Using picture tasks to develop spontaneous talk – A low effort / high impact teaching sequence


Please note: This post was written in collaboration with Steve Smith of with whom I am co-authoring the ‘MFL teacher’s toolkit’ (to be published in the new year).

  1. Introduction

One of the approaches I undertake in order to promote L2 oral fluency and spontaneity involves the use of picture tasks. This post lays out a low-effort/high-impact teaching sequence based on the following pillars of my instructional approach:

  • Prep students before you start the teaching sequence through as much (flipped?) vocabulary building as possible.
  • Allow for lots of recycling of the target material throughout the sequence.
  • Provide lots of comprehensible written and aural input tbefore involving the students in written or oral production.
  • Start production with highly structured activities which become increasingly less structured. Withdraw support at the end of the sequence.
  • Aim at automatization of speech production as the end-goal (e.g. fast retrieval from long term memory). Prioritize fluency over accuracy in the process; hence tolerate errors unless they impede intelligibility.

The use of picture tasks is advantageous for the following reasons:

  • They require little preparation.
  • Elicit greater creativity with the language.
  • In life we often describe what we see- hence it is a real-life task.
  • The same picture can be used across various tenses.

Please note that the following sequence usually takes more than one lesson and that I supplement it with quizzes and games aimed at reinforcing the vocabulary as well as any grammar needed to execute the tasks in hand (e.g. verb conjugations).

  1. Preparation

2.1 Select the images – Select pictures ensuring that they are not all going to elicit exactly the same kind of vocabulary from your typical student. Some degree of repetition is desirable, though, for the sake of recycling. Ideally the images that you selected would allow the students to answer a range of questions (e.g. When? How? What? Who?). For the sequence that I envisage in this post you will need two sets of pictures which are similar but not entirely identical; so, if Set 1 incudes picture 1a depicting a Ferrari in a city street, Set 2, will contain picture 2a portraying another means of transport in a similar setting with some variation (e.g. different weather, different looking people, different time of the day). The rationale for this will be evident below.


2.2 Decide on the language focus – In planning the activities try to figure out the sort of verbs/nouns the pictures you chose are likely to elicit. If you intend to focus on one or more specific tenses, do provide practice in time markers (e.g. for the present: usually, every day, always, never).


  1. Activities


3.1. Brainstorming  – Give students the pictures (Set 1 only) and ask them to brainstorm as many verbs per picture as they can in groups of two or three. Ideally, before this activity, some vocabulary building activities drilling in as many verbs as possible should be carried out for 10-15 minutes or, even better, ‘flipped’ in the run-up to the actual lesson. I have uploaded worksheets with such activities on and I have created a self-marking module in the grammar section of (see: Verbs monster work-outs).


3.2. Modelling via written and aural input – show on screen sentences (one at the time) in the target language (based on the Set 1 pictures) and ask the students to write on mini-boards (under time constraints) which picture(s) they think they could refer to. I usually do this as a listening activity, too, so as to model pronunciation, as a follow-up.


3.3. Scaffolded written production– Ask students to create one or more sentences for each picture working alone or in pairs. At this stage you can give the students a list of vocabulary as support. I often do this activity on Padlet or Edmodo for students to be able to share their output with others. This activity is carried out without any time constraints, which allows for more careful self-monitoring during production.


3.4. Scaffolded oral production – Ask students to work in pairs. Partner A chooses a picture and ask three questions (one at the time, obviously) in whatever tenses you have been working on. I put a wide range of questions on the board/screen. I get the students to do as many rounds of this with as many students as possible. 100% accuracy is not an issue. Teacher must go around, facilitate, monitor and provide feedback. This activity, too, is carried out in the absence of time constraints and communicative pressure.


3.5. Eliciting fast written response (teacher led) – So far the students have been working with only one set of pictures (e.g. Set 1). Now the teacher stands in front of classroom and shows three (or more) pictures on the board from Set 2 which, being similar to the Set 1 pictures, are likely to elicit language that has already been practised in the previous phases. The students must now write on MWBs as much as they can about each picture under time constraints. The aim of this activity is to recycle the language learnt so far but to also focus on developing fluency (i.e. fast retrieval from long-term memory under time constraint). The teacher can cue the students to the use of specific connectives and one or more tenses. For example, I divide the screen in three sections, ‘past’, ‘present’ and ‘future’ and place a picture in each section; the task is for the students to write something like: yesterday I went to beach, now I am shopping, later on this evening I am going to go clubbing with my friends.


3.6. Eliciting fast written response (student led) – students re-enact what the teacher did with the whole class (in activity 3.5) in small groups of 4-5. Students take turns in showing a picture from set 1 or 2 and asking a question about it whilst their peers answer in writing on MWBs (in the target language). This can be turned into a competition.


3.7. Unstructured picture-based conversation without support– Now students, equipped with iPad or other recording device, do oral pair-work again. This time with no support whatsoever and under time constraints. Partner A/B selects five or more pictures (a mix of set 1 and set2) for partner B/A and asks questions about them – totally impromptu. Recording is sent to the teacher without any editing. If time allows it, several rounds of this can be carried out; I usually do at least two per student.

4. Conclusion

The above teaching sequence is very easy to prepare and allows for tons of recycling. It is mostly learner-centred and lots of language is produced in the process. One of the advantages of the pictures tasks envisaged here is that it forces students to widen their repertoire of verbs, a wordclass that foreign language teachers often neglect.