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Listening to pictures (McComish, 1982)

Listening to a description of a picture while looking at it.


  • To practise listening in Māori


  • Lots of listening for students
  • Easy to prepare and mark
  • Non-threatening task for students
  • Information distribution – shared
  • Student arrangement – individual
  • Language mode – listening
  • Student focus – meaning



Arrange for all students to be able to see the same picture in which several things are happening (individual or shared copies, or on an OHP or other display).

Describe the picture in detail while students look at the picture and follow the description.

Every now and then, give a true or false statement (for example: “The girl in the bedroom is asleep”).

Students say or write ‘tika’/‘true’ or ‘hē’/‘false’ for each statement (for example: if the picture shows the girl in the bedroom asleep, they write ‘tika’).

Check the answers at the end.

Teacher considerations

Describe the picture in a systematic and predictable way, for example, beginning in the top-left corner and moving across, so that the students can easily follow your description and match the picture to your words. (Nation, 1995, p. 13)

Tell the students where in the picture you will start and how your description will move through the picture.

Use language that the students can mostly understand, but introduce some new language.

It is best to use simple questions or true or false statements, rather than ones that require the students to make inferences.

Choose a picture that features illustrations of words that your students know or have been studying, or that you want them to learn from the description.

You can use the same picture several times if you focus on different aspects in your description each time.

Most suitable for lower levels of proficiency (for example, levels 1–3 in the reo Maori curriculum guidelines).


This technique can be used with either fairly simple pictures or complex pictures, so long as the language in the description is detailed and rich.

Instead of a simple ‘Yes or No’ or ‘True or False’, use ‘Yes or No or Make it right’ where the students have to correct any false statement.

Once students know the technique, they could take turns being the one to describe a picture, using pictures that the teacher has already described.

This could be followed by picture composition where students write a description of the picture. (They could be helped in this with questions to answer about the picture if necessary).

Repeat the task with the same picture and description, but add more challenge by not being predictable about which part of the picture you are describing. Pause between sentences to allow students to find what you are describing.


Level 1 – picture of a school scene with people in different locations engaged in various simple actions (AO 1.5 communicate about location)

Level 2 – picture of a school scene similar to above or marae scene, but include descriptions of physical characteristics (AO 2.5 communicate about physical characteristics)

Level 3 – city scene with people travelling in different ways (AO 3.4 communicate about how people travel)


This technique “involves a large quantity of material to listen to”. (Nation, 1995, p. 13) “The picture helps learners understand the spoken description and allows them to learn the new language items in that description.” (Nation, 1989, p. 21)

The students are not required to produce any language in this task, which reduces stress and aids learning in the early stages.

Evaluation of the task

Are the students able to follow your verbal description through the picture?

Can they answer the True/False statements correctly?


  • McComish, J. (1982). Listening to pictures. Modern English Teacher, 10 (2), (pp. 4–8.).
  • Nation, I. S. P. (1989). Language Teaching Techniques. English Language Institute Occasional Publication No. 2 (p. 21).
  • Nation, I. S. P. (1995). Teaching Listening and Speaking. English Language Institute Occasional Publication No. 14 (p. 13).

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