How to Use Photograph Prompts to Motivate English Language Learners to Write

Updated on March 30, 2019
gerimcclym profile image

Geri McClymont holds an MEd and has taught various subjects to students in grades K-12 for over twenty years.

Since I started using photograph prompts, my formerly reluctant writers now look forward to writing in their journals.
Since I started using photograph prompts, my formerly reluctant writers now look forward to writing in their journals. | Source

Reluctant Writers

Writing is painful for many students. They think their writing isn’t any good unless it’s perfect, especially if they have a long history of seeing red pen marks all over their written work.

The most reluctant writers are often English language learners and special education students.

I’ve discovered an approach to using photograph prompts that has changed my English language learners' attitude towards writing. Even my formerly reluctant writers now look forward to writing in their journals and sharing what they wrote with the class.

While I’m currently using this approach successfully with middle school students, it can also be used at the elementary and high school levels. I’m convinced this strategy can work equally well with non-English language learners who are reluctant writers.

Do you use writing journals with your students?

See results


  • Writing Journals (one per student): Spiral notebooks, lined paper stapled together into booklet form, or online journals.
  • Photograph Prompt (one for the whole class): Display it on a large screen as a PowerPoint slide, a Word document (with a doc cam), or make a copy of the photo for each student.
  • Pens or Pencils

Choose intriguing photos to grab your students’ attention.
Choose intriguing photos to grab your students’ attention. | Source

1. Select a Compelling Photo Prompt

Give students a highly engaging photograph prompt—preferably displayed on a large classroom screen for all to see. Photographs grab students’ attention much better than pictures or paintings, as they are more realistic.

If the photo includes people, choose very expressive faces that may elicit emotions in your students. Color is great but black and white can be equally compelling, such as in the case of a street scene, a mysterious, abandoned house, or a person whose face or body language speaks volumes.

The main idea here is for the photo to elicit a reaction in your students.

Sample Photo Prompt #1


Sample Photo Prompt #2


Sample Photo Prompt #3


2. Make the Expectations Clear

Once you’ve given your students an engrossing photo prompt, tell them what they’re supposed to do with it.


Write the following directions above the photo and read them aloud, so students can both see and hear them:

What is happening in this picture? Write 3 sentences.

Think: Who? What? How? When? Where? Why? (These questions are meant to encourage them to use details in their writing.)

Note: You may expect fewer sentences of beginner writers and more of advanced writers.

Follow up the basic directions with some specific questions to get your students' minds working:

"Who is this person?" (or "Who are these people?")

"What is going on here?"

"How does this person feel?" (and/or "How did this happen?")

"When did this take place?"

"Where is this happening?"

"Why is this happening?"

Note: Your choice of words in the questions you ask will depend on your students’ levels of English proficiency.

The key here is to demonstrate an active, genuine interest in the photo. Your students will feed right off your energy. If they see that you’re really into the photo, they will follow suit. Your enthusiasm will be contagious.

It’s important that you model the entire writing process for your students.
It’s important that you model the entire writing process for your students. | Source

3. Model the Writing Process

After you’ve displayed the photo prompt to your class and have told them what to do with it, model your own response. This should include the entire writing process!

Show Your Writing

Look at the photo for a little while, ponder on it, and think aloud so your students can hear you.

After a little while, with the photo still displayed on the large screen, start typing, visibly displaying your writing directly below the photo (use larger font to ensure it’s visible to your entire class and reduce the size of the image as needed).

Think Aloud as You Write

Continue pondering aloud as you write. Go back and change a few words or an entire sentence as you continue thinking aloud.

Spend 5–10 minutes on this. It’s very important for your students to see you reflect and go through the entire writing process.

Make It Your Own

Some students will share out their thoughts, as if trying to help you write.

Model writing the first few sentences on your own, then listen to students’ input, let them know whether or not you share their thoughts, and finish writing your sentences.

While you want to validate your students’ ideas, remember that this is your personal response to the photo prompt, so it should reflect what you think when you look at the photo.

Let students know they will have their chance to write about the same photo when you finish yours. For now, you are modeling what the writing process and finished product look like.

Students want to be acknowledged as individuals. This means taking the time to listen to what they have to say through their writing.

4. Motivate and Validate

Your Attitude Matters

A highly engaging photo prompt along with authentic modeling go a long way in motivating students, but I’ve discovered that it’s my attitude towards my students’ writing that really gets their pens hitting the paper.

Show a Sincere Interest in Your Students' Thoughts

It’s essential to communicate to your students that you’re genuinely interested in knowing what they see when they look at the photo, and that there’s no right or wrong answer.

When you convey to them that their thoughts matter, that what they write has value, their guards will come down and they will take greater pride in their writing.

I tell my students how fascinating it is that so many people can look at the same photograph and yet have completely different ideas as to what is going on.

Offer Meaningful Feedback

Walk around the room as your students write. Offer positive comments, or if they look stumped, give them a few words to get them going, such as “What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you look at this photo?”

Validate their responses and encourage them to write them down. They may look at you as if to say, “That is worth writing down?” Assure them that it is absolutely worth writing down!

Students really do feed off your energy and off one others’ energy. So, if most of your class has bought into this, it’s just a matter of time before the rest of the class does too.

Other comments I use to motivate my students:

"Use your imagination!"

"Rememberthere is no right or wrong answer!"

After students have had time to write their responses, encourage them to share their work with their partner and to offer each other one compliment and one suggestion. Then ask them if they want to share their writing entries aloud with the class. This is another opportunity to validate their writing with comments such as:

"I got goose bumps when I heard you read that."

"I feel like I’m there."

"Very realistic!"

"What Fabio sees is different from what Laura sees. How interesting that they’re looking at the same picture but they each see something so different."

"I heard you tell me 'where' and 'what' and 'why'. Many details!"

"I heard you even tell me 'when'."

Allow Students to Use Rescources

Allow your students to use resources, such as vocabulary journals or bilingual dictionaries, to help them find the right words to express themselves in English.

Don't Worry Too Much About Editing

If writing to a photo prompt is used as a regular writing journal activity, I recommend not worrying too much about grammar and writing mechanics. This gives your students greater freedom to express themselves without worrying about perfection.

However, if you're using this activity as an assignment separate from journal writing, I recommend having students peer-edit their work after they finish writing. More on that later!

Allow students to peer-edit their work.
Allow students to peer-edit their work. | Source

5. Students Edit Their Work

I don't recommend this step if writing to a photo prompt is a regular writing journal activity. However, I do recommend this step if you are using this approach as an assignment separate from daily journal writing.

Pair Edit

Once students have completed their writing, allow them to pair-edit their work before they share it out to the class.

Have resources available for them such as spelling dictionaries, bilingual dictionaries, and regular English dictionaries. The best ones I’ve used for English language learners are picture dictionaries.


Provide them with a rubric so they know how many points they can earn for their writing work and how the points are broken down.

While I don’t place heavy emphasis on grammar and writing mechanics for my less proficient students, I think it’s important to include these on the rubric as part of the overall score.

Writing is Usually the Last Language Domain to Develop

Grammar and writing mechanics tend to improve naturally with continual exposure to the English language, primarily through listening and reading, and writing is usually the last of the four language domains to develop.

I hope you will try this approach to writing with your English language learners. As a teacher who loves to write, it brings me such joy to watch my students transition from being reluctant writers to willing and confident writers!

Motivating Young Learners

© 2017 Geri McClymont


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No comments yet.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)