the YARN approach

We all love using images in the classroom, whether it is to activate schemata (the background knowledge or experience of a situation or topic which creates expectations and helps interpretation or learning of similar contexts) as part of a more elaborate lesson or if the end goal is simply to talk about the picture itself . This is a short video from John Medina, molecular biologist and author of Brain Rules, shedding light on how schemata work to ease understanding.

I recently coined the acronym “YARN” for the way I approach discussing photos in the classroom as part of elaborate lessons where we want to integrate different skills. This is how the YARN approach works:

You first!

Students discuss a question or series of questions, a controversial statement, have conversations around visuals or brainstorm ideas. In this stage we are activating schemata, raising interest and allowing the students use the language they already know. Prior to this, try to anticipate vocabulary they may need and while students are engaged in the conversations, circulate to provide help and reformulate their spoken interactions and take note of possible errors.


In plenary mode, elicit answers from the students, provide extra vocabulary, drill accurate pronunciation, encourage maximum participation and engagement. Exemplify use of vocabulary by showing examples on Twitter or Youglish (blog post on Youglish coming soon!), for instance.


Now it’s time for the students to practice again outside the classroom setting by keeping track of vocabulary with vocabulary lists, with textbook-based work, audio or/and video recordings, by writing on blogs or wikis, etc. For instance, ask the students to write four or five lines about the picture using some of  the words and expressions that cropped up in class. Or alternatively, ask them to send you (or upload to a site) a one minute voice or video recording using the target language.

Not interfering

As Earl Stevick brilliantly put it in his classic Memory, Meaning and Method (1976), “Teach, then test, then get out of the way”. Teachers teach and test but at one point one must step aside. Nevertheless, it is crucial to equip students with the tools they need and foster autonomous learning. In other words, teaching how to fish.


And here is a practical example of how the lesson would unfold:

Find an intriguing photo on the Internet that can make the students think and that can prompt discussion in the classroom. I personally enjoy delving into the What’s going on with this picture? and Picture Prompts sections from The New York Times, which have an invaluable bank of interesting photos. I also use photos that I find on Facebook .You may also want to google “viral photos” or “interesting photos for discussion” or even run a search with a string of key words for a photo that might fit a given topic you would like to discuss with your students (“congested road”, for instance, if your aim is to discuss pollution/means of transport/ecological footprint, etc. or “buying tickets” if you want your students to talk about shopping in general or a subtopic related to shopping).

You first! If you have an IWB or a projector and a screen, display the photo. If not, let the students use mobile devices and have them find it on the Internet by providing the link. Have the students discuss the photo in pairs or threes for about five minutes. They should be talking about what they see and what the photo makes them think. Circulate to provide help and suggest words and expressions. In addition, write those suggested words and expressions on the board together with other useful and relevant vocabulary while the students are discussing.

Accuracy. In plenary mode elicit information from the students. Direct attention to the focal vocabulary on the board. For instance, I googled “mobile phone driving” and looked for “labelled for reuse” images using the advanced search feature…



…and chose this photo

Depending on the language level of your students, you may want to annotate words and expressions such as “distracted driving”, “to draw attention (to)”, “to take one’s eyes off the road”, “a ban (on)”, “to put yourself in danger”, “to have split attention”, “to peer at (a text message)”, “texting while driving”, “more likely to (have an accident)”, “a factor (in)”, etc. Have students reformulate their ideas and encourage them to use the expressions on the board. Think of interesting questions related to the ideas expressed by the students (which of these things are the most dangerous when you are driving a car: eating or drinking, setting a satnav, texting, talking on the phone)/ do you have a driving license? / do you think you are a good driver? / do you think your parents are good drivers? / in what other situations is it wrong to use a mobile phone? / what makes a good driver? etc.).

Repetition. Ask the students to “tag” the photo (that is, label it with key words). Give them a minute or so to brainstorm ideas (#mobilephone, #recklessdriving, #netiquette, #risksinlife, #astupidthingtodo, #retard, etc.). Write those tags on the board (or have a student do so). Now ask for a volunteer to give a talk to the class a week from today based on one of those tags. The talk can last about 5 minutes and they can use visuals if they want to. The talk could be a summary of the ideas originated in class or something either slightly or way off-the-tangent. For instance, if they choose #astupidthingtodo the talk can be based on stupid decisions that people make sometimes. They can do research on the Internet for their talk but it is best if they do not use notes when they are delivering it. In addition, ask the students –outside the classroom setting- to make short voice recordings of about one to two minutes or write a few lines (on a wiki/blog/Facebook page/Whatsapp group/Google Doc or a piece of paper) and try to incorporate their peers’ ideas and the vocabulary generated in class. This time they have a second chance to voice their ideas and to practice the newly acquired vocabulary. A wiki or Google Doc is highly recommended as these are collaborative platforms and the students and teacher can edit work and make any necessary corrections.


And here is a free book from ELT Council, The Image in English Language Teaching, edited by Kieran Donaghy (you may be familiar with his incredibly useful site Film English, featuring tons of high quality short films and providing very creative lessons around them. If you have not heard of it yet, it really is a gem). This book is a free and, yes, legal open access download featuring contributions by Ben Goldstein, Antonia Clare, Paul Dummer, among others, in the use of images in the English classroom. Click on the image for the download.

the image


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