IELTS writing with Flickr: essays for the digital age07-May-2012
Flickr is a free online platform which allows members to upload and share their photos. Users can annotate and comment on the images, create sets and slideshows of their photos, and join groups based around particular themes and interests.
It occurred to me that these features might well be harnessed to engage my students with their IELTS essay writing. They could take photos of the different points in their essays and put these together in sequenced narratives online. We could then describe each photo with the target language and ideas. In other words, create multimedia, digital essays with students taking on a more creative and proactive role.
How we went about it
We began with a group activity to help learners gain confidence and later followed this with assessed individual pieces. We started off with a familiar topic: the benefits and drawbacks of living abroad. Students were divided into groups and brainstormed ideas for each side of the argument.
They then went off in groups to take the best photo they could to represent each benefit and drawback. After half an hour, they came back and registered on Flickr, uploaded their photos and created a new set called ‘living abroad’ to put these in.
We then made sure the photos in the sets were well sequenced so that they flowed together in a coherent narrative. With the images all lined up logically, we added the language to each one via the ‘add titles and descriptions’ tab.
The final steps were to add discourse markers into the descriptions to link the different ideas together, and to add introductions and conclusions once the features of these had been looked at. Each group was in this way able to produce a multimedia, digital essay on the topic.
Final project (click on ‘Show info’ to show captions)
Essay structure and the flow of ideas
The process of arranging the photos into sets, where students had to physically drag them into a coherent order, enabled us to look in a novel way at the idea of paragraphing and narrative flow.
At first, their placement of the photos was rather random, but we then addressed this, looking at how it might be “a better story” if we bunched the benefits together and then did the same with the drawbacks. Or alternatively, put together benefits and drawbacks on a similar theme (e.g. homesickness v meeting new international friends). The way students had to physically drag the photos around got these key organisational points across in a tangible, immediate way.
The activity also aided students’ understanding of topic sentences and supporting examples. The point here is that photos are representational and they tend towards concrete representations rather than abstract ones. So a photo of a group of students hugging is a concrete, visual representation of a more abstract concept like happiness. The role of the photos as representative examples of each main idea helped students to understand the need for supporting examples to make their narratives clearer and richer.
In fact, the whole process of creating these digital essays gave students a strong sense of overall essay organisation, with their final slideshows requiring a fluent narrative flow: an opening of the “story”, a fluid journey through the different points, and a final closing of the reader/viewer’s experience.
Learners’ own representations
Digital tools such as Flickr, video editing software, YouTube and so on allow learners unprecedented opportunities to construct their own representations and this can have a positive impact on engagement.
My students were able to take their own photos and therefore create their own, personalised representations of the language. As language teachers we spend much of our time thinking up creative contexts to ‘jazz up’ the classroom, rather than giving learners the space to create what are effectively their own contexts for the language.
Sharing and collaboration
We often perceive students’ writing development as an individual journey. It was great to see my students collaborate and to see their writing skills and confidence enhanced through more social learning practices. Through presenting their completed slideshows to the class, they also felt a motivating sense of pride and achievement.
As Beetham and Sharpe point out, the great thing about digital technologies is that their uses and meanings emerge through ongoing creative applications. Who would have thought that Flickr could be such a great tool to engage students on an IELTS programme?
And the possibilities are endless of course. Another thing we’ve been working on at Bellerbys College is YouTube audio slideshows that students can make using any video editing tool. It’s great fun, as you’ll see with this little video diary of a student’s trip to Liverpool to watch a football match.
This is an abridged version of an article I wrote for the July 2011 edition of Modern English Teacher.
Next week: Guided tours on Google MyMaps and Google Earth (Monday May 14th)
Beetham, H. & Sharpe, R., 2007. Rethinking Pedagogy for a Digital Age. Oxen: Routledge.