your students to use a camera or camera phone to take five pictures of their journey to class. Then get the students to show others the images and describe their journey. This can be very effective for practising directions. An alternative to this is to get your students to take pictures of their five favourite places in their town. They can bring these into class and tell other students about them and then upload them to a blog or add them to a Word document and write about why they like them.

Picture journals

You can ask your students to take one picture each day and write about it (this doesn’t have to be a long writing assignment, it can be as short as one or two sentences) and they can post it on a blog and respond to each other’s picture posts. There is a nice social website called ShutterCal, mentioned in the ‘Tools for exploiting digital images’ section below, which students can use to make their images into a calendar of their life.

Picture stories

Put students in groups and tell them they are all characters in a soap opera. Get them to brainstorm what their relationships are and what the main plot of the soap opera is. Then ask them to pose for some scenes from the soap opera and one student can take a photograph of each scene using a camera or camera phone. The students can then add the photos to a blog or document and write about what is happening in each scene. The groups of students can then read each other’s soap operas and leave suggestions on the blog or document for what they think should or will happen next. This activity can become a project, with students updating their soap opera each week or month.

Picture deductions

Find a collection of images of rooms from people’s houses (a quick search on Flickr or Flickriver should help with this). Show the students the images and ask them to try to imagine the person or people who live in the room. See if they can make deductions based on what they can see and get them to build up a character profile. You could do one together first as model. Then show your students a collection of images of people and ask them to try to guess which of the people belong in each room (these don’t have to be the actual people from the rooms, the important thing is that they make reasonable deduction and explain their rationale). You could follow this up by getting your students to take a picture of their room and bring it to class (or email it to you). You can put the images around the class and then ask the students to try to guess which student each room belongs to.

Exploring lexical fields

Get students to type a key word or topic, such as sport or politics, into an image search engine. Then ask them to explain the relevance of the images they see to the main topic word. Image search engines rely on tagging (key words stored with the images), so the students can find a wide variety of images related to each word which can help them to think about the semantic connections and build up lexis related to the topic.

Tools for exploiting digital images

Bookr –

Bookr is a very useful tool which matches images to text or key words in order to create your own digital photobooks. You can search through images on Bookr, or link Bookr to your Flickr account to use your own images.

You can download a onestopenglish video screencast tutorial on using Bookr and a printable how-to guide at the links at the top right-hand side of this page.

Flickr –

Flickr is an online photo management and sharing website and it’s one of the best places to store your collections. It gives you plenty of space for free and also connects to so many other useful services that can help you to get the best from your images.

Flickriver –

This is a free site which searches through Flickr images and shows them as a continuous stream as you scroll down the page. You can keep scrolling through thousands of images. The images are shown against a black background and can be magnified to larger sizes. This is very effective for displaying images in the classroom using a computer and data projector. Here is an example of a ‘river of images’ based on the key word technology

Shahi –

This is a web-based dictionary which combines content from the user-created Wiktionary website with images from Flickr. Each word you search for shows images and definitions, and key words within the definition are linked so you can use the site to explore lexical relationships of words and build up lexical sets with related images.

iPiccy –

This is a free online image editor. It allows you to upload and edit your own images without downloading any software. The site offers quite a sophisticated range of functions, from the easy cropping of images and colour changes to more dramatic effects.

Tag Galaxy –

This is another free site that searches through Twitter images. It allows you to combine related search words and displays the images as an attractive 3D globe. Once the images appear on the globe, you can spin it and then double click on an image to show it to the class and find out more information about it.

Phrasr –

This website enables you to create slideshows of sentences. You simply type in the sentence and then pick an image to represent each word. When you’re finished, you can publish the sequence as a slideshow that illustrates the sentence. Each slideshow is saved on the site and you can then share the URL with students or show it to them in class.

VoiceThread –

This website was designed for education and it allows you to create image-based activities which combine listening and speaking. You need to register and then you can upload a single image or a sequence of images which you can add audio commentary to. You can then share the image sequences and viewers can add audio or text responses to what they see or hear. There is a free version of VoiceThread, which is great, and also a premium version which you have to pay to use. The premium version allows you to create a lot more sequences. There is also a useful app for mobile phones which allows you to create everything directly from your phone. 

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Thank you very much! It's exactly I was looking for. I use it instead of PowerPoint presentations for vocabulary teaching and revising perposes.

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