Images (Photos, Illustrations, and More!)

Sun over jungle

Images and visuals can be a powerful way to support students' learning and help them make connections. They can include photographs, maps, icons, illustrations, cartoons, and more. This strategy is part of Colorin Colorado's ELL Strategy Library and can be used to support academic language development for all students.


Strategy Overview

How This Strategy Supports Language Development

When a clear image is paired with content, students' comprehension of that content is enhanced because they have a visual for the concept and vocabulary they are learning. And when teachers add labeled images to grade-level texts, multilingual learners are often able to comprehend texts beyond their independent reading level. In this way, the images serve to scaffold students up to grade level.

Images can help students learn the following:

  • Vocabulary: Images can help students learn the meaning of new words and learn the definitions of words with multiple meanings, such as "park," "table," and "key." Images can also reinforce the use of cognates and definitions in students' first languages. For recommendations on choosing which vocabulary words to teach, see Selecting Vocabulary Words to Teach English Language Learners.
  • Concepts: Images can help students understand new concepts, such as a life cycle or the three branches of government.
  • Background Knowledge: Images can help students make connections to their existing background knowledge and learn new background knowledge that will help them understand the content of the lesson. For example, if you are going to read informational text about redwood forests, you can use photos of redwood trees to show their height and appearance. You can learn more in Background Knowledge and ELLs: What Teachers Need to Know.
  • Sentence Structures: Images can also teach and reinforce specific sentence structures in strategies such as Picture Word Inductive Model and Sentence Patterning Charts.

Step-by-Step Instructions

  • Choose images for your lesson that target key words, concepts, or areas of background knowledge that will support students' understanding of the lesson or text.
  • Choose images that are clear and make an obvious connection. Avoid photos that are small, blurry, or too subtle. (See examples below.)
  • Annotate visuals as needed so that students are clear about which part of the visual is illustrating each concept.
  • Add images with clear captions to digital texts to make content texts much more comprehensible.

Image example

ContentQuestion FocusNotes
Topic: Acorns
  • Labels are clear and legible.
  • The image isn't overcrowded with labels.
  • This image could be used to talk about acorns, oak trees, and autumn.
  • This would not be a good image for talking about "foliage," which refers to the leaves of many trees.
Key word: Trunk
These images show different meanings of the word "trunk." (You could also talk about the trunk of a car and swimming trunks.)
Sample sentences include:
  • The elephant lifts its long trunk.
  • My grandmother’s quilts are in her old trunk.

Using images in instruction

  • Before the lesson: Consider doing a mini lesson or pre-teaching with the visuals so that students are more familiar with the content before the lesson.
  • During the lesson: Refer back to images as needed. Pause frequently during instruction and encourage students to create sketchnotes about the content.
  • After the lesson: Use images to reinforce the new words and content, check students' comprehension, and give students practice using new words and expressing key ideas through writing and speaking.

Other ideas

  • Look for different ways to use the images and content, such as matching images with terms or the Photo Gallery strategy, where students sort pictures into categories and then must explain their choices. In this way, students have the opportunity to practice using the new terms connected to the image.
  • Teach students to add labeled images to a text to increase their comprehension while reading a text independently. They can also add labels in their own languages.

For additional ideas on using images, see the following strategies and ideas:

Note: To see how this kind of instruction is embedded into an in-depth unit, see our standards-aligned video modules, lesson plans, and related classroom materials for teachers and students developed in partnership with Dr. Diane August.

Lessons Learned

  • If the topic you are presenting is new for you, ensure your images are accurate and appropriate.
  • Choose culturally relevant images that highlight diversity.
  • If students are choosing their own visuals for a new term, help students identify the correct meaning of the term. For example, if you are talking about a bat in science class, talk with students about the difference between the animal and a baseball "bat."
  • Model how to make sketchnotes during lessons or while reading a text. 
  • Keep in mind that photos and images are an excellent opportunity for students to use primary sources. You can learn more in Primary Sources, the Library of Congress, and English Learners.


  • Label images in students' heritage languages. (Be sure to confirm your multilingual labels with a native speaker of students' languages if possible to ensure accuracy.)
  • Ask students to choose or draw images that represent the concept or vocabulary word. Encourage them to connect to their lived experiences and cultural heritage.
  • Ask students to share their visuals (those they selected or drew) in small groups and explain why that visual represents the word or concept.

Co-Teaching Considerations

Content or Grade-Level Teacher

  1. Choose the key content vocabulary and concepts for the unit.
  2. Determine the language expectations for the lesson/unit. Which words will students need to understand and use to be successful?

English Language Development Teacher

  1. Select and label pictures for each of the key content vocabulary words.
  2. Determine if the students need to comprehend the term or also use the term in speaking and writing to meet the language expectations of the unit.
  3. Work with a small group of entering/emerging level students and add additional visuals as needed. 
  4. Share ideas on how to use images with your colleague.


A Sky Full of Water: Using Images and Visuals to Support ELL Comprehension

This slideshow features examples of the kinds of images you can use to support ELLs' vocabulary and comprehension. The images relate to a two-paragraph text excerpt from the award-winning All Thirteen: The Incredible Rescue of the Thai Boys' Soccer Team by Christina Soontornvat.