I love using photos in class. Photos are my favourite material. They can get a class’s attention, offer a break from reading exercises, and are a great way to make students curious. Fortunately, most coursebooks are full of high-quality images. Unfortunately, most teachers don’t know how to use these. Usually, teachers see coursebook images as decoration rather than as materials. In this blog, I’m going to share with you some of my favourite ways to use coursebook images to engage students of all levels. Before that, let’s think about why images work well with mixed-ability classes.
How coursebook images support mixed-ability classes
Mixed-ability classes are a big challenge. Some students find activities too easy; others find them too difficult. When students read a text, some reach the end while others are still struggling with the first sentence. Photos are a great way to solve this problem.
Unlike a written text, students don’t need any language to understand a photo. They only need their eyes and their brains. That means that students at different levels can all process the same material using the same amount of time. But photos do more than that. They can encourage students of different levels to be creative. They also let students use language they already know to express themselves. Best of all, they’re a way to get students of different levels to work together to solve problems. Let’s look at some examples.
Activities using coursebook images
1) Find your partner
Find a few different pictures from your coursebook. These could be pictures from a story, images from different chapters in the coursebook or even flashcards.
Print one image per student.
Give each student a picture. Make sure that at least two students in the class have the same image.
Tell students they need to find someone with the same picture as them. But they cannot show their picture to anyone else. Students must mingle with their classmates, describe their images, and listen for a match.
This works well with mixed-ability classes. Lower-level students can start by listening to their stronger classmates. The stronger classmates can use more advanced language in their descriptions. Lower-level students might only use single words in their descriptions. Everyone uses the language they already know to work together to solve a problem.
2) Coursebook Treasure Hunt
I use this activity at the beginning of every new course. When students open a new coursebook, there are so many images to explore. This activity also works equally well at the end of a course as a review.
Start by telling students that they need to race against their classmates.
You (the teacher) will describe a picture from the coursebook. They must listen, flip through their coursebook, find the picture you described, and hold up the right page.
After a few rounds, ask a stronger student to lead their peers in doing this activity in small groups.
3) Lie About the Photo
Lying is something that we all do. But lying rarely gets practised in language class. That’s a pity because students love trying to deceive their classmates. Lying is different from most speaking and writing activities. Lying successfully requires more than grammar and vocabulary. It needs critical thinking and creativity. Start by demonstrating.
Find an image from your coursebook and show it to the class.
Tell the students to talk about the image with their classmates.
Then hide the picture. Tell the students you will read them three sentences about the image. They must try to remember the picture and decide which sentences are true, and which are false.
Next, get students to play in groups. Higher-level learners can use more advanced language in their descriptions. Lower-level students can use simpler language, or just listen and try to find the lies. This lets everyone play and have fun together.
4) Picture Splash
Lots of teachers get their students to predict before reading a text. I like making images part of this prediction.
Prepare by copying some images from a coursebook story or a text. Stick these pictures on the walls around your classroom. Put a blank piece of paper under each picture.
Tell students to walk around the classroom with a partner, pausing next to each image. Under each picture, students should write at least one word. Students can write anything, as long as it matches the image. This helps students remember vocabulary they’ve learned before which might relate to the story. Lower-level learners can write simple words like colours and objects. Higher-level learners can show off more advanced vocabulary.
After reading the story or text, ask students to note which words they wrote appeared in the text.
5) Fill-in-the Story
We’ve all done fill-in-the-blank activities (or gap fills) in class. But this activity is different because there are no wrong answers.
Take a story from your coursebook. Blank out all the text in speech bubbles so that only the pictures are left.
Show students the story with all the words removed. Ask them to guess what the characters in the story might be saying.
Show them that any answer, no matter how short is okay, as long as it makes sense. I like to give an example of people in the story communicating using single words, like “Hello”, “Yes” or “Sorry!” Then ask students to work with a partner to fill in all the blanks.
Afterwards, ask students to act out one part of the story. While they act, ask the rest of the class to guess which part is being acted out.
Learn more about using coursebook images!
If you’ve read this far, then consider signing up for my webinar
on using photos in class this month. We’ll explore more (completely different!) activities that can get students of all levels talking.
is a teacher trainer, materials writer, and consultant. Ross started his career in language teaching in 2006. He holds a Trinity DipTESOL, a Trinity FTCL TESOL, an IDLTM from the University of Queensland and a master’s degree in Language Education from NILE. Ross is also a keen researcher and has published research articles on teacher training, teacher motivation, task-based learning and young learners. In 2020, Ross published his first book, Inside Online Language Teaching. His second book, Unlocking Success on the Duolingo English Test was published in 2023. He is the host of the TEFL Training Institute podcast.