IATEFL 2012: No words: using sound and images in class

Just seen the lovely Mike Harrison sharing a few tips and tricks for using sound and images in class.  And here they are!  (My thoughts/comments in italics…)

Welcome screen on board before talk starts: Beware, for wolves come in many disguises… Please be ready to look, listen and draw.


Ooh, excited!  Room is filling up fast – and more people trying to come in!

Mike starts his talk by taking a photo of all of us!  Say cheese…

Let’s start by imagining a French ESP class – French for mechanics.  The teacher needs to teach “car’ but can’t translate for the students.  Pictures are a simple, clear, quick solution.  Concept immediately into students’ heads!  Picture of “voiture” – job done.  Similarly, a sound effect might help (e.g. the sound of a motor to teach “motor”).

Of course there are issues with pics – is it meant to show “car” or “estate car” etc?  But by and large they’re great.

Some recos for image sources – Jamie Keddie’s book and blog.  Ben Goldstein’s book.  ELTpics (credit to @victoriaB52 @vickyloras @cgoodey) collection of images, etc.

Activity 1 (which we try out): half the sts close their eyes; half the sts have their eyes open and must draw a pic to illustrate the sentence on the whiteboard.  After a moment, everyone opens their eyes & the people whose eyes were closed have to guess the sentence from their partner’s drawing (who had their eyes open).

Reference to Willy Cardoso‘s Pecha Kucha talk last night on teaching “at the edge of chaos” – meeting in the middle between chaos and creativity creates a great opportunity for learning.

Activity 2: we listen to a sound effect and have to think about what we’re feeling (in 3-5 words).  The sound effect makes me think: Sainsbury’s Saturday afternoon.  My partner, on the other hand, said: sea, crowd, restaurant, voices, chatting (!).  Mike observes that many of us wrote gerunds: queueing, shopping, etc., and feelings: patience, etc.  He reveals what it was: a 20-second recording in a supermarket (you can hear the beeping of the scanners, etc.).

IMPORTANT NOTE: some images and some sound effects might be upsetting for some students.  Be sensible and sensitive.

We can use images and sound for:

  • vocabulary
  • providing context for speaking activities
  • modifying reading/listening/writing
  • stimulating the imagination

We have a go at activity 3: Mike plays the same sound effect (in a supermarket/grocery store) and we have to create a short typical dialogue in that context.  Here’s my example with the guy next to me:

A: Good morning, Sir.

B: Good morning, can I have a pound of tomatoes and six apples?

A: Certainly, sir.  What type of apples would you like?

B: Golden delicious.

Another very funny example from the audience (thanks @jemjemgardner and @bealer81!) involves a couple talking in an aisle about picking up milk and sausages. 🙂

Mike notes that you could equally play another sound effect, more ambiguous (e.g. a thunderstorm) and see what students produce.  Once his students had things like “I’m in the shower” (!).

Activity 4: we read a couple of sentences and imagine them as animated in our minds. e.g. “There’s a bird, light and delicate, with feathers of silk.”  We have to keep these in mind.  Then we listen and see if the image we had in our mind changes.  He plays us an upbeat flute melody (from Peter & the Wolf by Prokofiev).  This adds a lot to what we read!!  Terrific.  Interplay between text and music sparks our imagination.

Activity 5: Mike reads us a little story about a duck and a bird.  We just listen.  At the end of the story, the duck and the bird have an argument.  Now in pairs, we have to discuss that argument!  What does it look like, etc.?  My thoughts at this moment: in about 10 seconds, my partner and I use all sorts of verbs of motion like “flit”, “hop”, “charge” and so on.  These are frequent in S-languages like English but less so in V-languages like Spanish (see Slobin, 2003*, for some explanation of this concept and research into it – but the gist is that some languages more readily encode manner of motion in their verbs, like in those examples I just typed, whereas other languages tend to use fewer, broader verbs – like walk, rather than skip/trot/amble – and mention manner of motion adverbially, if at all.  Would be interesting to try and develop the English way of manner-encoding in the EFL classroom through an activity like this!)  Anyway, Mike then plays us another clip from Peter and the Wolf to add music to our mental imagery, and again, see if it changes.

Activity 6: stimulating.  We divide a piece of paper into 4 sections, labelling each one 1-4.  (Reference to Vicky Saumell’s Pecha Kucha on choice last night – students have some choice!)  As they listen to 4 short music clips, the students scribble down a little drawing it makes them think of.  Here were mine… (clip 1 was: smooth piano jazz; clip 2: quick piece featuring various instruments, from the Sound of Music; clip 3: something orchestral that sounded like it was from a tense moment in a sci-fi movie, hence my drawing of a spaceship!; clip 4: slow, romantic music that conjures up – for me – images of heat, love, ancient civilisation…. something like Gladiator?)


Now students write a story to link the 4 boxes.  They work in small groups (3 or 4 ideally, pairs if necessary) to choose the best images from their sections, possibly from different students’ work, and write a story connecting whatever they’ve drawn in pics 1, 2, 3 and 4.

Note: Mike used commercially available music for his demo, but you could use anything.  Try searching for “creative commons” on Google and you might find sounds and images that are licensed for re-use by anyone, as long as they’re not making a profit.

Some more links if you’re interested:


My overall verdict: a great talk!  I often use images but rarely – almost never – use sound effects.  There’s so much untapped potential here!  Look out for Mike’s book about this coming out in the near future, to be published with @wetheround.

*Source: something I’ve been reading for my MA about the influence of linguistic structures on thought.

POST-CONFERENCE UPDATE: You can find some more details and links for the session by the man himself here!


About Laura Patsko

Teacher trainer, language learner, language teacher, linguist, researcher. Not necessarily in that order.


  1. Elizabeth Anne

    Hey – Thanks a lot for all the details – I regretted so much not being able to come to Glasgow – whereas had I been there, I wouldn’t have come looking for these great write ups

  2. Hi Laura,Thanks for telling us about Mike Harrison’s session – would have really like to have been there.Thought that teachers on the <a href="https://www.facebook.com/TeachingEnglish.BritishCouncil/posts/360446917333628">TeachingEnglish facebook page</a> would find this really helpful so I’ve just posted a link it there if you’d like to check for comments.Please feel free to post on the page whenever you have anything you’d like to share.Best,Ann

  3. Laura Patsko

    Glad you found them helpful! 🙂 Maybe meet you there next year!

  4. Laura Patsko

    Hi Ann,It was indeed a great session. The last I saw of the whole conference, and a great note to end on!Thanks for sharing the link – I don’t use Facebook, but I hope the teacher there will find this site useful!Laura

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