Ready, Set, Van Gogh! Teaching ESL Writing Through Picture Description

As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Pictures are powerful tools in many facets of life, including education, therapy and advertising.

Why is this?

Because pictures are easier to absorb than words.

They tell stories from the viewer’s perspective.

In ESL education, layers of meaning can be peeled out of a single picture. Even more importantly, pictures can be used to inculcate high-order thinking skills in students.

To be more precise, we can use pictures to teach descriptive writing. Students can learn how to look at pictures and use target vocabulary to tell a story. They can learn to interpret pictures and make meaning of them.

This may sound simple enough, but picture description can cover and teach a lot of English skills, and there’s a lot to consider when using this method!

In this post, we’ll look at how you can use picture description to teach writing in your ESL class.

Why Teach ESL Writing with Pictures?

Teaching ESL writing through pictures has numerous advantages. Students learn to sharpen their observation skills and express their ideas freely, as answers are objective.

By discussing the same characteristics—such as color, contrast, position and texture—in several pictures, your students will find it easy to discuss these elements when they are required to write.

Through picture study, students tend to appreciate art pieces more as they now know that every picture tells a story.

Concepts such as symbolism and relationship may be harder for ESL students to express as these require high-order thinking skills and rich vocabulary: Picture description is a great way to introduce these concepts, and with practice, your students will be able to discuss them over time.

Pictures are also highly engaging and add an enticing visual element to your writing activities. 

How to Choose Pictures for Teaching Descriptive Writing

The first thing to know is where to source your pictures. Everywhere is the answer: If you just look around you, you’ll probably be amazed by the number of pictures readily available online and in magazines, picture books, calendars, coffee table books and personal photo albums.

When choosing a picture, it’s best to select one based on just one or two elements: For example, color and contrast or use of space and vector lines.

Okay, but pictures come in different forms, you may say. Should you choose landscape, portrait or still life? The best answer is to focus on one type at a time because each picture type lends itself to certain elements that can be discussed at length.

For example, you can touch on emotions and relationships in portraits, while mood and texture can be used to discuss landscapes.

Teaching Picture Description with Landscapes

Possible topics: Colors, contrast and texture

Possible target vocabulary: Vast, vibrant, picturesque, scenic, rapid, flowing, stormy

Landscape images are perfect for teaching many elements of description. You can teach adjective-noun relationships, collective nouns, color synonyms, similes, word collocations and a whole lot of other language items from a single picture depicting a landscape.

My recommendation is to supply students with a descriptive text including an image to help them interpret the picture and come up with suitable target vocabulary. The target vocabulary should aim at giving you, the educator, the chance to teach whatever kinds of words you feel are necessary. Feel free to pick and choose words listed that are relevant to your teaching outcomes.

For example, if the word “vibrant” is one of the words you’ve decided to teach your students, you can steer them towards that word by asking the following questions:

  • “How would you describe the colors used in this picture?”
  • “What is another word for ‘bright’?”
  • “It starts with V…any idea?”

Once students have successfully learned the target vocabulary, you can use a different picture with accompanying text to either reinforce learned vocabulary or teach your students a new set of words.

Activities for Teaching Picture Description with Landscapes

1. Word splash through brainstorming

Show students a picture or painting of a landscape and get them to think of words to describe the picture. You can choose to show them paintings by famous painters such as Claude Monet, Leonid Afremov or Jean-Marc Janiaczyk, to name a few. Claude Monet’s and Jean-Marc Janiaczyk’s works are ideal examples of realist impressionist paintings while work by Leonid Afremov represents modern impressionist art. Then get students to progress from words to phrases in brainstorming sessions. For example:

  • “vibrant flowers”
  • “a field of red poppies”
  • “thatched-roofed cottage”
  • “dancing daffodils”

Encourage your students to utilize their powers of observation and use adjectives in these sessions. Such phrases can be useful in paragraph writing.

Pssst…here’s a useful tip: Get your students to write these phrases in their notebooks for future production.

2. Finding synonyms via an online thesaurus

Bright. Dazzling. Radiant. What do these words have in common? Well, yes, they have similar meanings. Teaching students synonyms through pictures is fun and effective, as visuals help students to see and remember new words.

For this activity, you will need an online thesaurus in which students will look up adjectives used to describe a picture. They will write down a list of synonyms for each adjective and cross off those that are not appropriate for the current context. In conjunction with this activity, I would recommend the use of a word cline to help students differentiate the meaning of each word.

If you’re not familiar with a word cline, it’s actually a way to teach synonyms to students and get them to visualize the strength of each word based on its position on a gradient. The words along the cline go from one extreme to another, such as cold to hot, low to high, small to big, good to very good, least likely to most likely, etc. So for example, the word “microscopic” could be at the bottom of the cline while the word “gigantic” could be at the top of it.

3. Individual sentence writing

Once your students have brainstormed synonyms related to the picture used for discussion, get them to write a few sentences about the picture. It’s important that they demonstrate knowledge of subject and verb in each sentence. For example, the sentence “The flowers in Van Gogh’s painting are bright yellow” is perfect for starters.

4. Pair paragraph writing

It’s known that we learn best by seeing and doing. Therefore, taking students to an art gallery is an effective way to teach them writing through the appreciation of visual arts. If an outing to a gallery is a possibility in your schedule, have students select a few pictures at the gallery and take down notes on color, contrast, texture and positioning of subjects. They can then write about the chosen art pieces and share their ideas with the class.

If organizing a trip to the local art gallery is too much of a chore, then the best alternative is to bring the art gallery to your classroom. Yes! You’ve guessed it right. With a click of the mouse button, you can show your students a variety of art pieces by renowned or lesser-known artists online.

Choose a few interesting but differing art pieces that you can discuss in class. To streamline your discussion so that students get a clear idea of the activity requirement, divide the board into columns and write the following as headings:

  • Color
  • Use of texture
  • Contrast (light and dark/shadow and light)
  • Fluidity/movement
  • Position of subjects

Get your students to work in pairs and write a paragraph about the art piece.

For advanced students, you can stretch their knowledge further by teaching them how to interpret pictures through visual elements. By modeling and talking through the art piece, you can teach your students visual cues such as mood, energy forces, relationship, personality and symbols.

As an example, let’s look at a sample paragraph on this picture by Edward Hopper:

The setting is predominantly blue. The mood depicted in this picture is that of depression. The dark shades of the windows are contrasted with the brightness of the interior of the house. Our attention is focused on the sole subject, the lady who is framed by the dark windows. Her posture indicates a sense of longing. She may be waiting for someone’s return or something to appear. She is bent forward and her hands seem to grip tightly on the edges of the table, indicating a contrast of longing and anxiety. She may be waiting for a lover’s or a child’s return. We can sense the movement of the grass and trees blown slightly by the breeze. The landscape symbolizes monotony. This can be a reflection of the woman’s life, that is, uneventful and lacking in excitement. The woman’s expression is tense. The fact that she is wearing a peach-colored dress signifies a glimmer of hope.

Teaching Picture Description with Portraits

Possible topics: Vector lines, size, use of space, shadow and light, hot (excitement, anger, happiness) and cool (sadness, peace) colors

Possible target vocabulary: Emotions (joy, lonely, depressed, excited), relationship words (hostile, close-knit, estranged, friends, strangers), status words (superior, inferior, dominant, helpless)

Portraits are good teaching resources for character studies. If your focus is on people, then portraits are the best tools to explore them. Work by Johannes Vermeer and Edgar Degas centers largely on people. If you’re after people and setting, look for works by realist artists whose subjects include scenes of rural and urban working-class life, street life, cafés and night clubs.

Activities for Teaching Picture Description with Portraits

1. Vocabulary building

Discuss colors, use of space, vector lines, shadow and light as a stepping stone to interpretation. You can introduce concept mapping to build vocabulary. Create headings such as Emotions, Relationship and Status and then get students to provide words or phrases to elaborate on the headings. For example, when discussing this picture from the animation “Paperman,” students may come up with the words “strangers,” “distant,” “awkward” and “uncomfortable” under the heading Relationship.

You can then conduct a guided writing session to show your students how to write an analysis of the picture.

2. Group interpretation work

Once you’ve built your students’ confidence in interpreting pictures, they can then work in groups. Provide a picture to each group and get the group members to describe the illustrated character or characters.

For instance, in an illustration in “Not a Nibble” by Elizabeth Honey, a child seems to be occupied by or focused on something. He or she seems to be waiting for a fish to bite his or her bait. Being portrayed in the middle of the page means that child is the main focus of the setting. The mood is idle but gay. We can sense this by the buzz of activity around the child, the seagulls waiting in anticipation with the child and the red T-shirt the child is wearing. The mood is one of adventure.

You may need to go around prompting your students with questions to help them with their analysis. Of course, it doesn’t matter if your students do not have complex vocabulary to express their thoughts on the picture. As long as they are able to write in plain, simple English to convey meaning, you’ve managed to satisfy your teaching outcomes. Hooray!

After writing, group leaders can read their interpretation of the character and then swap write-ups to peer edit. After editing another group’s work, each group can then correct their mistakes and rewrite their analysis before submission. This way, students take ownership of their own learning and learn to collaborate with one another.

Teaching Picture Description with Still Lifes

Possible topics: Color, design, contrast, size and use of space

Possible target vocabulary: Moods (childlike, playful, serious, businesslike), symbolism words (love, happiness, homely, life)

A still life is a picture showing an arrangement of inanimate, everyday objects, whether natural items (flowers or food in the form of fruit, etc.) or manufactured items (books, bottles, crockery, etc.). The magic of still life paintings lies in their symbolism. They show us a whole new way of looking at ordinary objects. Placed in a specific arrangement and then captured in paint, ink or any other medium, the objects present meaning.

Activities for Teaching Picture Description with Still Lifes

1. Choosing the right description from a list

You may need to do lots of prompting to elicit target vocabulary from students when discussing still lifes. The fastest route to discussions of mood is through color. For example, in Luis Meléndez’s “Still Life with Figs and Bread,” brown is the predominant color and it symbolizes earth. The idea is that the life represented in the picture is one that is simple and rustic. The bread and figs symbolize nourishment and life. The green figs may mean birth or the beginning of a new life.

After a discussion, you can provide worksheets that require your students to choose the correct descriptions of the picture from a list of descriptions. In this exercise, the incorrect descriptions should include false details in terms of color and objects as well as adjectives such as “rustic,” “modern,” “complex,” “simple,” etc. This is one way to test your students’ understanding of the meaning conveyed in the picture. The exercises that you design should match your class’s level of competency.

2. Mind-mapping

Provide a still life image for your students to interpret. Discuss color, arrangement and position before interpreting the mood and meaning. Draw a mind map on the board and write down descriptions under each heading for your students to copy. For example, the bright colors used in this image of candy can signify happiness and joy. Under the heading Arrangement, you can elicit responses from students for this image such as “informal” or “casual,” that is, not following any particular order. This can connote an idea of fun.

If your students find it hard to express themselves, you can ask them questions that require them to choose an answer:

  • “Are the sweets arranged in a fixed or casual way?”
  • “Does that mean there is a fun or playful element or does it mean the picture is rigid and businesslike?”

You can simplify the questions further to suit your students’ level of competence.

You can include a writing task after the description activity. It’s best to get students to write in pairs so that they get support from their peers. Your students can use the notes collected from the mind-mapping lesson while writing.


Before I conclude, here are some considerations to take note of when teaching writing through pictures. It’s best to teach one concept at a time such as mood, emotions, relationship, status or theme. This is to allow your students to absorb each concept and avoid confusion.

Always teach vocabulary first before getting your students to interpret the selected image. This makes it easier for them to respond and for you to elicit responses.

Thirdly, reinforce, reinforce, reinforce. This can be done by revisiting the concepts taught. Activities such as matching, fill-in-the-gap and crossing odd words out are excellent ways to gauge students’ understanding and jog their memory of previous concepts taught.

Lastly, vary the activities in the production stage, such as between gap filling, sentence writing and paragraph writing.

The most important thing is to have fun so that your positive vibe rubs off on your students and any anxiety is eliminated!

Emmie Sahlan taught English Language and Literature for ten years and has been teaching ESL for the past five years. 

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