Instagram is a social network app for photographers. Like Twitter, it enables users to follow the people that they find interesting as well as their friends. It doesn’t seem like the most obvious tool that could be used by English language teachers, but we think it can be a great tool in the classroom.
We live in an era where almost everything can be done by the touch of a button. You can book a table at your favorite restaurant, check if the bus is running late or order a pizza! The mobile revolution has reached our classrooms transforming the way we teach and learn. Today’s iPhone and android smartphones are multimedia studios that fit in our pockets. Users can take photos, record videos, edit and share the world around them on the go.
Apps like Instagram can help teachers guide their students to understand the world and learn a new language. The world is full of visual representations that are core to the understanding of social practices and human interaction. Our 21st century students must be aware of the choices made in a certain ad campaign to discover a possible hidden agenda or go beyond what the eyes can see. For that, we must encourage them to look critically into the world of pictures and photography.
In March 2012,ScottThornbury wrote about using photographs as a way of encouraging students to engage with the language outside of lesson time. He suggested asking students to take photos of examples of English that they see on the street between lessons, and listed questions that they could be asked in the next lesson as a source of research and discussion. Based on his idea, I asked very similar questions to one of my students who had just got an iPhone for the first time and loved playing around with the camera.
My student expressed an interest in something and I used it our advantage. She’s interested in photography and she’s going to take photos whether I ask her to or not. By being adaptable and using the content she has already created, I’m able to have an authentic stimulus in the classroom that leads us to explore areas of language that are genuinely interesting, relevant and useful to my student.
Photography can teach us a number of lessons that can be applied to the learning setting. One of them is that we can always make it better. Tell your students not to be afraid of taking a bad photo, that they will improve their skills, and that they should go ahead, try more and their pictures and their learning will be enhanced day-by-day. Hopefully this positive attitude will influence their language learning too.
Teachers can also make use of Instagram in order to use pictures for their lessons and for presentations at conferences. Tag your pictures with #eltpics and any teacher in the world will be able to use that picture for educational purposes without having to worry about copyright issues. If you are an English teacher who uses Instagram, tag your picture #eltpics so they can be added to the ever growing library of pictures for teachers.
Instagram in the classroom
Instagram can become a powerful tool if you want to explore the world of pictures in ELT. Here are some ideas:
1) Summarizing a caption in 140 characters
Many of our students are regular users of Twitter and other social forms of social media so therefore they are used to creating short texts. Combining Instagram and Twitter can be a way of helping your students to become better at summarizing an event or a narrative.
- Have your students take pictures of a topic you’ve previously assigned and upload it to Instagram and Twitter simultaneously.
- Tell them they have to come up with a caption that summarizes the story behind that particular photo in no longer than 140 characters.
2) A narrative picture sequencing
With this idea, your students will have fun and learn how to create narratives from photos taken by themselves and get engaged in a meaningful way.
- If you work with groups, create a hashtag for your class to use on Instagram such as #brunosclasslevel3.
- Assign participant numbers to your students. Student number one is the one to start the story with his picture. He must include a short introductory text to the narrative plus another tag: #photo1, for example.
- The following students have to pick up from where the previous student left off and continue the story plus the appropriate tag: #photo2, #photo3 and so on.
3) Mine is bigger!
Practice comparatives and superlatives with pictures.
- If you’re teaching comparatives and superlatives, ask your students to take pictures of a given object, person or attitude (whatever that works for you).
- In class, group your students in pairs and have them compare the pictures
- So as to practice superlatives, ask three students to come to the front and show their pictures. One of them has to describe the pictures by using superlatives.
4) I spy… something environmentally incorrect!
Help your students to become more critical thinkers by searching for environmentally incorrect attitudes and capturing them.
- Ask your students to take photos of attitudes they consider to be environmentally incorrect and post onto Instagram using a hashtag you created with them (e.g: #school_environmentallyincorrect)
- Ask them to include a text saying why they consider that certain attitude environmentally incorrect and to provide a possible solution
- Back in class, ask them to share their findings in a small group and to choose the most serious problems and report it back to class with its possible solutions.
5) There’s beauty in trash
What happens to an object before it is thrown away? Get your students thinking about waste and the trajectory it has made until it reached the bin.
- Get your students to take photos of objects that have been thrown away that triggered their curiosity as to what might have happened before it was tossed away.
- Have them upload a set of photos on to Instagram under a commonly decided hashtag (e.g: #beauty_in_trash2012)
6) Cliché hunt
Just like every popular service, Instagram inevitably has it’s clichés. If your students are active Instagram users, they may enjoy this activity.
- Ask your students what they understand by the word cliché.
- Once you have checked their understanding and given them similes and connected words (e.g. stereotype, tired, lazy, unoriginal etc), ask them to create a list of the kind of photos that a lot of people upload to Instagram.
- Once they have finished, compile their lists onto the board.
- After getting feedback, ask them to have a look at their own Instagram images and find their own clichéd photos.
The Practical Stuff
At the time of writing,Instagram is an iOS and Android app only. The app is only designed for smartphones, however there are free apps you can use on the iPad such asinstaflow which enables you to view your and others’ pictures. It is only accessible on computers via websites such asink361.com, statigr.am/ orweb.stagram.com.
As with any web service not designed specifically for ELT, there is always the risk of inappropriate content and advertising. In general Instagram are good at blocking obscene or explicit material, but there is a lot of spam advertising at the time of writing. It would be good to make your students aware of this if you choose to use it.
And remember to tag your Instagram photos #eltpics!