Image sources

The following is a longer and updated version of an article I wrote in 2009 for MATSOL's newsletter, Currents, on good sources of images for language teachers. If you are looking for good sources of copyright free images for digital storytelling some of the links below may be useful. (Skip to the links)

A picture is worth . . .
A good collection of pictures is invaluable to a language teacher. There are some excellent collections available commercially but they are, of course, very expensive and I still sometimes find that they don’t have quite the pictures that I want. In the past I used to rely on cutting pictures out of magazines, but digital imagery has made it far easier to build my collection and actually made it more versatile.

The advantages of taking your own photographs
In teaching vocabulary, it is often helpful to have photos of places, people, or things that the students recognize. For example, in my teaching situation in the United States, most of my students eat school lunch. I find they often don’t know the names for the foods they are eating – so photos of the school lunch trays provide images we can discuss that match what they see in the lunchroom. Photos of the local post office, library, supermarkets and so on can add meaning to the initial teaching of place names whether you are working in an EFL or ESL context.

Using photos of students can be problematic as you often have to get permission, and can also be very distracting if they are of peers because the students often want to talk about who they know rather than about what you want them to! Pictures of teachers are usually less of an issue. (Well, so long as your colleagues know that you are using their pictures and you don’t surreptitiously take photos of them sleeping in staff meetings! Actually, the one time I did that, my colleague allowed me to use the picture anyway when I asked and the kids loved it!) At the beginning of the year, I use photos of teachers in the school to help the students learn their names. This can lead to guessing games involving descriptive vocabulary – “He is tall with grey hair. He teaches science. Who is he?” I’ve had more advanced students go and interview teachers and we’ve then used the photos to illustrate the interviews.

Finding images online
Obviously there is no shortage of pictures online, and it is not difficult to find great-looking images through search engines like Google and sites like Flickr, but many are subject to copyright. (By the way, if you work with young children I advise against ever doing a Google search for images while they are watching – even with ‘safe search’ options there is no guarantee that all the images will be appropriate.) Fortunately, there are a lot of generous people out there who are prepared to share their images at no charge so long as they are used for non-commercial purposes. In other words, you may freely use them for your classroom, but you may not make money from any materials you create using them! A couple of the sites listed at the end of this article ask you return the favor by uploading as well as downloading images. I would encourage you to do so if you have taken photos that have proven to be useful in your classroom and that you think will be useful to others. Be sure to read the terms and conditions for each site before downloading or uploading pictures.

In addition to clipart, photographs, and ready-made flashcards, at some of the sites you will also find worksheets, games and PowerPoint presentations all available for download under the same terms as the images.

Selecting digital images
It may seem obvious, but when you are selecting images to use in class, or composing shots if you are taking your own photos, think carefully about what they actually show. If you are planning to use them to illustrate discrete vocabulary items, then you need to make sure that they are not too busy and cannot be misinterpreted. Image collections for children with autism and communication difficulties are outstanding in this regard, although they tend not to be free. (Search for ‘PECS’ or ‘Picture Exchange Communication System’ if you’d like to see some of these collections.) On the other hand, photos with detail or ambiguity can sometimes be exactly what you want in terms of providing fodder for discussion or vocabulary use.

If you plan on printing the images out and you do not have a color printer, make sure that the images you choose will still be useable for your purposes when printed in grey-scale. If there is insufficient contrast in the original image, then the printed image may turn out to be an unclear blob! (However, a little skill with image editing software such as Photoshop can sometimes take a marginal image and make it useable!)

Clipart has the advantage over photos that it often prints better in grey scale and is also often more focused in topic.

Printing digital images
Some of the images that I find, I use right on my computer, but others I print out. This, of course, is not free – especially if I make flashcards or game cards with good quality card stock and a color printer and then laminate the cards. However, it is still cheaper than buying commercially available flashcards.

I bought lightweight card stock once in an attempt to save money and found that it felt too flimsy when I came to use it, even when I laminated it. So now I usually buy the heaviest weight card stock for my printed cards that my printer can handle. I have a laser printer and found that the heavier cardstock will not work if I try to feed it through the regular paper tray. Instead I have to use the manual feed. This works quite well, but I do have to be careful to make sure that the card is lined up perfectly straight as the printer will quite happily feed the card through at a slight angle and then I have to reprint it. If your printer can’t handle heavy enough card stock, print on paper and then glue the paper onto the card.

Smaller clipart images print quite nicely on business cards. I use the appropriate template in Microsoft Word, and simply copy and paste the images in. (The correct template number is always listed on the package.) I can add text to the images too if I want, or easily make a set of cards where students have to match image to text. The perforated paper then makes sure that all the cards are identically sized which makes them nicer to handle. (Somehow they never come out that way when I use the paper cutter!) Lamination will obviously make the cards last longer, but the static created by the plastic can make the cards stick together which is not so good for game playing. If you choose to laminate the business cards you have to make sure to leave a border of the lamination plastic around the edge of the card. Because the cards are so small and can have a tendency to curl slightly after traveling around the printer rollers, the plastic will often peel off if you don’t leave that border – taking the picture with it! Leaving a border prevents that problem.

With both the card stock and the business cards, thinner quality materials may not work well for certain activities as the image may show through from the ‘wrong’ side. Yet another reason why it’s better to invest in the heavier-weight card in the first place! On one of the sites below the author provides cards that have a printed back – the idea is that you cut the card and its back out together and then fold the card over and glue it or laminate it. This effectively doubles the amount of card you are using, and more than doubles the amount of ink.

Using digital images digitally
I have the luxury of working with small groups of students, so I often have the students simply look at the pictures on my laptop computer, but with a larger group an LCD projector would be useful. If you don’t have either in your classroom, you will have to print out the pictures. We actually have an old-fashioned epidiascope in one of the buildings I work in, and that would work well for showing larger classes the printed pictures too. Nowadays we have ELMOs (document cameras) that serve the same purpose, but if you have an ELMO, you probably also have a projector that will hook up to your computer!

If I am pulling together a collection of photos for a specific lesson, I usually put them into a PowerPoint presentation. Some of the things you can do with PowerPoint might seem no different to what you would do with a set of flashcards, but using PowerPoint can save you time in the long run and add functionality that you simply don’t have with flashcards. For example, I played a ‘game’ with a beginning level kindergartner to review the names of places. As each picture came on the screen we took it in turns to pretend we were calling each other on the phone and ask “Where are you now?” My kindergartner soon figured out that if she had difficulty remembering the place name, clicking on the space bar would make the name of the place appear. Although she was very much a beginning reader, she used the initial sounds to help her. It was wonderful to see her wanting to read! I could just as easily have set the PowerPoint up so that it gave her incremental clues such as the first letter only, then the last letter.

You can hide parts of a photograph on a PowerPoint slide and have the pictures revealed bit by bit as the students make guesses about the picture. You can add ready-made animations to PowerPoint! The occasional animation often keeps kids interest, as well as sometimes helping to explain vocabulary. When I was working on rhyming words with kindergartners, I even managed to find an animation of a pig doing a jig! There is a well-known TV quiz show in the United States called Jeopardy and you can find PowerPoint templates online that allow you to easily create your own Jeopardy-type games for the classroom. (Search for “Jeopardy PowerPoint template” to find examples.) The templates are usually based on written questions, but there’s no reason not to use pictures as prompts.

I’ve also had my kindergarten students create their own alphabet videos in iMovie using photos from my collection. The work paralleled and reinforced what they were doing in their mainstream classroom. The final product was seemingly very simple but belied hours of vocabulary-building work that went into it as the students learned the names of things that began with each letter of the alphabet and discussed what they wanted to say about the images they chose.

Storing your images
Once you have downloaded the images from the various sites, it is important to have a way to organize them because they are of no use if you can’t find the pictures you want when you need them! Given that I almost never print them, the photos are the easiest to organize. I keep them all in iPhoto which came at no extra cost with my Mac, but on a PC you could use the free software Picasa. I name the images so that I can search for them by name, and I organize them into folders. One image can be in more than one folder. A photo of an apple might be in three folders for example – ‘Food’, ‘A’ (for things that start with that letter), and ‘Colors’. Once your pictures are organized, you can create a slideshow right in iPhoto or Picasa, or you can copy the pictures into presentation software such as Keynote or PowerPoint, where you can add text too if you want.

The other pictures, I keep organized by topic in a series of folders in my computer. If a particular set of cards seems to fit more than one topic, I can make an alias or shortcut to it so that it appears in both folders while taking up only an extra 1 kilobyte of hard drive space. Any Powerpoint files or Word documents can be filed in the relevant folders too.

As for organizing the printed materials, there are obviously many ways to do this – in a filing cabinet, in labeled envelopes, in pockets in a 3-ring binder . . . whatever suits you best!

Sites I recommend
Clipart collection for FL instruction
This is a collection of clip art (simple line-drawings) specifically for language instructors. The drawings are designed to be culturally and linguistically neutral as much as possible. Black and white only, these photocopy beautifully. They also scale well, meaning that you can use them as small images in a worksheet, or print them out full page size for whole class presentation.

This site has a good collection of free PECS (see above), intended for students with various disabilities. Although many of the provided images are not needed in a regular classroom as they are intended for teaching specific behaviors like “No biting others”, there are quite a few in this collection that could be of use to language teachers.

Edupic Graphical resources for educators
This site has both photographs and drawings. You can use the Search tab or browse by school subject. The Links tab provides links to related image and education sites.

ESL Flashcards
This site currently has almost 1,000 free flash cards organized into sets by topic. There is a useful preview of each picture on the website. Every set of flashcards comes in color and three different sizes to make teaching easier. The large set is useful for vocabulary presentation, the medium set is good for teaching small groups of students and playing language learning games. The small sets of pictures are great for games such as Go Fish. Some of the seasonal sets have games and activity worksheets to go with them. These games and activity worksheets are NOT free.

Lanternfish (formerly Bogglesworld ESL)
Yet another site with many, many, flashcards. The flashcards at this site all have text on them. These cards do not come in a variety of sizes. There are usually four, very colorful, pictures to a US letter-sized page. These pictures look best printed in color. There are some unusual sets of cards at this site – cards for teaching about the food chain or animal behavior for example that use and explain words like omnivore, carnivore, herbivore, nocturnal, diurnal and more. There are links to worksheets in Microsoft Word format to accompany many of the sets of cards. There are suggestions for games you can play with the cards.

MES English
Each card set contains a set of large flash cards for introduction and drilling purposes (one card per sheet - you can choose different paper sizes when printing,) a set of small flash cards for games, 12 different bingo cards, a handout for students and PowerPoint flashcards. There are some multilingual handouts in French, German, Spanish, Japanese, Italian, Russian, and Portuguese too. I like to print these out for my students as well as the ones in English to encourage literacy in their first language.

Microsoft’s Design Gallery
When you can’t find the clipart you want in Microsoft Office, clicking on the button that offers the option to search online will bring you to this site. You can copy and paste pictures and photos from this site, or you can download them and add them to the clipart gallery in your copy of MSOffice. There are small animations available too that work well in PowerPoint.

If you want to add the artwork from this site to your copy of MSOffice, check off the images you want (up to 60 items at a time) and then download them. Occasionally I have found that the downloaded package is not named correctly. It should have .cil at the end of the filename – if it doesn’t, you can simply rename it. Once it’s downloaded and you’ve changed the name if necessary, double-clicking the file to ‘open’ it will start your Clip Art Gallery and the images should be imported automatically.

Note that if you add clipart to the ClipArt Gallery you should make sure to back it up just as you would any other important files. I handed my school-owned laptop in for updates one summer and was actually dismayed to receive a brand new one back in the fall because all my documents had been transferred to it, but not my carefully amassed collection of clipart in Microsoft Office.

Pics 4 Learning
The Pics4Learning collection consists of thousands of images that have been donated by students, teachers, and amateur photographers. Permission has been granted for teachers and students to use all of the images donated to the Pics4Learning collection. It is easily searchable, either by keyword or by topic. You will not find any pictures of people’s faces on this site. The site provides links to other copyright-friendly image sites, such as the US Fish and Wildlife Service, US Navy, and US Air Force.

The Stock Exchange
This is a stock photography site. You have to sign up as a member in order to be able to use it, but membership is free. The site has a ‘premium’ version too, that is not free. The site has a very large collection of photographs from all over the world and is searchable by keywords. In addition to downloading, you can also add photos to the collection for other people to use, returning the favor. This is the only one of the sites I have listed that I would not search in front of students – as an international, non-education-oriented, site there are definitely a few images here that would not be considered suitable for use in a school setting.