Introduction  -  Stories from Pictures    

Thor May

Pictures can be a great help for learning a language. Why? Well a good picture makes us want to talk about the things in the picture, or the feelings it excites. This is much better than a blank mind and wondering what to say next.

Some pictures are much more useful for language learning than others. The best pictures are those which "tell a story" without words. Then we can easily find the words to repeat the visual story. Unfortunately, most of the pictures in most ESL books are boring and lack wit, even if the colours are pretty. My favourite book for Elementary English learning is J.B. Heaton, "Composition Through Pictures" (published Longman 1966, 1980). This uses simple line drawings, but they tell real stories. Also outstanding is a slim volume called "Storylines" by Mark Fletcher & David Birt (Longman 1983, 1989). Comics should be good candidates, but when you take the words out of most comics, the pictures become meaningless (which shows their low quality). Asterix comics have been used for language learning with some success. Two other wonderful series are the "San Miao" comic stories ("Three Hairs" - tales of a small boy; famous in China for half a century), and the droll German "Vater und Sohn". Both have been published as volumes (mine come from mainland China).

Imaginative students with some language to work with can use pictures as a stimulus for original story creation. Less able students, and those with only a small reservoir of the target language to draw on, need more help than that. They can be given a word list, jumbled sentences, or a complete text to learn. On this site I have provided some simple complete texts to go with a number of Heaton's picture stories. Most of my present students are happiest using the pictures as a memory aid for understanding and learning complete texts. That's fine. At a later stage they will become more independent, but it is a mistake to rush them.

The relationship between what we see and storytelling is extremely important, but too complex to explore in depth here. Just briefly, we can note that human beings are natural gossips. Gossiping is probably one of the main reasons we have evolved with talking skills. A few people develop this gossip ability into the a talent for telling stories. Once a story is told, many others will repeat it, and this is the source of oral literatures. Television and other media have actually taken over the job of retelling stories. They are glitzier than old fashioned after dinner telling, but we are probably less interesting people by surrendering those earlier campfire habits. We DO tell stories though. The longest descriptions folk give in their coffee breaks are often about what they SAW on TV the night before. We can't help it -- we have to talk about what we have seen. No wonder then that storytelling from pictures is a potent tool for learning other languages


"Introduction -  Stories from Pictures" copyrighted to Thor May; all rights reserved 2002

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