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Discussion questions using images

Using photos, paintings and other pictures as the basis for discussion has never been easier but is still under-utilized.

Using images such as memorable photos and famous paintings in class is a timeless idea that has recently become more popular and easier due to resources such as Google Images but could still be exploited much more by most teachers, hence the launch of two high profile books on the topic of using images last year- Images by Jamie Keddie from OUP and Working with Images by Ben Goldstein from CUP, both of which inspired some of the ideas below.

Of all the things you can do with images, by far the easiest to organise is discussion questions. A huge collection of questions which can be used with most images are given below. The list of questions is far too long to give to even the most enthusiastic students (!) but is instead for teachers to select from when preparing worksheets or questions on the board for group discussion, or to ask the students orally while trying to continue a whole class discussion.

Other things to think about when selecting and adapting the questions below:

  • When there are several options divided by a slash (e.g. “What do you think about the painting/ drawing/ photo?”), this means that you will need to choose just one when you give them or ask them the question.
  • The questions below are given in random order and so will almost certainly need to be rearranged, for example to group them together by similar subject or to put easier questions first.
  • You might also want to change the language used in the questions or give more examples depending on the level and confidence of your students.
  • Please also note that “Why do you think that?” can be usefully added to almost every question below.

With a single image

  • What time of day is it?
  • What is the temperature and weather like?
  • What is that person’s job?
  • Why is that person in that place?
  • If this was a scene in a film, what would the accompanying music be like?
  • This picture was very controversial when it was first shown. Why do you think that was? Would it have the same effect nowadays?
  • Why did the person who created this image choose these colours? What would have been the effect of choosing different ones?
  • What would be your reaction if you saw someone with a handbag/ notebook/ screen saver/ T-shirt with this image? What would your assumptions about that person be?
  • What would you think of someone who had this image hanging in their house? What would you assume about their job, personality etc?
  • How big do you imagine the image is in real life? How is the experience of really seeing it different from looking at this copy (in your experience or just your imagination)?
  • Try to imagine what incident in the artist’s life inspired this image, and then roleplay the artist’s conversation with someone at around that time.
  • Would you go to an exhibition that included this image?
  • If this was the image in an advertising poster, where would you display it (in a posh shopping street, on a highway, etc)?
  • If this was the image in a magazine ad, what kind of magazine would you put it in?
  • What is the most beautiful/ memorable/ disturbing image you can remember? How was that image more so than this one?
  • If this picture was in an exhibition, how long would you spend looking at it? What information would you want about it and the person who created it? Read the information below. Does it make the image more impressive or interesting?
  • What would you say to try and sell this painting to someone?
  • Say positive and negative things about this image and your partner will guess which ones are your real opinions
  • Your partner will pretend that they are the person who created that image. Interview them about their work and career, then discuss which answers might actually be true about the person who really created that image and which were the most interesting questions and answers. Read something about the real artist and this image and compare with the questions and answers in your roleplay interviews
  • Interview one of the people, animals or inanimate objects in the picture
  • Roleplay a conversation between two people in the picture
  • Take turns saying more and more positive things about one aspect of the image. Do the same with negative things, then discuss which of all the statements you made are true.
  • Your partner will tell you their opinion about an image you haven’t seen without any actual description of it. Form a mental image of it in your mind and then look at the image. How was it different to how you imagined?
  • Add an adverb to every adjective your partner uses to describe the image, e.g. change “unsettling” to “incredibly unsettling”. When you have finished, discuss how many of the adverbs you used your partner agrees with for this image and why.
  • Disagree with everything your partner says about the image, then try to guess each others’ real opinions
  • Without using gestures or showing your picture to your partner, tell them how to get into exactly the same positions as the people and objects in the picture. When you are in position, try to identify what the scene is and what each person is doing.
  • If someone gave you a poster or postcard of this image, what would you do with it?
  • What do you think the title/ caption/ tag line of this image is/ should be? Look at the real one. How does yours compare?
  • How well do you think you could draw this image? What would be the most difficult part/ effect to reproduce?
  • Do you think images like this should be restricted in any way, e.g. only allowed on TV after a certain time?
  • How well do you think you will remember this image this time next week?
  • With a partner, discuss which adverbs should go with these adjectives to describe the picture:
    • memorable
    • controversial
    • thought provoking
    • avante garde
    • weird
    • abstract
    • moving
    • original
  • What do you imagine other pictures by the same artist are like? Look at the other side of the worksheet and check. In which ways were you correct and incorrect?
  • What symbolism is there in the picture?
  • If this was a poster, where would you hang it?
  • What could this picture advertise? What image of the product would it give?
  • How does is make you feel?
  • Who could you buy this as a present for?
  • If it was the image on a card, what kind of card would it be? What would it have written inside?
  • What kind of person would like/ buy this picture?
  • What kind of person would take/paint/ draw this picture?
  • If this was a still from a film, what kind of film would it be? What part of the film would this image come from? What would the rest of the film be about?
  • What is outside the frame of the picture?
  • What photos are next to this one in this person’s photo album?
  • What pictures are hanging next to this one in the art gallery it is in?
  • What room and position would you hang it in?
  • How does the painter/ photographer feel about the place/ people/ animals?
  • How would you feel about this photo being published if you were one of the people in it?
  • What is the most similar image you have seen or possess?
  • Do you think anyone could create an image like this?
  • Is this art?

With multiple images

  • Which picture would be easier to draw? Why?
  • Which picture is more:
    • relaxing?
    • peaceful?
    • provocative?
    • thought-provoking?
  • Ask your partner similar questions with different adjectives.
  • Which image is more suitable for a:
    • birthday card for adults?
    • birthday card for children?
    • wedding invitation?
    • condolences card?
    • holiday postcard?
    • calendar?
  • Try to match early and late pictures by the same person
  • Make a story from the pictures (in the same order/ rearranging them if you like)
  • Make a PowerPoint presentation/ Pecha Kucha presentation from some/ all of the images and write notes about what you would say
  • Look at a chronological sequence of one artist’s work. Can you divide it into periods? What would you say the best period was? What is the best/ most important/ most representative picture in each period?
  • Your partner will give an opinion about one of the images without any description. Try to guess which image they are talking about and then discuss how much you agree or disagree with what they said
  • Working together, try to put the pictures into order by when they were created/ physicals size/ value/ fame
  • If you could buy the painting on the right or all three/ five/ ten paintings on the right (to hang in your house/ gallery/ as an investment), which would you choose?
  • Together agree on how to hang these images on a gallery wall
  • What theme do all these images have in common?
  • Divide these images into two/ three/ at least three groups, agreeing on any system of dividing them that you like
  • All these images were used to advertise the same product/ brand/ place. Which do you think it was?
  • Why do you think all the artists/ brand managers chose this colour for all these different images?
  • How would you describe the differences in how the two artists/ photographers have approached the same/ a similar scene? Why do you think they have done so?
  • Which photo would you choose as press photograph of the year for this year/ last year/ ten years ago?
  • What kind of magazine would you expect each image to be on the front of?
  • Try to agree to swap your picture with someone else’s
  • Which picture would you give an art/ photojournalism/ advertising prize to? What criteria are important for the winner of such a competition?
Written by Alex Case for TEFL.net
December 2009 | Filed under Speaking
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.

5 Comments on “Discussion questions using images”

  1. Alice M Says:

    This is quite interesting, but somehow I find the questions too constraining, and paradoxically, sometimes too much appealing to the students’ imagination. Sometimes they are at a loss and don’t imagine anything faced with an image! I like the idea of working with several images. Some comparative work can then be done, using the comparative structures, providing the students give a reason of their choices. Sometimes I flicker a picture very quickly in front of the students and then ask them what they saw. They aren’t allowed to say “nothing” : you would be surprised about the answers !

  2. Alex Case Says:

    Good points, Alice. Your activity is a good way of adding real communication to description of a simple image, which is difficult to do. Picture Dictation, which I have an article in Modern English Teacher about in the new year, is another good example. As you say, discussion questions like these can demand some imagination or willingness to give opinions you are not sure about (or some language to express that you can’t imagine or don’t have an opinion in interesting ways). This is perhaps partly because one of the books I was influenced by has as an aim to make students “visually literate”. You’ll therefore need to gauge which questions might produce complete silence from your students and then prepare them very carefully or just choose other questions

  3. Navzee Says:

    This is an amazing idea..I haven’t worked with it so far but Im sure it would work in my classes because Im teaching English to Fashion Designers and artists.

  4. Alex Case Says:

    Thanks for your kind words Navzee. For you, can I also suggest my English for Artists page?

    https://tefltastic.wordpress.com/worksheets/art/

  5. Benjamin Says:

    Looks great, and interesting comments too. What is your experience teaching “English for Artists”?

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