How Do I Do PictureTalk?

picturetalk demo photo

Profe, working diligently to maintain student interest.

Other than MovieTalk, PictureTalk is the single-best “add-on” to any C.I. program, and an amazing strategy for non-c.i. teachers.  It reinforces already-taught vocabulary and grammar, and is also a superb way to introduce new vocab pre-story.

Picturetalk is simple, easy, low-prep and effective.   Here are three ways to do Picturetalk.


a)  Find a picture online which contains the “things”– people and actions– in your most recent story, textbook unit, etc.  So, if your story is about a poor Guatemalan kid who wants something to eat, you find a picture of that, or (say) a picture of a homeless person.

b)  If you have never taught the vocab you want to use, write on board (or project it) along with translation.  Make sure the kids know what the words mean.

c)  Project the picture, make statements while pointing and pausing (see pic above), and ask questions about the picture and about the things you’ve said about the picture.  You ask questions.  Students answer (as a class, or get your superstars to answer). You restate what students say in proper language.

Here is an example with questions:


Teacher: ¿Qué hay en la foto?  What’s in the photo?
Class: a guy, a dog
Teacher: Hay un hombre, y hay un perro. No hay gato el la foto.

T: ¿Hay un hombre o una mujer?  ¿Cómo se llama?  Is there a man or a woman?  What is their name?
C: a man, Dave
T: Hay un hombre.  No hay una mujer. Se llama Dave.

T: ¿Qué tiene el hombre?  What does the man have?
C: a dog,
T: Tiene un perro grande. No tiene gato.

Note here that some of these questions require factual answers, but some can be made up (e.g. the man’s name, what the dog wants to eat, etc).

d)  As well as asking questions about the photo, you should personalise the discussion.  So, we ask the kids do you have a dog?  Are you hungry?  What’s your dog’s name? etc.  This is both interesting and you get first and second person reps.

Another recent trick: use yourself as an example, or use a hand/sock puppet. In my class, we have two sock puppets:  Sock, who is obnoxious, and his slave sock Calci.  I can wear one and talk to him/her (or have  him/her talk to students). So…The man in the picture has a dog, but Sock has Calci, etc.

e) We also want to move into higher-level thinking, so we can ask questions like ¿Es bueno vivir en la calle, o no es bueno?  ¿Por qué? (Is it good to live in the street, or not?  Why?)

f)  You can obviously target your most recently-taught structures and vocab, and– like with Movietalk– you can also mention anything that has been previously taught (recycling). But don`t beat older vocab to death.  Also note that we can use different verb forms, etc, no problem.

You want to circle your new vocab.  If you make a statement and you get a fast and correct answer, the item does not need more circling.

Now, another brilliant idea that got tweeted out from N.T.P.R.S. 2015 was “double picturetalk.” (Sorry, I have no idea who thought of this).  Here, you put two (or more) photos side by side, so you can do comparison talk.

Photo A                                          Photo B

homeless_man_w_dog40  homeless woman

Here, we have a few other strategies we can use.

  1. We can get kids to look, then make a statement about one picture, then ask them which photo we are describing.  E.g. “There is a woman” and they say “photo B.”
  2. We can ask “what is different between Photo A and Photo B?”  We are also able to get many repetitions: “the man has a dog. The woman does not have a dog,” etc.
  3. We can use plural verbs (they have, we have, etc).
  4. If you pull photos from two cultures (e.g. from you target language culture and from your own), you can do some great cultural comparisons, on everything from dress etc for beginners to justice etc questions for those with more vocab.
  5. If you must teach the alphabet, you can start labeling photos A,B,C,D etc and after 26 the kids will recognise the letters (same goes for numbers– why not randomly call one “Photo 237” and the other “301”?)  By the way, if you want a few tips for teaching boring crap like numbers, weather, etc, see this.

The third neat thing you can do with Picturetalk (which is especially useful if, like me, you are teaching with fully unsheltered grammar even with true beginners) is to review pictures for past-tense practice.  This idea comes from Eric Herman’s views on Movietalk.  Ideally, you have say 2-3 pictures which broadly reflect the vocab of the story you are asking.

a)  You project a picture and do Picturetalk as noted above (before or on Day 1 of asking the story).

b)  The next day (Day 2), you tell the class “OK, yesterday we looked at a photo of _____.  Let’s see what we can remember.  Class, what was in the photo?  That’s right, there was a duck. What was the duck’s name?” etc.  After you have made a few past-tense statements,  you show the same picture, you check and see what the kids remember, and you ask a few more of the same questions in the past tense.

c) Also on Day 2, you introduce another picture which possibly has the same subject matter and/or subject as the first. PictureTalk that, and review on Day 3.

Here is an example.  Say your story uses chases/chased, wants/wanted to grab, doesn’t/didn’t succeed:


Day 1:  “Class, what is in the photo?  Right, a duck.  Class, is it a duck or a dog?  That’s right, it’s a duck.  Class, what’s the duck’s name?  [suggestions come]  That’s right class, the duck is named Napoleon.  Class, what colour is Napoleon’s head?…” etc

Day 2:  Before you re-project the picture, you say, “OK, class, yesterday we saw a photo.  Let’s review.  Class, what was in the photo?  A duck.  That’s right, there was a duck.  Class, do you remember, what was the duck’s name?…” etc.  Then you put the photo up, talk about it, and introduce a second photo:

duck being chased

Now, talk about this photo.  “Class, is there one duck or two here?  That’s right, there are two ducks.  Class, what is the second duck’s name?  (…) That’s right, class, the second duck’s name is Megan Fox.  Class, is Megan Fox chasing Napoleon?  Yes, she is chasing Napoleon. [circle this]  Class, why is she chasing Napoleon?  What does Napoleon have?  That’s right: Napoleon has Megan Fox’s duck wax…” etc.

Day 3: review details, then put the photo up, then review it a bit more.  “Class, why was Megan Fox chasing Napoleon? That’s right: Napoleon had her duck wax.”

If you are careful not to introduce any new vocab, this is an amazing way to get kids used to two (or more) verb tenses (or whatever). They are going to hear the same question, a day apart, in different verb tenses.  If you check for understanding– and one of the kids’ biggest errors in unsheltered grammar is tense mixing initially– you’ll be building a solid foundation of good input.

Here’s a fourth idea: I was recently in Minneapolis and saw a cool variation on this in Amy and Gisela’s elementary Spanish class.  We could call it PictureStory.  Here is how it works:

a) get 3-6 pics that illustrate your story.  Amy had a book about Sr. Marrero who was always grumpy and didn’t like the weather. Your pics can have everything in them, or just be background. Get the actor(s) you need.

b) Project picture #1 and ask a few questions about it.  Establish that your characters are in the picture.  You could use just background (ie use the picture as a setting) or you can use the picture with characters in it.

c) Your actors can answer direct questions (“are you…, do you want…would you like…” etc) and/or “do” the dialogue.

d) You then switch to your next scene by changing picture and you keep going.

In Amy’s class, the little kids all wanted to act, so most got a turn at different pictures.  (One of them was the man, another his dog…and at one point the man petted his dog!  Very cute).

Remember Purpose

Remember always: language is acquired by processing comprehended communicative input. “Language practice” or “vocab review” or “working on the past tense” are not communicative. “Communicative” means two things:
1. having meaning for speaker/writer & listener/reader
2. having a non-linguistic purpose (eg entertaining, sorting, deciding, ranking)

Anyway.  Picturetalk rocks.  Just remember the usual brain-friendly rules:

  • keep everything 100% comprehensible
  • go s.l.o.w.l.y.
  • don’t overload new vocab
  • personalise
  • accept any output that signals correct understanding; do not force any kind of output

Any more suggestions?  Put ’em in the comments or email.

Adriana recommends…

My colleague Adriana Ramírez has done some cool c.i.-themed stuff. As well as writing a “textbook” for Spanish TPRS called Learning Spanish With Comprehensible Input Through Storytelling (you can buy it through Amazon), she has a few other things.

A) teachers pay teachers. Adriana has a set of Movietalk lessons. These include questions, readings, etc. You can find these here.

B) Youtube channel– watch Adriana doing bits of lessons. The link is here.

I have not seen the videos or used the movietalk stuff so if ppl buy/watch them and like them, please comment. Her book is good.

The “Six Bridges” to Traditional Teaching

Image result for six bridges

Everybody reading this blog has talked to colleagues who either don’t like or don’t get T.P.R.S. and other comprehensible input strategies. Yet it’s pretty obvious our profession needs modernising. At least in Canada, a program such as Core French (regular classroom French) does not work very well: we do not, despite between four and eight years of instruction, produce fluent graduates, and savvy parents want their kids in French Immersion partly because it actually works (and we Spanish, Japanese etc teachers are not much better). This is not because teachers aren’t hard-working, innovative, etc– I havn’t yet met a languages teacher who doesn’t work his or her butt off– but because we don’t use researched, scientifically-sound modern methods.

I think T.P.R.S. (and A.I.M., and narrative paraphrase, and reading) are the best ways (so far) for upping our game. If comprehensible input works, we T.P.R.S. teachers must do our part to modernise the profession. For my part, I will– and do– demo T.P.R.S., talk to colleagues, coach, share materials, write this blog, etc, but we require something else: a simple, do-it-now bridge between comprehensible-input teachers and people who have learned more traditional methods. We need to start somewhere simple: by showing people what we do which works. So, today’s question:

What can comprehensible-input practitioners share with others?

Here are Six Bridges between c.i. and communicative and/or grammarians: simple things ANYONE can do to up their game without doing stories. If your colleague sees how well T.P.R.S. works in your class, but is reluctant, here are six easy ways to start.

A) Go s-l-o-w-l-y. As I have shown, if any teacher– and not just in languages– speaks too quickly, they will lose the kids.

B) Reduce the vocab load, focus on high-frequency vocab, and increase input via repetitions.  A person who uses their textbook can make life much easier on the kids by reducing the number of words the kids must memorise per unit. Do you really need to know all ten ways of saying “goodbye” in Spanish? Do the kids really need to know the words for “underwear” and “socks” in French?

When I taught “communicatively,” with ¡Juntos!‘ massive vocab lists, the kids only ended up using half of the words anyway. Pick the most-frequent, necessary stuff, and focus on that.

Think this way: you have 60 min in a class. If you use 60 vocab items, you have on average 1 minute/item if you want the kids to learn them all. If you have 30 items, you have 2 minutes/item. What do you think the kids are going to better remember: many items superficially “covered,” or fewer items presented in depth?

C) Do more reading. The novels by Karen Rowan, Blaine Ray, Carol Gaab etc, will work in any classroom. If the kids understand, they are learning.

In my view, a lack of reading is the single-greatest flaw that “communicative” teachers’ practice has: they are so focused on talking and writing that their kids don’t read nearly enough. It doesn’t matter what you “believe” or “feel” about language acquisition: there isn’t a teacher in the world who would argue with the value of reading. All we have to do is provide reading that’s comprehensible and interesting.

D) Always clarify.. No kid in any class should ever be guessing what something means. Ambiguity or misunderstanding = no or less acquisition, and frustration (read: behaviour problems). A bit of English is just fine, thank you, if it helps kids understand.

To those who think that the process of establishing meaning (guess, look it up, think of cognates etc) aids acquisition: The involvment load hypothesis suggests that the more meaning processing that happens to an item, the better it is retained.  However, we get a lot more processing via stories, circling etc than through dictionaries, collaborative sentence creation, etc.  Best idea:  give translation where necessary, and make focus the meaningful use of language.

Do you learn a sports skill by Googling and then watching a demo video on Youtube, or by practising? That’s right: in language acquisition, getting comprehensible input is practising. The more you hear/read which you understand, the more you learn.

E) Don’t force output. This will be the hardest pill for “communicative” teachers to swallow, because they like the idea that talking results in acquisition (while we know that the reverse is true). So how should a “communicative” teacher downplay output? Here are some ideas:

1. Use the tapes/DVDs/movies and reading exercises that come with your textbook package before you do any speaking activities. This will provide more input and put the kids on a more solid footing for when you do want them to speak.

2. Confine output– at least initially– to the superstars. If you have a couple of kids who are quick on the uptake and lovers of French/Chinese etc, get them to do the practice dialogues first when you get to new vocab, grammar, etc. If Rorie and Arabella love to chat (and are good at it) have them practice all of the info-gap activities with the rest of the class listening, so that the slower Samba and Max can get some input before they have to try talking.

3. Provide input by using sock puppets, educational software, etc. With various free things such as Bitstrips, Educreations, Storyboard That,and a zillion other apps (most of them free or dirt cheap), it is very easy to provide input– and tons of dialogue modeling– without using kids.

F) Use MovieTalk (a.k.a. “narrative paraphrase,” developed by Ashley Hastings). Kids love it, it’s easy, it requires minimal prep, it’s very effective, and it’s infinitely flexible. Here is how to do Movietalk. Just remember: MovieTalk is not for introducing new vocab.

G) Use PictureTalk.  This is zero-prep, simple, easy, fun…and anyone can do it with 10 mins of training in slowing down and doing basic circling.

How Do I do MovieTalk?


Movietalk is the single best, simplest add-on to t.p.r.s. there is. You can do it; your colleagues who don’t use tprs/ci can do it; here is How To Do MovieTalk! All you need is a way to show a video/Internet clip in your class.


A)  If you have done a story, find a short video– animated film, commercial, public-service ad, clip from a movie– which will let you say your target structures.

B) Watch it start to end to find the “natural pauses”– make note of these, or remember– and make sure it’s OK for your classes.


C) Turn sound off if the video has any language at all (though music etc is fine).

D) Play 10-20 seconds of the video. Pause at a good natural break.

E) Now, point and start making statements, and then circling them. Class, is there a boy or a chicken? That’s right, class, there is a chicken. Is the chicken beautiful or ugly? Etc etc. You can also EASILY personalise any of this: Johnny, do YOU have a chicken? Is she ugly or beautiful? etc.

The beauty of MovieTalk is that you can target not only your specific structures but also anything else the students have already seen.. If you structures are, say, wants, goes to and needs, you make (and circle) statements about those. BUT you can also bring up anything else you want reps on! Time, numbers, any other verbs, etc etc. If they have seen it, and they understand, you can use it.

F) When the circling runs out of steam, play 10-30 more seconds of video, then pause and repeat.

Where do I get videos?  

There are two searchable and organsied Movietalk databases of which I am aware:  one is here and the other is here.  Blaine and Von Ray and Mike Coxon have a new set of books and DVDs about Movietalk here (note:  I have not used these; this is not a recommendation or review).

My favourite Movietalk variations:

1) Picturetalk before the movie. Before showing the film, make screen-shots of 4-8 significant moments of the film not including the ending. Instead of showing the film, tell students “I am going to show you a set of pictures from a video which tell a story. Then we’ll watch the end together.”

Now, show them image #1 from the film, and ask, circle & personalise away. Repeat until you have gotten to the end of your images. Then, show the rest of the film. People always want to know what happens at the end!

2) Other-tense review.. Narrate/circle the film (and/or your screenshots) in present tense. Once the film is done, review it in the past tense. Just do your comprehension checks so the kids know what’s what– “Class, what’s the difference between the boy eats the cake and the boy ate the cake? That’s right– eats is right now, and ate is it’s already happened.” While this may seem a minor point, it’s important, as it’s easy to think students can tell the difference between the tenses when often– especially when you have beginners and use fully unsheltered grammar– they get mixed up.

Say you show 60 sec of your movie on Monday.  You will be narrating and asking questions in the present tense.  On Tues, put up 2-3 screenshots from those first 60 sec., and you review them in the past tense.

3) Movie trailers. This is not my idea (it maybe comes from Eric Herman). The day before MovieTalk, you tell the kids tomorrow we will watch a film. In this film there will be a girl who will have a problem…” Use one screenshot (and circle). This gets students interested, and allows you to use one of the future verb tenses.

4) Reading! You can write up your narration (which will obviously be a story, yay!) and have students read that when aural input is done.  Lots of teachers sell these on TPT or trade them. This is a killer way to reinforce the MT but it can be a lot of work if you r curriculum is untargeted and you are using new videos all the time.

A few pointers:

  • focus on your target structures and what the kids know. Do NOT use MovieTalk to introduce a ton of new vocab.
  • go S.L.O.W.L.Y.
  • this, like circling, is an art. If you are too repetitive, or too slow in getting through the film, etc, students lose interest. You do not want to beat each moment to death.
  • the success of Movietalk is because you have visuals to anchor language, and because you limit your vocabulary while giving loads of repetitions.
  • students often have great ideas for videos. Put the call out– “who can recommend a 3-minute video where there are people ______? Email/tweet/mssg me your suggestions.”

Ok people, please let me know if you have add-ons, or if I failed to credit people for ideas, etc.  By the way, Movietalk was initially called “narrative paraphrase” and was developed by Ashley Hastings as part of the “Focal Skills” approach to teaching languages.