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June 2005 - Issue No. #57

Education with Impact:

Developing EFL Lessons on Global Issues
using Photojournalism Websites

by Greg Goodmacher

Oita Pref. College of Arts and Culture, Japan

Why Use Photojournalist Websites?

The field of photojournalism excels in creating websites that often touch, sometimes upset, and always stimulate the minds and hearts of viewers and readers. Teachers and materials designers must keep in mind that "at the heart of all thought and meaning and action is emotion" (Brown, 2000: 63). Students are affective beings with inquisitive minds. Pictures taken by professional photojournalists are often so moving that the images facilitate emotional and cognitive understandings of local and global issues much more effectively than the words of most teachers, texts and visuals in schoolbooks. Powerful visuals produce strong intellectual and affective impact. As Tomlinson states, "Materials should achieve impact. Impact is achieved when materials have a noticeable impact on learners...when the learner's curiosity, interest and attention are attracted" (1998:7).

Photojournalism sites allow students and teachers to see what is happening around the world on a daily basis. Many of my students are much more interested in current events than past events. New photos and videos of compelling issues and events are added to many photojournalism web sites daily. During the recent war in Iraq, most major news organizations with web sites uploaded photos that had just been taken by their photographers in hospitals, military conference rooms, and in the midst of battle. In contrast, due to lengthy production times, most textbooks on current events show images that were created at the earliest one year ago. This is an important point because many students are relatively unfamiliar with internationally significant events and world leaders from just a few years ago.

Many websites show images and topics that may be considered too graphic or controversial for inclusion in textbooks written for a global audience. On the other hand, photojournalism sites are often vivid and realistic. An aspect of the job of a photojournalist is to bear witness to and to record controversial events. Major publishing companies do not want to offend any of their markets, so they provide non-controversial topics, texts and images. In an evaluation of materials produced by major British publishers, reviewers found that "the topic content of many units, in many of the courses, is distinctly trivial for adult learners" (Tomlinson et al, 2001:87).

The sheer amount of photos visible on photojournalism sites is much greater than what can be displayed in any textbook. Due to financial and space limitations, textbooks may have only a few images per chapter. In contrast, photojournalism sites may have hundreds of accessible photographs as well as links to other sites. The great variety of images allows teachers to find the most suitable images that match the content to be taught, the interests and the maturity level of the students.

The quality of photos is also of much higher caliber and thus has more impact than those in most textbooks. With the use of LCDs (portable computer projectors), teachers can project these profound and stimulating images onto a large screen. As we all know, the impact of an exciting video on a TV screen is considerably less than the impact of the same images shown on a large movie screen. The relationship of image size and impact applies to small pictures in a textbook as compared to images shown on a large screen.

Both teachers and students can access and analyze news texts and photos of current events from a variety of cultural perspectives. For example, images, headlines, and articles uploaded on the Al-Jazeera web site may differ significantly from those shown by CNN, even when they cover the same topic. In such situations, teachers can introduce students to how language is used to express differing realities of one event. Helping students understand the connections between language use, media bias, and culture is an important part of developing critical thinking. Moreover, foreign language students mainly experience the culture they are studying through statements and behavior of their instructors and class materials. The Internet becomes a resource for cultural studies (Warschauer & Meskill, C. 2000).

The authenticity of photojournalism sites is extremely motivating for many students, and many teachers and students value the use of authentic materials. Julian Edge succinctly wrote: "Authentic materials bring the means of learning and the purpose of learning close together, and this establishes once again a direct link with the world outside the classroom" (1993:47). Even manipulated images are useful as they offer opportunities to study and understand how language and media are used to influence others.

The importance of learning styles has received a lot of emphasis in ELT literature. As a result, we know that there are many kinds of learners. However, most textbooks seem to "favor analytic learners who like to focus their conscious attention on discrete learning points" (Tomlinson et al, 2001:83). Teachers can easily use the images on web sites in a variety of ways that will stimulate learners with differing learning styles. Visual learners will benefit from increased exposure to visual images. Students who learn when affectively touched will benefit from the emotionally touching nature of photojournalism. As Spolsky states, "Learning is best when the learning opportunity matches the learner's preference" (1989:111).

Images for Global Issues Content Lessons

At this point, I would like to give some examples and suggestions for the pedagogic use of photojournalism sites to teach language and global issues-based content. With a few suggestions and examples, teachers will be able to create exercises that will expand the limits of student's world knowledge and recharge their enthusiasm for learning to communicate.

A Multi-Skills Lesson

My students responded with great interest to the following lesson which integrated conversation, writing, grammar, computer skills, and exposure to global issues. The source of images for this lesson was Aurora Photos (website below). This site is outstanding in both affective impact and pedagogical usefulness. It exhibits a wide range of photo documentaries: a family which is infected with AIDS, cyber sex, Alzheimer's disease, women in Afghanistan, child laborers, among many others. The lesson started with students in a computer lab viewing the site from individual computers. Each student communicated with a partner in another location using NetMeeting, a computer program which allows people to have conversations, chat, and send documents back and forth. The partners were allowed time to look freely at various photo documentaries, ask questions, and discuss their reactions. The grammar and writing practice required describing and using superlatives. As teacher, I provided them with vocabulary: disturbing, hopeful, fascinating, depressing, shocking, educational, moving, etc. Each pair had to decide which picture was the "most shocking" or "most touching", etc. Then as pairs they had to write sentences using the superlative forms of the vocabulary provided and describe the pictures well enough for the teacher to understand which pictures they had chosen as "the most educational" or "most touching", etc. Working collaboratively, the students sent Word documents back and forth as they proofread and edited their work. At the end of the assignment, each pair e-mailed the final document to the teacher.

Conversation Practice

A simpler conversation task that also involves description is to have students sit next to each other in pairs of A and B. The teacher projects a high-interest photograph, chosen on the basis of impact, topic to be taught, and vocabulary it might elicit, onto a large screen. The A students must describe the image to B students who keep their eyes closed, listen, ask questions, and try to imagine the image. After a suitable time period, B students open their eyes and look at the image, comparing it with their visualizations. Then students change roles and work with another picture. One good site for this is the United Nations Photo site (see below).

Listening and Summarizing Activities

CNN, The New York Times and other major news sites have slide shows and short videos of recent and newsworthy events which are perfect for listening skills development. These can be used in various ways. One way is to assign students to look at the slides or videos and listen to the audio text. The visuals help aid comprehension even if the audio is difficult to understand. Students can write a summary of the information in their own words after listening as often as needed. Through working on their own computers, students control how often they hear the text. An oral summarizing lesson can be developed using two different slide shows or videos and dividing students into pairs. Each partner becomes responsible for orally summarizing the slide show while the other partner watches with the sound off. Teachers can also create comprehension and response exercises to match the videos and slide shows.

Activities for Reading and Writing

Some photo documentaries are accompanied by text which is often as stimulating as the photos. The photos help aid comprehension. An excellent resource for such reading texts is The Photojournalist's Coffee House (website below). Topics covered include homelessness, teen pregnancy and refugees. Some texts were written by the subjects of the documentaries. Teachers can easily create comprehension or response activities for these.

After viewing photo documentaries of people their own age, students can be assigned to write diary entries, for a week or so, as if they were that person. Students must attempt to imagine the daily life and feelings of that person. While developing writing skills, this can lead to increased sympathy with and curiosity about people such as refugees, child soldiers, natural disaster victims, etc. Photo documentaries can also be used for comparison and contrast essays. Students can come to a deeper understanding of how their life styles differ from many in the world, while developing an understanding of the basic needs that unify us all.

Other Teaching Suggestions

Creative teachers can use photo-journalism materials in numerous ways to develop knowledge of global issues and language skills. Students can pretend to be photojournalists interviewing people in the images. Teachers can teach new vocabulary with photos. The images can be used to create schema before working with other texts. The sites can be excellent resources for students to use for research and presentations. Students can even work on developing solutions to some of the problems that they study. The list of how to use these resources is as long as the imagination of the teachers and students. One last suggestion is to ask your students what they'd like to do with the sites. I'd be glad to receive any ideas you'd like to share at my e-mail address below.


  • Brown, H. Douglas. Principles of Language Learning and Teaching. Longman: New York, 2000
  • Edge, Julian Essentials of English Teaching Addison-Wesley Pub. Co. 1993. 47
  • Spolsky, B. Conditions for Second Language Learning. Oxford Univ. Press, 1989
  • Tomlinson, B Introduction to Materials Development in Language Teaching. Cambridge UP, 1998
  • Tomlinson, Brian, et al. "EFL courses for adults." ELT Journal 55.1 (2001): 80-101, Ibid. p. 83
  • Warschauer, M. & Meskill, C. "Technology and Second Language Learning." Handbook of Undergraduate Second Language Education. Ed. J. Rosenthal. Lawrence Erlbaum. 2000. 303-318

Useful Websites

NOTE: Please contact webmasters for permission to copy and use images. They will often grant permission for educational purposes. Auroraphotos and the UN gave me permission to use images for classroom use.
This article was first published in longer form in "Folio" the journal of the Materials Developers Association. It is reprinted here in edited form with permission of the author.

Greg Goodmacher, Oita Prefectural College of Arts and Culture,
Department of International Culture, Oita, Japan


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