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Literacy Through Photography for English-Language Learners

Tabitha Dell'Angelo

Dr. Tabitha Dell’Angelo is an Assistant Professor and Coordinator of the Urban Education Master’s Program at The College of New Jersey.
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Enter most schools and you will hear about literacy instruction or the "literacy block." However, literacy is not a subject -- it is something much bigger. Paulo Freire encouraged a broader definition of literacy to include the ability to understand both "the word and the world." Literacy includes reading, writing, listening, speaking, and analyzing a wide range of texts that include both print and non-print texts.

Imagery and Language

This post will describe some ways in which teachers can use photography to support literacy standards. Photography supports literacy in several ways:

  1. It is an excellent way to provide differentiation for English-language learners.
  2. It relieves pressure from reluctant students or striving readers and writers by providing the opportunity to read and analyze photographs instead of traditional print texts.
  3. It represents a culturally responsive teaching method as it demonstrates a way to welcome all voices in the classroom to be heard and valued.

This methodology is based on the work of Wendy Ewald, who writes extensively about literacy through photography.

The use of photographs provides a novel way to engage in analyzing text. Students can verbally describe their observations, ideas, and analysis in addition to listening to the ideas of their classmates. The use of photographs allows students to reflect and organize their thoughts in a creative way that cannot be achieved simply through writing. And for many students, this practice provides needed scaffolding for processing and organizing their thoughts in order to be ready to write about them.

5 Photo-Based Strategies

For students with limited English proficiency, this is particularly important because literacy skills can be advanced and improved without relying on prior knowledge of extensive vocabulary. Instead, these practices can capitalize on vocabulary in a child's native language while also building his or her vocabulary in English. The following approaches require students to engage in high-level literacy practices, work collaboratively, and produce high-quality work.


Try to help children focus their gaze and guide their thinking about the photos, but still leave them lots of room to give their own ideas. Ask students to "read" images by examining the details of a photograph and describing what they see. These discussions tap into children's prior knowledge and may help to inspire their storytelling and writing as well as preparing them for taking their own photos.


Have students view a wide variety of portraits. Find portraits of political figures, regular people, celebrities, etc. Put all of the photos down on a table and ask the children to sort them. Some children may sort them by gender, age, or some other variable. It really doesn't matter what they decide. After they sort, ask them to describe why they sorted them the way they did.

You can also ask students to guess who these people are based on the photo. What does the photo tell you? Have students think about the intention of the photographer. Who took this photo? Was he or she an insider or outsider? How do we know? Ask students where the camera is. Where are the subjects looking? As an extension activity, students can frame self-portraits or take portraits of one another or family members.

Building Vocabulary and Using Evidence

Find photos from past eras. You can do a Google search or find a photography book by someone like Helen Levitt or Dorothea Lange, or a site like the Library of Congress' American Memory. Students can also do something as simple as make lists of everything they notice in a photograph. This practice is about both noticing and building vocabulary.

Next, students make inferences about when this picture was taken, and are asked to provide evidence for their guess. Ask students to think about what the photo tells them about the people in it. Look at the expressions on their faces, their poses, the background, etc. How does each detail contribute to how the portrait makes you feel? Support students in understanding that the very same picture could make some people feel happy and others sad (or any other range of emotions).

Perspective Taking

Students choose an object and take a photo of it from six inches away, from six feet away, from below, and from above. All four pictures are displayed, and students discuss how the different perspectives communicate a different feeling, tone, and message. Notice that when the camera is low, it might make the person or object look more powerful, while when the camera is higher, it might do the opposite.

Telling a Story

Students take photos that they feel tell a story. They bring these photos to class and trade with a partner. Each partner examines the photo and decides what story they feel the photo is telling. After a few minutes, partners tell the story they feel their photo conveys. Then they debrief about how their partner's analysis agrees or disagrees with their own intent as the photographer. The next step is for the students to either write a story that goes with their own picture or with a picture by one of their classmates.

Have you expanded your literacy practice to include photography? How important is it to use images with your English-language learners? Please tell us about it in the comments section below.

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Tabitha Dell'Angelo's picture
Tabitha Dell'Angelo
Dr. Tabitha Dell’Angelo is an Assistant Professor and Coordinator of the Urban Education Master’s Program at The College of New Jersey.

Thank you for your encouragement. I really think it is important to remember that there are multiple modalities that can help children meet their educational goals. We tend to rely on too much of the same. Here's to shaking things up a bit!

Tabitha Dell'Angelo's picture
Tabitha Dell'Angelo
Dr. Tabitha Dell’Angelo is an Assistant Professor and Coordinator of the Urban Education Master’s Program at The College of New Jersey.

Thank you for this lead! I had not heard of VTS before your post. This is why I love sites like this -- such a great way to extend collaboration beyond the folks in your own school.

jessica's picture

I also had not heard much about using a VTS strategy in the classroom. It sounds like it could also be used and adapted on a more in depth level for more advanced ELL students as well. The beginner student might be stuck with just pointing and naming a few items on the picture where as you can take this strategy and have more advanced students make up a whole sequence of events or words that they must use to make a story around a photograph. I also like the idea of having the students take their own photos. It allows for discussion as to why they chose to photograph a specific event and creates connections to the actual picture. Thanks for the idea

jessica's picture

In looking back through all the previous posts and studying some of the links in more depth I realized how much we can actually use and spin off on this tool. I was thinking how I could get my ELL class to be more involved and animated. Many of the students need help in pronunciation. I ran across this link Drama is an awesome tool to let kids think, practice speaking and come up with ideas. I decided to actually use the photography method in conjunction with this method. They were given a photo to use. I scaffolded their learning by having them discuss the photo and working on describing it to the best of their ability and then they were asked improvise a very short two minute "drama" that was based around the photo. It allowed them creativity and also got them to think at deeper levels. They definitely needed a lot of help an support, but the class came alive this way. I will definitely try to use this again along with other supportive techniques

Tabitha Dell'Angelo's picture
Tabitha Dell'Angelo
Dr. Tabitha Dell’Angelo is an Assistant Professor and Coordinator of the Urban Education Master’s Program at The College of New Jersey.

I love how you adapted this and combined in with acting. You might have seen that I wrote another blog about using improv in classrooms. But, I have never thought of combining the two ideas! You are brilliant and I am definitely going to try your idea.

memomuse1's picture

This is a great article. I teach a digital photography and creative writing workshop/residency called "A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words."

It is a wonderful exercise in creativity and storytelling, as well as patience because the "story" does not always appear in a linear way. It often hops around and flutters in the mind of the student before they have their "aha" moment. But once that "aha" moment is reached on their terms -- it's pure magic and the writing flows for the student. I stress the importance of not worrying about editing as they write that first and second draft. I enjoyed this post.

JosieW's picture
Josie Whitehead - Children's Poet and busily "retired" teacher

Photography, film, animation and many arts subjects link well with literature and also poetry. We live in a visual age and children love pictures as well as words that paint pictures.

Derek Winchester's picture

I have used these methods. I also used photos in a drama class. I got students to think about the photographer and where he was positioned to get the photo and then had them act out what went on before the photo was taken, during the photo and after the photo. It really helped to talk about Bresson's decisive moment when teaching this. I feel like this article was written for me. I taught ESL for more than ten years, have a diploma in photography and an undergrad degree in English. Thank you.

Lamparo's picture

I loved this blog because it had a lot of good ideas for using photography with ELL. As a kindergarten teacher, I have begun to use IPADs to take pictures of the students and various activities to help increase vocabulary and recall of important facts. I am always looking for different ways to differentiate instruction.

Adam Ryan's picture

I, too, was thinking of a way to "spin-off" this idea. I like how Tabitha had great ideas and suggestions to help prove that images and photographs can be effective in bringing forth conversation and understanding ELL's education. We had a few readings in one of my Graduate Courses on working with ELL's and Drama also proves to be effective in teaching ELL's and providing context to concepts they may be unfamiliar with.
I like how you used Drama in conjunction with photographs as well as improv.
One way I thought photography could be beneficial is with non-verbal/internal understanding of texts without words. Like Drama, photography is another sort of text and literacy that can be measured without writing or reading. Photography can help ELL's think on their own and come up with their own ideas about the picture in question. This can lead to a trail of breadcrumbs taking ELL's to another level of literacy.

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