How to Use Photograph Prompts to Motivate ESL Students to Write
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 ESL students’ 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-ESL students who are reluctant writers.
Do you use writing journals with your students?
- 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
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.
(I 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.
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!
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).
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Other comments I use to motivate my students:
"Use your imagination!"
"Remember—there 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."
"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'."
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.
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 ESL students, I think it’s important to include these on the rubric as part of the overall score.
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 ESL students. 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