CI Teaching

Simple, unplanned, powerful Picture Talk

This is the 2nd professional development newsletter in a sequence of 52 weekly newsletters. These newsletters guide you, step by step, into a profoundly effective and efficient CI practice. I frequently reference materials from the CI Master Class Online. If you are not a subscriber to the CI Master class, click here to subscribe.

Sometimes CI looks like a whole lot of unplanned conversation. The last thing many teachers want is to feel like they don’t know what is coming next. “Unplanned” can be anxiety-producing!

If this sounds familiar, then Picture Talk is the perfect activity for you. The picture scaffolds the discussion so that you never feel lost. It is also an activity that packs a powerful punch. I think of Picture Talk as the foundation of so many other CI techniques such as Card TalkOne Word ImagesMovie Talks and Maravillas.

Which skills are we practicing?

While you do a Picture Talk in class, focus on the techniques to remain comprehensible to your students. Pause whenever you say a word that has not been fully acquired by your students, casually stroll over to the poster or white board where you wrote the word, lift your arm up and physically touch the word. Repeat it. Some students will roll their eyes. Some students will react with impatience as if this were the worst thing they have experienced today. Keep doing it.

You are teaching for the slowest processor, the student who is just putting the language together and who will not speak up. Learn to ask artful questions and require choral responses. Even the fast students are benefiting from your deliberate pace because they are learning to process the language at the pace of a native speaker.

When you place your hand on a high-frequency verb and you notice that part of the class does not follow your hand with their eyes, that is the time to simply ask the whole class, “What does —- mean?”. Ask in English and if they respond without glancing up at the poster then you know they’ve really got it.

The set-up

You will need (1) high-frequency verb posters and interrogative word posters placed in the most obvious place in your classroom. You will also need (2) a picture to project against a large screen.

My routine

I project the picture and start with the word “there is” in the target language, describing the picture in a cursory manner. “There is… a cat”. I look at my high-frequency verb list and see if any naturally come forward. For example, if the cat is clearly looking at something outside of the picture frame, I might stroll over, put my hand on the verb “sees” and say, “the cat sees (hand gesture for “sees”) something. What does the cat see?”

The kids stare blankly at me and I point to my head and say, “Imagination!”, which is a cognate in Spanish. My students are aware that I am trying out each high-frequency word, sometimes they even help me: “Mr Peto, he has cheese!”, says one student and I respond in the target language, “Tiene queso, es la verdad. Hay un gato que tiene queso.

After I have made a first pass through the high-frequency verbs I then ask 2-3 questions with every question word, even the ones that do not lead to obvious questions. “Who?”, I wonder in the target language, trying to formulate a question. “Who does that cat live with? Who does he love? Who… hmm”. I glance back up at the high-frequency verbs to get inspiration so that I am not always repeating the same verbs, They really are a lifeline. “Who… makes… who makes his dinner?”

Spend no more than ten minutes on this part of the activity, but if you have spent 10 minutes interrogating the photo with your class then you inevitably have lead your students to create a story, or at least a scene that extends beyond the picture.

Finish with a quickWrite & Discuss activity that summarizes your work in a beautiful paragraph. You are teaching your students to patiently process the target language, but you are also teaching them to be curious and to build scenes with their imaginations. These skills will come in handy in other CI activities and, for that reason, I start my year with plenty of picture talks in all levels.

Here is a link to a video of a picture talk that I did in a workshop in Michigan. It starts off pretty blah but, at about three and a half minutes it gets very interesting. Below is a copy of the picture that I used; just right click and save image to your computer.


Tips to go deeper with Picture talk

Vomiting pumpkin

(1) While any picture will do, I prefer pictures that come from stories. These often naturally lead students to imagine a bigger scene than that depicted in the picture. I call them “pictures loaded with story-telling potential”. For example, the picture from the video (above) came from an adaptation of one of Aesop’s fables.

Not all startling pictures are loaded with story-telling potential. I used to use a photo of a “vomiting pumpkin” each Autumn but found that, beyond the initial shock and amusement, I could never get much out of the kids afterwards. For that reason I search online for pictures from fables and I use pictures that appear in novels in my classroom library. Subscribers to the CI Master Class can use the pictures in the Picture Talk Database.

(2) Do not feel compelled to tell the story that the picture came from. I like to use pictures from novels in my classroom library, but I do not even try to contextualize the picture within the real story. Same with fables; the conversation may lead towards the story, but listen closely to students’ responses to your questions and follow their ideas first.

(3) If an answer seems obvious, try the opposite. When I ask workshops if the mother holding the child’s hand knows that he is stealing a toy, most crowds respond “no”. It is always interesting to turn the tables and say, “yes she does!”

(4) If you can get students to send you photos, you have a virtually inexhaustible source of Picture Talk activities. One way to do this is to establish a class hashtag and give extra credit to students who post photos of their home life on Twitter. Make your hashtag specific enough to your class, such as #PetoPer1, and be sure to establish guidelines on school appropriate photos.

Resist the urge to flip through other photos, even though students may be begging you to show their photo too. On one hand, you want to train students to focus on the input, but on the other hand you also want to inspire them to submit interesting photos so that you will choose their photo next time. Tell them you only have time for one today, and you will choose another tomorrow. Try to spend at least five to ten minutes on that one photo. End with a Write & Discuss activity, and then have students copy the text about their classmate’s photo.

There is no stronger way of declaring that the students are the curriculum than by putting that text in everyone’s notebook.

  • Never pull up a live Twitter account on the projector to find the photo while the class is watching… this will inspire a clever student to post inappropriate photos with the class hashtag.
  • If you are forced to use a thematic curriculum, this is a great way to personalize each unit. Every weekend you can challenge students to post their home photos based on the theme of the unit. At the beginning of my career I was forced to teach a horrible mini-unit on different kinds of fabric; it would have been a lot easier if I had challenged students to take photos of themselves wearing as many kinds of fabric as possible.

(5) Student illustrations are also great pictures to use for Picture Talk. A doc cam is one of the essential pieces of technology for a student-centered class. Student engagement skyrockets when their drawings are projected to be 6 feet high. Ask students to quickly illustrate something using stick figures… the people they live with, where they live, their favorite place to hang out, their favorite food. The possibilities are endless. You can use their illustrations to improvise a complete lesson or a simple warm-up activity.


Subscribers can discover many more CI activities in the “Student Voices” and “Voices of Others” modules of the CI Master Class.



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