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See It, Say It

Nancy Frey, Douglas Fisher, and Sarah Ortega use visuals to promote language development in pre-K and elementary students

There is an old adage that says a picture is worth a thousand words. Compelling photographs have captured the highs and lows of a century’s worth of historical events as well as the everyday experiences of ordinary people. Photographs of universal human experiences solicit lots of spoken language and emotions. Think about how often sharing photos with friends prompts peals of laughter or tears as we recall a shared experience. Stories pour forth and we end up building on each other’s memories.
Now think about the value of sharing a photo in terms of the volume of language it generates. A great photograph can foster a deluge of observations and insights. As it does so, those viewing the photo talk with one another and add details. English and dual language learners can benefit from the language elicited through the use of photographs to spark discussion. We call this instructional practice see it/say it.

Narrative Learning in Children

Children as young as three begin to tell stories, whether real or imagined, as part of their language development. While these are initially fairly simple in structure and often tied to a single event, they soon begin to take on new dimensions, especially as the children are exposed to the narrative structures used in picture books and films. These narratives get longer, and by the age of nine or so the child will include a conclusion or an ending point (Cortazzi and Jin, 2007). Their language progression gives them the words to elaborate, especially connecting words (so, because, but, then) to show “chains of chronological events and causation” (p. 652). Words such as these are further coupled with narrative devices such as flashbacks and foreshadowing. In this way the development of language skills runs parallel to increasingly sophisticated narrative skills. A coordinated investment in both can amplify the development of each, as the child is simultaneously “learning narrative and learning through narrative” (p. 653).

See It/Say It

The see it/say it instructional strategy links the benefits of spontaneous dialogue through the use of images with the language development associated with narrative learning. Students are presented with photographs selected by the teacher that are likely to prompt observation and speculation. For example, co-author Sara Ortega, a fourth-grade teacher, used three photographs with a group of four students during a designated English language development lesson. The first was a photograph of a toddler who had covered herself from head to toe in the white paint her parents had been using to paint a wall in their living room. The second was a photograph of an orca leaping out of the water just as a penguin was launching itself off a cliff—dangerously close to the orca’s open jaws. The third was a photograph of two primates sitting on the back of a motorbike that they appeared to be operating.
Ms. Ortega begins by setting up the learning intentions for the task and reinforcing the relevance, noting that “you become a better reader and writer when you practice your speaking and listening.” Her overall goal, she states to her students, is for them to use words such as because, and, but, and so to connect ideas together. She also provides them with sentence frames to use to scaffold their language.

  • Observing. Ms. Ortega begins by inviting her students to comment on what they are seeing in the first photograph. When one student says, “I see there is, like, paint in the floor with the form of the… the… little kid feet,” the teacher expands her language form. “You’re right, when you look closely you can see the form of her footprint. Her little feet have left paint on the floor.” In doing so, she is modeling accurate syntactic and semantic structures to build on the student’s observation.

  • Inviting speculation. A goal of see it/say it is to foster reasoning skills while equipping students with the language for reasoning. Ms. Ortega’s stated purpose of using connecting words is intended to create an avenue for students to engage in more complex language production. The storytelling element of this instructional activity requires students to go beyond description by considering the story as an episode. All good stories include a setting, characters, a plot, and a sequence of events that propel the narrative. In addition, the story may include internal or external emotions of the character and the identification of a problem and a solution. These story grammars are taught to children beginning in preschool and are integral to listening and reading comprehension, as well as written composition.

    The story grammar elements of narrative don’t reside as separate units but instead are woven together through the use of causal chains in storytelling. The story elements are linked by interconnected events that tie together a character’s goals with their actions and outcomes (Ma et al., 2017). The photograph is a single image of an evolving story, and students must construct a plausible story using their imaginations, observations, and experiences.

    Ms. Ortega invites speculation and therefore gives permission to move from a literal description to narrative learning. She asks them, “What do you think happened five minutes before this picture was taken?” Again, she offers sentence frames for them to use as possible supports but also assures them that they do not need to confine themselves to those structures. One sentence frame is Before this picture was taken, _. One student asks, “Is it… before… is it before is forward?” and the teacher clarifies that “before is back in time.” The student then uses a different sentence frame, saying, “The little girl and her mom, like, were painting something, then the mom went somewhere. Then the… then the little kid, like, started trying to paint and she got all painted.” Several times during her speculation, she makes a gesture that mimics using a paint roller on a vertical surface. “So maybe the mom left the room as she was painting?” says Ms. Ortega.

    Now another student builds on these ideas. “I think the dad wa… wa… was in the stairs and painting and then where the dad go and the little girl want to paint, too, and she paint herself.” Now the teacher restates his intended causal link using the language to do so—“So you think she’s trying to paint like her dad?”—echoing the student’s suggestion of the little girl’s possible goal.
  • Co-constructing a story. The students are beginning to construct a story with one another. A third student joins in and begins to talk about what he believes happened five minutes after the picture was taken. This narrative move further builds the causal chain for the group by introducing speculation about possible outcomes. “I think what happened five minutes after is, um, she probably took, like… a shower to clean the paint off?” One student has not yet participated in the group’s co-construction, so Ms. Ortega invites her to add. “Um… the parents… were painting the walls and then they decided to take a break and the little girl wanted to paint like them too so she painted herself.”

    This student is now consolidating the ideas floated by her classmates. Ms. Ortega laughs. “And her parents walk in and they see this and what do you think happens after?” The student smiles and says, “Um, she probably laugh or get a little mad?” Ms. Ortega remarks that it’s hard to get mad when a small child does something like this.

    The teacher uses a similar sequence with the other two pictures, repeating the rounds of observation, speculation, and co-construction.
  • Reflection. Near the end of this 15-minute language development lesson, the teacher closes with a “time to look at ourselves in the mirror and do some reflecting” about the use of connected words, the stated purpose of the lesson. She asks them to consider the four targeted connecting words—because, and, but, and so—and their use of them when speaking. She sends them a link to a poll and the students respond that the ones they feel most comfortable using are because and and; they feel less comfortable with but and so.


Language learners are bubbling with ideas but don’t always have the words to fully express them. The use of compelling images can be a bridge to invite students to engage in narrative learning while at the same time offering a psychologically safe space for speculation. Sources for compelling photographs abound, from National Geographic’s “Photo of the Day“ to the New York Times’ feature “What’s Going On in This Picture?“, which offers intriguing photos from their collection that have been stripped of their captions. Let pictures unlock students’ imaginations as you equip them with language.


Cortazzi, M., and Jin, L. (2007). “Narrative Learning, EAL and Metacognitive Development.” Early Child Development & Care, 177(6/7), 645–660.
Ma, S., Anderson, R. C., Morris, J. A., Nguyen-Jahiel, K., Yi, S., Lin, T.-J., Zhang, J., Miller, B. W., Jadallah, M., Scott, T., Sun, J., Grabow, K., and Latawiec, B. M. (2017). “Instructional Influences on English Language Learners’ Storytelling.” Learning & Instruction, 49, 64–80.

Nancy Frey and Doug Fisher are professors of educational leadership at San Diego State University and teacher leaders at Health Sciences High. Sarah Ortega is a fourth-grade teacher in Chula Vista, CA. Click here to view the video that accompanies this article.

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