ESP: imagination & ideas through images

.... I love Paris in the Fall....

I met a teacher called Karen at the weekend.

I’d just given a session at TESOL France (great audience, by the way) on helping students overcome some of the ‘issues’ involved in doing writing skills activities in the classroom, including supposed lack of imagination and opinion, or a shyness about sharing the aspects of their personal world that I call The Twilight Zone. I had had some techno-problems at the start of my session, so had lost a few minutes of my precious hour, and this resulted in my not getting to the section on using images. We had a lot of fun with the sections on ‘the people in the room’ and ‘music’ though…

After the session, Karen said to me that she thought her students, as fairly wealthy higher education students of technological subjects like engineering, would feel that using music to access their imaginations was ‘frivolous’, not serious… I know what she meant. Sometimes, students in their late twenties and above are more open to ‘teen’ activities than those in the ‘tween adolescent ‘teen’ and real adult’ years. When you start living Real Life, hey, you realise it’s worth having some fun from time to time, but students who can almost touch the end of their teen years if they stretch out as far as they can (either ahead or behind), whose hormones are settling and have not long left the really yeuchy teenage years behind can be loathe to associate with those years (just as young teens hate doing stuff they think children might do).

After chatting to Karen for a few minutes, we came to the conclusion that images would make a better ‘sensorial’ launchpad for these university-age (ie late teens/ early 20s), serious types, and I then spent some time pondering some ideas, with an eye on ESP in particular.

So here are a few teaching ideas for (budding) civil engineers and architects in particular (mainly because I teach and have taught a lot of them) and which can also be adapted to general courses, both with older teens and adults.

All images are from the eltpics photographic resource for teachers.

1 BRIDGES (this section has also been published on the eltpics blog, Take a photo and…. but you can scroll down to part 2, if you prefer…)

(Civil engineering)


Show learners a selection of photos of bridges, or ask each student in the class to bring one photograph to the lesson and allow the group to look at all the images. I’ve made a mosaic of some of the images from the eltpics Bridges set, using the mosaic maker.

@pacogascon (x2), @mkofab / @shaunwilden, @mkofab, @pacogascon / @arzuteacher, @escocesa_madrid , @vickyloras

Vocabulary and reading for vocabulary

Students work in pairs to make notes about vocabulary they would need to give a presentation on the structure and particular features of the bridges. Brainstorm the words they want on the board, then divide the vocab search task up between the students. Quite often, as general EFL/ESL teachers rather than engineers, we won’t know all the terminology, but if you have internet access, allow students to find words from pages such as Wikipedia (try here or here) or technical pages describing bridges in English, like this.

Remember that even if you don’t have access, the chances of some of your learners having iPhones, Blackberrys etc is fairly high. ‘Use whatever’s in the room’ is a dogme ‘rule’, however plugged or unplugged that may seem.

Speaking and preparing to write

Once the group has all the vocabulary they need, they are ready to prepare their presentations. Put students in small groups or pairs. In a 1-2-1 class, this activity will still work, but you’ll need to help with the planning or it could be intimidating. Ask each group to choose two or three bridges from the selection and decide what information will interest their audience eg where the bridges are, when they were built, what technique was used, how the technique works, why that particular type of bridge may have been chosen rather than another type, technical details such as measurements and materials used in the chosen bridges etc. You may choose to ask them to imagine they are giving the presentation as a bid for a contract to modify, improve or provide a second bridge next to the existing one, although an information presentation is probably enough. Students plan their presentations in pairs, and find other images or information, as they need.


Students write their presentations. This can either mean writing text to add to powerpoint (or similar) slides, or it may mean writing a script for an orally delivered presentation. This will depend on your students and what they prefer.

Final stage (reading, or speaking and listening)

Set a simple task, such as What do you think is the most interesting aspect of the bridges chosen? Ask students to read all the class presentations, if they are the text type, or ask each group to give their presentation, after rehearsal time. Readers / Listeners answer the question set and think of at least one question to ask each group. Allow question and answer time. Again, questions can be written or oral. If written, provide a piece of paper for each group’s presentation, and ask each reader to write their questions on the correct sheet. Allow time for answering in both cases.

If you decide to get students to give an oral presentation, it’s always worth working on posture, body language and eye contact as real life skills, rather than just focusing on pronunciation etc.



(Engineering / architecture)

Show students images of contrasting landscapes. These are taken from eltpics set Landscape features. Again, you can also ask them to bring photos to class, but it’s a good idea to make a mosaic as back-up, just in case.

Images by @worldteacher (x2), @ij64, @cherry_mp, @pysproblem81(click on image for a better view)

Tell them they have to design an environmentally friendly house which will not spoil the landscape in any way. Give them time to work with a partner to choose ONE of the landscapes and to work out not only what they will build and why, but HOW.

The rest of the activity is essentially the same as 1, and you may choose to get students to choose their landscape AFTER they have researched vocabulary, as that is when they will know which they find easiest/most challenging etc.

During the final stage, ask listeners / readers to ask at least two questions, including one beginning What if…..? Encourage as much debate as possible.


(Architecture / (engineering) / general English)

Show students several photos of contrasting buildings such as this mosaic (images taken from eltpics Contrasts and Urban sets).

Images by @mkofab, @sandymillin / @jocelynlpayne, @sandymillin / @fionamau (me!), @mkofab

Put the students in pairs and give each pair a set of questions with space for them to add two or three more of their own. The questions can be as technical or as untechnical as you like, like these:

Allow students to add two or three questions for another pair to choose from, if they want.

Students read the questions and together choose between four and six to answer. This way, they themselves decide how technical or general their work will be. If you find that, in a pair, one really prefers the technical questions, and the other prefers the more imaginative ones, get students to change partners so they are with someone with similar interests.

Students then answer their chosen questions SEPARATELY. If they need, they can write words in their L1 and look them up afterwards. This is preferable than them simply trying to express only what they know how to say.

Before they speak to their partner and compare their answers, allow them a vocabulary ‘moment’, either using technical web pages as above, dictionaries or you, as appropriate.

Students then compare their answers to the questions they chose and discuss any differences.

Finally, ask students to combine their answers and their partner’s to write a text or a presentation. Allow them to choose the text type and title they want, with the proviso that it must be about at least one of the buildings in the images and should use as much of their new language as possible. Tell them they can write a story, a powerpoint presentation and script, an information page like a wikipedia entry, an advertisement, a project outline for alterations or a business proposal. Whatever they like.

Encourage students to exchange their texts from time to time, to help each other edit and correct.

Organise a ‘show of work’ as appropriate to the texts written, and encourage readers / listeners to ask questions.

And that’s it! For now at least. There will be more posts inspired by TESOL France coming very soon, though…… See you then, I hope.

Oh, and if you spot any of your photos in this post, please do tell me the story behind them in the comments bit 🙂



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16 responses to “ESP: imagination & ideas through images

  1. Fiona firstly thanks for an amazing presentation at TESOL France. I thoroughly enjoyed being part of the audience and came away buzzing with ideas for my teaching.

    I don’t teach EAP but I can connect with the ideas expressed at the start of the blog. I would think “why am I doing the same sort of things I did when I was 14”, even if I ended up learning. These are some fantastic ideas. One of them, giving presentations, was something I tried in the summer with a proficiency class of mostly twenty-somethings. It followed a similar sort of structure as yours and it will remain in my memory as one of the best lessons I’ve ever taken part in.

    One question: are your classes made up of students going on to study the same subjects at university? Would the ideas be suitable for classes made up of students specialising in different subjects?

    I really want to start using ELT pics. Next aim: start!

    Thanks again,


    • Hi Dale,
      I’m so glad you enjoyed the session in Paris – shame about the techno problems, but even so… of course, a session like that needs a great audience, as it’s so interactive, so really the merit is with you guys.
      My students are generally students or post-grads or even ‘becarios’, which I’m not sure what the English is! Industrial placement people. I’ve also taught civil engineering company directors, so really I’ve had the whole age-range from, say, 18 up in ESP classes. I think you could adapt the ideas to other areas, like medicine, art, technology – just choosing your set of photos. Weather conditions, geology, even cookery/catering/hotel industry where students could choose photos of food and explain how to make the dishes. Photos of professions and the students find out what the requirements are for each, in terms of personality types, training etc.
      Let me know if you try it,

  2. Hi Fiona,

    What great ideas and I only wish that I’d seen your presentation. I think that all of these ideas would certainly engage learners and promote the language learning experience which is more relevant to their needs.
    I often think that not enough attention is given to teachers working within an ESP context and it can be a really isolated working experience, especially for teachers working within an in-company context. So, will be sharing your post with our teachers who teach in ESP contexts.
    It also goes to show how tremendously useful #eltpics really can be in the classroom!

    • I worked in a cigarette factory as in-house teacher, translator, ‘presentation skills trainer’ and general language oddbod for five years, so I know what you mean about being isolated! Still, I learned a lot about all sorts of things, during that period, so I don’t regret a moment of it. It was also the period that saw me turn to dogme as a teaching approach, as coursebooks were just so irrelevant to some of my classes’ needs. We spent time walking around the factory floor, with me pretending to be a visitor, and my students explaining everything to me. I think that’s where I got the first seeds for these presentation ideas from.
      Maybe I’ll get to meet you in Brazil one day – I hope so!

  3. Julie Raikou


    This is a really useful post with fantastic images! I only caught a glimpse of you at TESOL France but will be looking out for your posts from now on.

    See you at the next conference!

  4. Fiona – this is an amazing post – I’d never really thought of using ELTpics like that…. need to give that a good think!

    The landscape picture you’ve chosen is of the Iguazu falls, which are between Misiones Provice, Argentina and Paraná State Brazil, the picture was taken in the Argentine national park. Looking at the task that you have set your learners – you might want to compare the hotels in the Argentine ( and Brazilian ( parks – very different in style.

    In terms of landscape Iguazu is a humid sub-tropical region, but I’ve no idea what that means for architects.

    My brother-in-law is studying architecture in Argentina – I guess climate must be very important for Argentine architects as a house in Iguazu has got to stand up to a very different climate to one in Ushaia, near the Antarctic circle.

    Again, thanks for the post – I love it!

    • And thanks for the comment! I’m blushing!
      Great links and extra ideas – brilliant! I imagine climate and using local materials, hardwoods and the like would be the main concerns. If you happen to speak to your brother-in-law… 🙂
      Your photos always seem to make an appearance in my blog… somehow they inspire me 😀

      • My turn to blush now… I’m glad you like the pictures – if there are any that catch your fancy on my Flickr stream, just ask I can probably put them into ELTpics – Don’t tend to post ‘personal’ pics there….

        Speaking of which, I need to post some more… haven’t for a while….

        Take care,

  5. ij64

    Hi Fiona! My photo is the one in the middle of the collage in the Eco-housing section. It was taken about 6 years ago as I was on my way to Betws-y-Coed in North Wales. The lake is called Llynnau Mymbyr (ask Ceri what that means, I’m from Cardiff!) and is one of the most atmospheric lakes in the Snowdonia National Park.

    All the best,

    Ian | @ij64

    • Ian, I love that photo. I genuinely think it’s one of the most atmospheric shots in eltpics. I don’t know if you used a regular digital, an SLR or it’s a scanned analogue photo, but it’s beautiful. Had to use it. (End of gush..)
      I’d ask Ceri but she’d have to read the words for herself, as I have no idea how to say them!
      Thanks for the info,

  6. Fiona,
    Thank you for this great post. I also teach university-age students with whom I had rarely used pictures before but since I discovered eltpics (+ suggestions on how to use them) I have seen the potential there is in using more visual input. This post gives me yet more ideas…..
    The top left picture in your “Architecture” set was taken on 28 July 2008 on Cornmarket Street, Oxford. (
    I spotted the Mobile Phones Direct sign, which is so out of place on that 15th century house. The contrast struck me and made me take that picture.

    The bottom right picture was taken on 27 April 2006 in Edinburgh. It shows the Northern Bridge, taken from Princess Street if I remember that correctly. In the foreground you see Waverley Station. I was in Edinburgh with a colleague to visit some of our students who were doing their work placements there.
    My colleague studied for one year at Edinburgh University so he was an excellent guide. I fell in love with the city, just like all our students who ever did work placements there. Some decided to stay and still live there now.

    I hope this helped. Thanks once again for this great post. I wish I could have attended your session in Paris. Maybe in March 2012 in that other Scottish city at that other conference? 🙂


    • Dear Mieke,
      Hi and thanks for that wonderful comment. I love reading about the places in the photos. I know both Oxford and Edinburgh, but it doesn’t matter – it’s so nice to see them again through someone else’s eyes.
      I’m not planning to go to IATEFL next year – I’m from Glasgow and am desperate to go back and visit, but I decided not to combine family and conference – I’d be split in two! However, I’m sure we’ll meet sometime; perhaps at IATEFL 2013.
      Best wishes,

  7. Pingback: Bridges | take a photo and….

  8. My two pictures were taken in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the UK. They’re in the architecture set. The top right picture was a reflection of one of the older buildings in Newcastle in the windows of one of the newest buildings, Eldon Square, which is one of the biggest indoor city centre shopping centres in the UK. The building in the middle right of the architecture mosaic is the Sage, which is an iconic concert hall. I think it was opened in 2004 and it’s part of the whole renovation of the Quayside in Newcastle and Gateshead. The renovation also included the building of the Millenium Bridge which also appears in ELTpics.
    The Sage is one of my favourite buidlings in the world, and I think since I moved to Newcastle in July I’ve probably taken fifty or more pictures of it!
    Thanks for including my pictures, and I love the idea of asking for the stories behind the pictures 🙂

  9. Anthony Gaughan

    What I love about this post is its density of ideas; this is pure lesson idea from start to finish. ELTpics is obviously a onestopshop for random images but this post points out its true genius: the power of an archive is in its capacity to leverage collections. I’ve done similar work as you describe here back in the day, though never to the same depth of treatment, and I am excited by the ideas I’ve picked up and the links too.

    By way of paltry payback, here is one of the most inspirational and visually stunning TED Talks I’ve seen on the topic of architecture, in case you haven’t seen it.

    Thanks again,


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