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Using Thought Provoking Pictures for a Simple ESL Lesson

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When I was teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) in China I can’t tell you how much I profited from other teachers’ suggestions, ideas and lessons that they generously shared online for all to use. What I offer here is my first of what I hope will be many attempts at “giving something back.” The following is an activity for an ESL class of intermediate to advanced learners. I used this for college English majors in a 1.5 hour lesson, but obviously you can do whatever you want with it to make it work for you.

Now, before getting to the actual ESL activity I’d like to share why I created this lesson. If you don’t care and just want to get to it, simply scroll down until you see “The Lesson.”

As a foreign English teacher my main job was to get students talking. While there definitely was a place for grammar and vocabulary (hard to do much talking without them), the emphasis was supposed to be on speaking, in hopes that they would one day be able to express themselves in front of hiring managers of foreign companies, to professors in foreign universities … or to a foreign boyfriend (hey, don’t judge their goals!).

Nowadays students in China are starting to learn English from the time they enter preschool, and English remains a mandatory part of their coursework until they finish their second year of college. Yet in spite of all the hours of English study, the number of students who can actually engage in any real dialogue in the language is surprisingly low. That’s where the “foreign experts” come in (by far the coolest title I’ve ever had, and probably ever will have). We are there to help them take what they’ve supposedly already learned and teach them how to then use it in the “real world” … realizing that for most of our students the replica we made in the classroom was as “real” as it was ever going to get.

Certainly, the value of learning something does not necessarily rest in whether or not it will be applied. I will probably not apply in daily life half of what I learned in college and yet I still deem the learning valuable. But as a teacher who knew that English would play a very small role in the lives of the vast majority of his students once they graduated, I desired to leave them with something more than a language that they would rarely use and in due time forget. Whether it be a fresh way of thinking, a new perspective or character quality, I wanted to deposit in them something that time would not so easily erase.

And it was out of this motivation that this lesson was born. The purpose of this ESL activity in particular (aside from giving students an opportunity to express themselves in English) was to encourage students to think in a new way about what they observe. I hoped they would see that much of what we observe in our world can serve as helpful analogies to inform us in so many other seemingly non-related aspects of life.

The Lesson

What You’ll Need
This ESL lesson is built around optical illusions and other interesting images. I used several that I picked from here, but you can use others if you prefer (and should you want it, the Answer Guide.) Make enough copies for each group to have a set, where each group could be anywhere from 2-5 people.

The Plan
I begin this lesson by introducing the 5 senses and asking students to write down one sentence to express the purpose of our senses in general, "The purpose of our senses is to ...." I’ll call on different students or get volunteers to hear what they come up with and see if we could take all of their ideas and condense it into one coherent sentence.

Next I'll ask students to put the five senses in order of importance. I will then ask individuals to share and explain the rationale for the order they came up with. I also ask them questions like “If you had to lose one (or two) sense(s) which would you choose to lose?” or “If you could keep only one (or two) sense(s) which would you most like to keep?" This is a good opportunity to brush up on the grammar of asking and answering hypothetical questions (conditionals).

Next I'll ask the students about whether we can always trust our senses or if our senses lie to us. And of course then I'll be looking for them to provide examples.

Finally, after that discussion, we come to the main portion of the lesson. Depending on the size of your class, divide the students into groups of anywhere between 2-5 people. Give each group a packet of the “illusions.” Tell them to go through each one and talk with a partner about what they see and do not see. But then most importantly, tell them that they need to choose at least two of the illusions and consider how those could be used as an analogy for life or for how we as people think. In other words, what can we learn about ourselves through this activity and how can it be applied to other areas in life. I’ll give you one example from the following image:


There will be all kinds different suggestions as to just what this is a picture of. Some see a cow, others a horse, some a rabbit (apparently we’re all about seeing animals), others see absolutely nothing but random blotches of black and white. Personally, I can’t understand how anyone can see anything but a dalmatian. But the point is, nearly everybody will make SOME kind of sense out of it. And what’s more, once they’ve made up their minds concerning what that is, it’s pretty hard at that point to talk them out of it. Once they’ve accepted that there’s a horse, or a cow, or a dalmatian, it’s nigh impossible to get them to see anything else. I think this is a great analogy to show us how influential our first impressions are. Or how hard it is, once we’ve become convinced of something, to become unconvinced of it. Also, the fact that most everybody sees “something” tells us that our minds are constantly trying to make sense of the world around us - what we see, what we hear, what we feel, etc. Whether well-grounded or not we take what’s there and form some kind of opinion about it or explanation for it. And once we’ve convinced ourselves of the conclusion we’ve reached, convincing us otherwise becomes no simple task.

So that’s the angle I took on the image above. And obviously each one could have a variety of different interpretations and applications, but that’s the kind of thing I’m looking for from the students. This way, they’re not only being challenged to express themselves in English (the main goal of the ESL classroom) but they are also encouraged to approach what they observe in life with the attitude that asks,“What more can this teach me about myself, others or the world around me?” (More on that question here).

Anyway, I hope this ESL lesson/activity if nothing else gives you some inspiration for your own. Best of luck, and go teach some English!


Ruth on February 13, 2012:

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Wow. This just may help me here in Brazil learning Portuguese! It definitely gives me ideas for teaching English here to friends. There is no shortage of people wanting to learn English in Brazil! Thanks for all your work!

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