Once Upon a Picture: The Art of Using Images in the Classroom

4 min


Have you ever struggled with students who just don’t “get” writing? They don’t see the point; they don’t have any ideas; they’re stuck with limited vocabulary. We’ve all been there. Consider the hours spent planning exciting, inspiring lessons, and the feeling when it goes one of two ways: It works, or you’re left thinking, ‘How can I get them engaged?’

Here’s another gem for your magpied collection: Once Upon A Picture: Images to Inspire. With 400+ truly amazing images – a new one every day – you’ll lose some time browsing, but the classroom gains will be worth it. Every image is accompanied by thought-provoking questions which spark the writer’s mind (and heart). They can be used as discussion points, to develop vocabulary and writing ideas, and can even develop reading skills (inference, prediction, comparison…). Some pictures have grammar activities or vocabulary building tasks, and many have cross-curricular links. There are pictures to inspire character descriptions, fantasy stories, or explanation texts about machines; some provide a stimulus for a news report, or a discussion around feelings, or for exploring concepts (from growth mindset to time travel).

1. Drop Off

Drawing from Pascal Campion, Dad dropping off little girl at school, girl hugs dad cryingDrop Off © Pascal Campion

Possible Writing Prompts/Discussion Questions:

  • How is the girl feeling? How do you know? Why is she feeling that way?
  • Who is the man? Where are they?
  • Does the title give you any clues about this image?
  • What are the characters thinking?
  • Does this picture remind you of anything that has happened in your own life?

2. Treehouse

Treehouse cartoonTreehouse © Chris Dunn

Possible Writing Prompts/Discussion Questions:

  • What can you see in this picture?
  • Choose something in the picture and see if your partner can guess it.
  • Where do you think this treehouse is? Who built it? Who lives in it? Who owns it?
  • Which is your favourite room and why?

3. Lighthouse Town

Lighthouse Town under water. Little girl on top of lighthouse with umbrellaLighthouse Town © Lena Gnedkova

Possible Writing Prompts/Discussion Questions:

  • What happened here? Why are the buildings under water?
  • Why are the lights still on in the buildings?
  • Who is the person on the street below? What are they doing there?
  • Why did they build a lighthouse in the middle of a town?
  • Why is the girl standing on top of the lighthouse?

4. Realisitic Pokémon

Realistic Pokémon artRealistic Pokémon © Joshua Dunlop

Possible Writing Prompts/Discussion Questions:

  • Choose a Pokémon – describe its appearance and behaviours.
    • What does it eat?
    • Where does it live? Does it live alone, or with others of its species?
    • How is it suited to its environment?
  • Write an information page about your Pokémon for your own Pokédex.

5. Boy and Monster

Monster drawing with boy inside of monsterBoy and Monster © Little Oil

Possible Writing Prompts/Discussion Questions:

  • What is the boy doing? How is he feeling? How do you know?
  • Is the monster good or bad? Is the monster real, or a representation of something?
  • Imagine that the monster represents a feeling. Which feeling could it be and why?
  • What do you do when you’re feeling sad/scared/anxious/worried?
  • What could you do to help yourself? What could others do to help you?

6. Koji

Koji_magical cartoon shining lights in middle of the nightKoji © Henrik Evensen

Possible Writing Prompts/Discussion Questions:

  • Describe this setting. Think carefully about the language you choose to describe the lights. Where is this? Is it somewhere on Earth? Why are the plants glowing?What are the symbols on the rocks?
  • What is the large glowing rock?
  • Who is that in front of it? Is it a fox and a person? What are they doing? Why are they there? What is going to happen?
  • Would you go near the glowing rock?

7. Santa

Santa flying on a big motorcycleSanta © Burda

Possible Writing Prompts/Discussion Questions:

  • Is this what you think Santa should look like? Is this how you think he travels? What’s different/surprising?
  • Describe this vehicle. Notice all of the different features. Explain how it works.
  • What is in the sack? Why is the sack hanging below the vehicle?
  • What do you think Santa is like? Describe his personality.

8. Believe I Can

Big bird walking on waterBelieve I Can © Adrian Borda

Possible Writing Prompts/Discussion Questions:

  • Describe the water – consider the texture, the colours, the shape, the sounds… Try to use some new vocabulary e.g. undulating, fluid
  • What is happening here? Is the bird walking on the water? How? Why?
  • Is this bird special? Can it fly?
  • Do you think this is the first time the bird has walked on water?
  • What does failure feel like? What about success? How do you overcome failure?
  • Has anyone ever achieved something other people thought to be impossible? What qualities did they have?

9. Time Machine

Time Machine - Burda - Bored TeachersTime Machine © Burda

Possible Writing Prompts/Discussion Questions:

  • Without showing the title – What is this? Where is this? Describe the image and explain what’s happening.
  • Then share the title and ask: Is this what you thought a time machine would look like? Why/why not?
  • If you could use a time machine, which period in history would you most like to travel to and why?
  • If you could use a time machine to change an historical event, which would you change and why?
  • If you could use a time machine to meet a person from the past, who would you like to meet? What would you ask them?

*Note: All images are shared on onceuponapicture with the permission and support of the artists.

Talking is vital. The benefits of talking about an image first are clear when writing follows. No longer will your students be stuck for ideas or inspiration; no longer will they stick to using basic vocabulary. Quality prompt, quality discussion, quality writing. Provide an audience (class book, newsletter, blog, or even commenting on the website) and you’re onto a winner.

blog comment fro Once Upon a Time_ "She had to hide. Hide away in the trees. No one could know."

The best part is that good pictures engage all of your students. Those who struggle to generate ideas. Those who might switch off because they’ve resigned themselves to being ‘bad at writing’. The children who speak another language. The children with special needs. The children who are actually brilliant writers but may get bored. Choosing the right picture will ignite their creative spark, and unlock literacy for those who may face that closed door every day.

Sam Daunt

This article was written by Sam Daunt – a primary teacher in Nottingham, England. She runs Once Upon A Picture, is the founder and editor of Primed magazine (a free digital magazine for primary educators), and writes music and reads picture books in her spare time. You can check her out at her blog, on Facebook, or on Twitter.

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