May 25, 2020

Zoom activity: Photos of the week

Photos of the Week section in The Atlantic
Although the lockdown restrictions are gradually being eased in many countries, remote teaching is still in effect - and looks set to continue for the unforeseeable future. Here is an activity I’ve been using a lot at the beginning of my Zoom lessons lately. I suppose you can call it a warmer.


Level: any - but would work best with B1+ students; a bit of a struggle for A2 but can be done with a lot of support from the teacher

Focus: Speaking and later Writing

Aim: Come up with captions for memorable images depicting current events 


Google: BBC Week in Pictures. Find the latest one. The new photo collection is always published on Saturday so, at the moment of writing this, the latest one is for the week of 16 - 22 May 2020:

Other sources are I use are:

- The Guardian - 20 Photographs of the Week:
- The Atlantic - Photos of the Week:
Both of these, unlike the BBC one, have permanent addresses so you can bookmark them for future lessons.

Note that although I've been using The Atlantic without any problem for the past month, this morning it wouldn't display the content as I am not a subscriber. Perhaps I've exceeded my monthly quota of free views?


Phase 1

Share you screen via Zoom so that students can see the image but not the caption underneath, for example this one from a couple of weeks ago.

A demonstrator clashes with a riot police officer

Elicit from students:
  • What can you see? What is happening?
  • Where was the photo taken? What country/city?

Then scroll down to reveal the caption:

Same photo as above with the caption revealed

Get one student to read the caption:
A demonstrator clashes with a riot police officer during an anti-lockdown protest in the Netherlands

Focus on some language in the caption. Usually there are a couple of interesting items, such as clash with and riot in this one. You can ask students:

Protesters / demonstrators clash with police. Who else can clash with each other? [e.g. two politicians on an issue] (See some examples in the Oxford Learner's Dictionary)

You can also ask:
Why might somebody want to protest against a lockdown? 
Try to relate the images to the events that are happening in the students' home country.

Go on to the next photo and repeat the procedure by hiding the caption, eliciting what's happening, revealing the caption and focusing on the language. You don't have to use all the photos in the series. Curate the ones that would be appropriate for your students from the three sources above. I usually pick 8-10 photos according to the level - not too long captions for lower levels - and the language - useful new and not-so-new words and collocations or lexical items that we have already studied.

Language note

Naturally, a lot of language in the captions these days revolves around Covid-19 and its impact, and contains such chunks as lockdown measures are easedrestrictions are liftedpractise/maintain/observe social distancing and other coronalingo. But you can also come across a lot of more general - and less morbid - lexis. For example, in this week's collection of photos in the Guardian (click HERE), I found the following items worthy of my and my student's attention:

commute - Where do you go to when you commute? [to work or back home from work]
cool off - What might you do to cool off? [to take a dip]
sips a cup of coffee - What's the opposite of sip / take a sip? [to drink smth in one gulp - my B2 students have learned this one!]

Note that in the Guardian the captions appear to the left of the image, so I open a blank Notepad document to hide and then minimise it to reveal them. Of course, you can also fiddle with sharing a portion of the screen using Zoom's advanced sharing options.

Photo in the Guardian with the caption hidden 

Phase 2

After you have done the activity in a couple of lessons, introduce the writing component. After the usual elicitation (What? Where? etc), ask students to suggest their own caption and type it in the Zoom chat box. Correct the mistakes and reformulate learners' captions where necessary.

Then reveal the caption and draw students' attention to any differences between their versions and the original. Very often these would be involve more sophisticated language used (e.g. bask in the sun instead of "enjoy the sun") or shorter, more economical and laconic ways of saying something (e.g. Residents brave rain and strong winds... instead of "People walk in the street despite the rain and severe weather..."). 

However, sometimes students come up with better and catchier captions! For example, for this image my students suggested more interesting captions than the original one, including some nice lexis such as stunning view, does yoga and overlooking a lake.



Scott Thornbury, a big fan of using short texts for language teaching, states:
Short texts are ideal for classroom use, since they can be subjected to intensive grammatical and lexical study, without overtaxing learners' attention or memory, as may be the case with longer texts. Learning to cope with short texts is also good preparation for independent reading and listening, including dealing with longer texts. Moreover, short texts provide useful models for student production, in the form of speaking and writing.

I think we have ticked all the boxes: VERY short texts, lots of lexical and (a bit of) grammatical study, reading, speaking, writing and what have you.

One final thing that is worth noting is that captions always seem to use Present Simple forms:

A man gets a haircut...
A woman sips a cup of coffee ...
A woman and her baby wait for a bus...
People commute on a bus...

There goes all that time and energy you have spent asking learners to describe what's happening in a picture using the Present Continuous (She's jumping. He's kicking a ball). Now go and try to explain why it is all in the Present Simple!

For more ideas for teaching via Zoom, see THIS POST


Thornbury, S. (2003). Teaching vocabulary using short texts. Asian EFL Journal 5(4). Retrieved from:


  1. Thanks for this great idea. I will definitely use it in class.

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