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In defence of pictures

I had an interesting exchange the other morning on Twitter on the subject of using pictures in modern language lessons. A fellow teacher, Barry Smith, was arguing strongly against the use of pictures, when, in his view, we should be making more use of English to present vocabulary if it is more effective to do so. Barry is not alone in arguing that knowledge of the mother tongue is the biggest advantage second language learners have and that we should not shy away from it for dogmatic methodological reasons. TPRS practitioners are happy to use L1 when presenting new vocabulary and some applied linguists, for example, Wolfgang Butzkamm, have made the same point strongly, for instance here.

Among the arguments Barry listed:
  •  Pictures are patronising - we wouldn't use them with adult learners
  • Translations are clearer than pictures
  • English is in children's minds anyway, so do not shy away from using it
  • Pictures demand too much use of memory which can be threatening - use written words to support listening as much as possible
  • Showing words develops literacy in both languages
  • Showing words enables pupils to see morphological patterns in both languages
  • Creating pictures is a poor use of teacher time - it's inefficient
Barry is right to question the orthodoxy of language teaching. We do need to stop and consider whether our methods are the best.

One of the first course books in the UK to use pictures to any significant degree (beyond pure decoration) was Mark Gilbert's Cours Illustré de Français (1966) which used stick men drawings and simple black and white illustrations of everyday life. The pictures had a purpose and were part of a methodology, the so-called oral situational approach, a kind of structured direct method. The pictures were used as a stimulus for question and answer oral work where the aim was to avoid English as much as possible. Language would be presented orally first, with the written word being introduced at a later stage. Every attempt would be made to explain and demonstrate meaning and structure in the target language. Learning L2 becomes, therefore, something like learning L1 - the classic argument of those who support so-called natural language learning approaches.

This became the orthodoxy which many teachers and some applied linguists have challenged. Why avoid English at all cost? Why not take advantage of what the child knows from their own language if it is quicker and more effective to do so? Why make children suffer with endless target language which often confuses, threatens and subsequently fails?

The criticism needs to be met head-on.

If we use L1 more we may get a quicker immediate understanding of the language, but we lose so much. The process of using TL as much as possible, as long as it is handled in a sensible, structured way, using gesture, pictures, realia and texts, provides the large amount of "comprehensible input" which most applied linguists would argue brings about long term acquisition and internalisation of vocabulary and syntax.

Images, in particular, are an extremely effective way of avoiding the interference of English. (Opponents argue that English does not interfere, it helps.) They can be motivational, suggestive and amusing. Crucially, they attract the eye and help hold attention. They are not patronising at all if you know why you are using them (and maybe explain to classes why you are using them).

In addition, pictures can provide useful cultural input. Like video, they can bring a bit of the traget language culture into the classroom.

Fundamentally, though, they are an important part of a tried and tested method. Opponents argue that results show these methods do not work. I argue, on the contrary, that if pupils get little success in language learning, it is down to other factors such as the general motivation of English speakers, lack of time and frequency of teacher contact, or just poor use of the methodology by teachers.

Yet I would not argue for a total avoidance of L1 in the classroom. Flexibility is needed. When explaining a complex pair or group work task it is often more efficient to give a brief explanation in English rather than a laboured one in the TL. Translating can be convenient, a change, a good challenge. Children appreciate clarity, so if you are losing the class, something has gone awry. Furthermore, learners and teachers vary and may respond in different ways. But if we overuse the first language, there will be a cost in terms of long term improvement in comprehension and fluency.


  1. In addition, a picture can say so much more than many words. Why describe a yellow French post box or a Spanish market in English when you can show a picture? Essential to the promotion of Intercultural Understanding, in my opinion. It may take a while to find pictures the first time you use them, but you can use them many times. They become a shorthand for the teacher, and learners can also use them.

  2. Good points. I'm not sure whether Barry would disagree on that. Maybe he was getting at simple representations of everyday objects or, for example, emotions. Interestingly the TPRS teachers like to present vocab initially as bilingual lists. I get that, but still feel pictures are more attention-grabbing. Thanks for th comment, Clare.
    PS Off to Bournemouth this weekend for the big SING barbershop event.

  3. I think we need to constantly evaluate impact when using pictures. When introducing simple vocabulary-especially cognates-they can just be distracting.
    I disagree that pictures would not be used with adults-used as a stimulus pictures are great to develop cultural awareness and some of the clues are more likely to be picked up by adult learners.

  4. Thanks for the comment, Isabelle. I take your first point, though still slightly balk at the idea of using English rather than other stimuli. Old habits die hard! Yes, pictures may be distracting, but they also hold attention and the best ones are not gimmicky - stick figures and simple representations of objects are fine. Flashcards and slides still offer all kinds of useful classroom possibilities.

    Totally agree on your second point.

  5. As a native speaker of French, having spent my entire school life until the age of 17 in France, I can confirm that I studied Latin, French, English, German and Spanish successfully. Not wanting to declare my age on here, but in the 80s, no sign of any IWB, no internet, no Power Points, no apps and NO pictures. The first time I got exposed to a flashcard was when I started my teacher training here in the UK. I learnt my French grammar and conjugations through practice, memorisation, dictations, poetry, books, I used a pen, I underlined everything I was asked to. If I had spent my English lessons looking at pictures of fish and chips, I am not so sure I would have understood my preterit. I did it through memorisation, tests, spellings, chanting until I knew it. I still cannot figure out how a picture of David Beckham and parrot repetitions in the style of ' je l'aime bien' is going to help my students remember the position of the DOP in a French sentence. The only way they remember it is by telling them what my sentence sounds and looks like in English. The only way to get them to do a translation successfully from French into English is to make them look at patterns, is to make them understand that we read a full sentence before we tackle the issues. Where do pictures fit in ? Instead of spending hours researching for the best picture of a goldfish, am I not better off thinking about what I want the students to do and especially about what are they going to find difficult ? In terms of pronunciation? in terms of sounds/ spellings ? I have returned to good old fashioned methods for the last three years now and since then my department's results have improved massively. No pictures= accuracy. No pictures= freedom to teach more difficult grammatical aspects earlier. If someone has a good idea about how to teach the subjunctive with pictures, please send them to me. I am a bit of a Grammar Queen, but I love it. I believe in it, I believe in time spent on spellings ( and in English too, as I am sick of marking GCSE papers where answers have to be in English and students do not score because they cannot spell in English !!! ), I believe in direct translations from English. In our French partner school, teachers teach. Most of their MFL rooms do not have an IWB. They have a passionate teacher, an expert, a linguist who has the courage to stand at the front and has the courage to be the picture. Now that's a good picture isn't it ?

    From an old fashioned but happy, passionate and proud MFL teacher.

  6. Thank you for leaving a comment. The methods you are espousing may work for some children. Pictures for teaching the subjunctive? Maybe not. Nobody would argue for pictures to teach everything. Your analytical approach is likely to produce good grammarians and, in the long run, it may be good for developing listening and speaking skills if you can provide plenty of good listening and speaking practice too. I do not believe your approach is the best for most children. We know that because we have seen it fail in the past. Grammar-translation only ever worked for a small minority of interested pupils.Many children would find it too boring.


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