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5 No-Prep Activities Using Photo Apps

by Brent Warner |

We’ve all had those moments in class: We need to fill a few minutes, break the ice with newly formed groups, personalize the lesson, or just plain change pace when things aren’t working. A lot of teachers keep a handful of no-prep activities up their sleeve for just such occasions. While many students are used to hearing “put your phones away” from the front of the class, today we’ll look at a few no-prep activities that encourage students to build a positive connection between their phones and learning.

If you can be sure of anything, it’s that your students have a plethora of fresh content—right in their pockets—that you can pull from to make sure that they have interesting and relevant content to engage with: the photos they’ve taken in their photo apps. When students can use their own photos for conversation, they’re already invested in communicating and sharing clearly. So go ahead and ask them to pull out their phones and test some of these activities out!

1. Ice Breaker

I learned this years ago from the excellent Denise Maduli-Williams at a workshop, and it inspired this whole post. Simply ask the students to pull up a picture they’ve taken in the last month (or week, or semester, etc.) and share the story behind it with the person next to them. Quick and simple! Remind students that they are in control and that they choose the photos they share, so no need to get too personal with family photos, pictures of untidy bedrooms, or anything else that might make them uncomfortable. Over the years, I’ve found that it’s good to model this first: A picture I took of a flower could lead to just as much to talk about as a group photo with friends at Disneyland. To add a little heft to the activity, have each partner ask a minimum of two questions about the picture they’re being shown.

2. Scavenger Hunt

Instead of choosing a photo to talk about, here students need to hunt out an element in one of their photos and race to be the first to find it. You can yell out whatever you want your students to hunt for (“something green,” “water,” “love,” etc.) and the students search for and share the story behind the photo. For this activity, you may want to have both the first and the last person to find the photo to be the ones to share and explain their photos, as this encourages everyone to find something instead of giving up when the first person gets one.

3. Find the Similarities

Here you can ask students to pull up a photo without showing it to their partner. Each person then describes the picture to the best of their ability and listens to their partner’s description of their own photo. Then, without looking at each other’s photos, students try to find similarities between the two pictures. For example, perhaps both photos have a brick building in the background, or the student is on the left side of the frame, or the photo was taken in Paris! Remind students not to change photos once they’ve chosen one. Sometimes it takes a little drilling down, but there’s always something to connect the photos.

4. Story Link

In small groups of three or four, each student pulls up a photo and lets all the other groupmates see. Then, students work collectively to create a short story, where the photos act as a makeshift “storyboard.” Again, encourage them not to change photos once they’ve selected. They may need to rearrange the photos to determine which goes first, second, third, and so forth, but in a few minutes they’ll start making links. Perhaps the children in one photo “become” the adults in the next. Maybe an artistic landscape photo could create the setting for the story. Modeling this activity is always a good idea, but after doing it two or three times, they’ll get the hang of it. This activity may be better for intermediate or higher level students, but you can certainly try it at any level.

5. Re-creations

This one can be lots of silly fun. The goal here is to get students to re-create a photo that one of them already has in their phone. Whether that be a group photo with some friends, a picture of some puppies, or a professional-looking portrait, there’s always room for great conversation in trying to re-create a photo. To encourage students to put in that little bit of extra effort, you can offer awards for topics like “closest re-creation” or “most creative interpretation” and have the class vote on them at the end.

All of these activities are quick to launch and endlessly repeatable as there is always new and unique content on your students’ phones. All of these activities also encourage talking and listening, and they’re easy to blend in with any grammar skills you may be working on. (E.g., “Make sure your descriptions are in the past tense,” or “Use two adjectives and one adverb.”) Once you start playing with these in your classroom, you’re undoubtedly going to find your own variations or even create your own no-prep photo activities. If you do, please share them in the comments below!

About the author

Brent Warner

Brent Warner is a professor of ESL at Irvine Valley College in California, and an educational technology enthusiast. He is co-host of the DIESOL podcast, the only podcast with a specific focus on EdTech in ESL. He frequently presents on the crossroads of technology and language learning, focusing on student engagement and developing learner autonomy. Brent likes his coffee black and his oranges orange. He can be found on LinkedIn at @BrentGWarner.

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