Guest blog 11-5 – Mike Harrison on using drawing, images and sounds in teaching

In the week that will culminate in the ISTEK conference in Istanbul, I’m going to post four new guest blogs. The first and last of these will be by people who are presenting at the conference. On Thursday, my guest will be Nik Peachey, and first up to get the ball rolling is Mike Harrison.

Mike Harrison not singing rockabilly in Bruges

Mike is an ESOL teacher based in South London. I met Mike and some other ESOL types – Amanda Wilson, Caroline Wilkinson and Phil Bird – at the British Council, where they’ve been working on a project to find ESOL uses for the BC website material.

Using drawing, images and sounds

At times in teaching, as in any pursuit really, it can be useful to reflect on how we’re doing what we’re doing. Especially so if we notice that something fundamental may have changed in comparison with our previous practice.

That’s what happened to me in my journey towards using drawing, images and sound in the classroom.

Let me take you back.

I am about 8 years old. My dad works as a media resources officer at a secondary school in south east London. He also has a fairly small-time artwork business with my uncle, aunt and a couple of friends. And he also fronts a rockabilly band with my uncle and two friends, sometimes singing rock numbers at open mic nights on Fridays.

I grow up surrounded by odd-looking drawings, and photos of my dad as an Elvis Presley-a-like, thinking this is totally uncool.

A few years go by. I start listening to my dad’s band, Vern Vain and the Blue Vains (unfortunately not available on iTunes), playing at birthdays and other family gatherings.

At some point, I know my dad does some work with Makers (his art business) for McDonalds or Burger King in Piccadilly; I also see a caricature of Tommy Cooper and this one below that he does for The Idler.

Man's Ruin in The Idler

Fast forward a few years. I borrow my dad’s Vern Vain jacket, a blazer painted with a tiger stripe pattern, to wear for the last day of sixth form. I ask my dad to play for my 21st birthday.

Two days after the London underground is bombed (July 7th 2005), I turn 21. As I’m a little drunk (ok – quite drunk), the party is a great occasion, and I think everyone has a good time. I cock up the little speech I find myself delivering, forgetting to thank all those people I should have (to any of them who are reading this, I apologise).

Sometime between these two periods, my dad teaches me a party game where you draw a character in four parts, with different people drawing different parts of the character.

2010: I have qualified as a teacher, spent a year working at a pretty difficult place in Spain – not through any major malpractice, but rather as the conditions that sadly seem the norm for many newly qualified EFL teachers – and come back to teach in my hometown, London.

I find myself turning back in time for inspiration. I am more interested in using songs and music in the classroom; not rockabilly – well, I haven’t used rockabilly in the language classroom YET.

Whenever I can, I try to use drawing and pictures, or drawing games, to improve my teaching. Not all the time, but whenever I feel it can enhance an activity, or hopefully motivate my students, or provide them with something useful in the classroom.

These tools and tricks might have been sparked by the engaged bunch of TEFLers I find myself surrounded by in this crazy online connected world, but I like to think that they were already there somewhere. I didn’t become a great artist or singer, I became a teacher with what I think are a few useful tricks up my sleeves.

What if you want to do some drawing?

Always, always, always take a good supply of coloured pencils and paper (blank preferably, but if it has to be lined, so be it). I think this is useful whether you are teaching students aged 15 or 50. A pencil sharpener and eraser are also recommended.

What activities can you do or make better with drawing?

Simply drawing new vocabulary and making student-generated flash cards is a really good practice to get into. Simply tear or cut an A4 piece of paper into quarters, write the vocab you are looking at on one side of the cards. Check the vocab or teach it to your students, then ask them to draw a picture to represent the word or phrase on the other side. This idea is one of a number of fab suggestions by Jamie Keddie [] in his book Images [].

An activity I have done could be called something like ‘sentence to picture and back again’. It goes like this:

Give each student a piece of paper and ask them to write a simple sentence (I have done this by asking them to write one activity they did at the weekend). They should keep this simple – something like ‘I played football.’

They then hand their piece of paper to the student on their left. Make sure that each student now has a different piece of paper to the one they had before. They should now draw a small picture below the sentence to illustrate the activity. They should leave a gap between the sentence and their drawing.

They then fold over the paper so the sentence can’t be seen and you only see the picture. The paper is then passed on to another student who has to try and make the sentence from the picture.

Then they unfold the paper to see if they got the correct sentence.

Mike demonstrating how to use a flashcard in Ken Wilson's shed


Mike Harrison blogs at


21 thoughts on “Guest blog 11-5 – Mike Harrison on using drawing, images and sounds in teaching

  1. This was written by Mike, of course, not by me. Anyone any idea how I can delete ‘Written by Ken Wilson’ or change it to ‘Written by Mike Harrison’ at the top??

    1. Hello Ken,

      Well, it’s a pleasure and an honour to be able to write something for your blog, so thank you very much for the opportunity.

      It’s also very timely, as the workshop I’ll be giving at ISTEK is all about using images and sounds in the classroom. In fact the timing could hardly have been better!

      RE the ‘Written by…’ section, I only know that you can assign different people roles on your blog, but with limited editing and admin priviledges. The best person to speak to about that is probably Barbara Sakamoto.

      Mike =)

  2. Ken – I think you’ll have to go into the page design and find the bit where it says “written by” and delete it – I don’t use WP so I don’t really know. Otherwise you might have to find the appropriate bit in the html code…

    Mike – A nice post, thanks! We’ve all learned a few new things about you – it is nice to hear more about the personal side of blogger friends 🙂 I also love your drawing idea – I have tried getting students drawing with more and less success. Not long ago I got my advanced class to draw a cartoon using quite a few new idiomatic expressions that had come up in the lesson – I have a feeling I might have copied this idea from Karenne Sylvester… I was wondering whether the drawing could be quite time-consuming – how do you get those students who love drawing to do quick simple sketches rather than full-blown works of art?

    1. I tried zapping the’ Written by…’ part to bits with a high-powered laser gun – and it’s still there!!

    2. Hi Michelle,

      I’ve been waiting for this kind of post for a while. I was interested to see how I might include a bit more about myself, without it being all me-me-me. I hope that it wasn’t too indulgent!

      I think with drawing the fact is that the amount of time it takes can vary considerably. I tend to emphasis that only really simple drawings are needed, often by giving an example of this myself on the board. You also have to be aware that some students will draw more (illustrating 2, 3 or more flashcards in a set, for example), while others may not draw anything. I think you’ve got to be sensitive to that. Also, perhaps it would be useful to point out the reason why you’re drawing (or asking students to draw), just as with anything you do in class, where appropriate.

      Thanks very much for your comment!


    3. Just to add to the above (I hit post too soon!) is that about students drawing less or more is included in Jamie Keddie’s book where he writes about student-generated flashcards.

  3. Thanks for the ideas on drawing, Mike, and the background about yourself. It’s always insightful to learn more about people I respect!

    Ken, the “Written by” is usually caused because you posted it using your WordPress account. If you want a guest poster to have it say their name, you’d need to add a new user (from your dashboard) and give them an account using their names. Then, they’d log into your blog under their account names and post then. =)

    1. As a more immediate solution, each WordPress theme includes settings about what to display on individual posts. They’re all located in different areas, but for me, I can uncheck “Display author on posts” in the Theme Settings (which is at the bottom left column of my Dashboard).

      1. Thanks, Tyson.

        I don’t have a Theme Settings ..

        I’m not getting paranoid but…


      2. Haha. Don’t panic. Maybe I was misleading. My “theme settings” is actually “Layout Options” under “Magazine Basic”, which is the name of my theme.

        I know this would suggest a great leap of faith, but I’d be willing to go into your blog settings and see if I can figure out where it is, if you want. I completely understand why you wouldn’t want to though. Just suggesting. =)

  4. Hey Mike!

    I loved this post and as Tyson said, I really like learning more about the educators I admire and their lives! I remember you mentioning to me on Twitter about your dad being in a rockabilly band – great to know more about that and how he influenced you as well.

    I like the idea about using drawing in lessons, it makes it more interesting and I think the students participate more, as it is out of a strict context – and they learn more that way!

    You’re one cool teacher, Mike!

    Ken, thanks for having Mike on the blog.

    Warmest wishes,

    1. Hi Vicky,

      It was nice to write something a little bit more personal – strange that Ken’s blog seemed the best place for it, or maybe not, there seems to be a great variety of people who have guestposted, and each brings something a little different. I remember reading yours on multiculturalism a while back and thinking how nice it was to have a little insight into what makes you tick.

      I like using drawing, and I think it’s an important and useful tool in the repertoire of a teacher. But it’s crucial not to overdo it (as with most things).

      Thanks for the comment!

  5. I loved this sentence: “I became a teacher with what I think are a few useful tricks up my sleeves.”

    We all have an odd mix of experiences in our lives that make us into the people we are, and it’s nice when that shines through in the classroom.

    Equally nice when it offers a nice sense of creativity, or thinking outside the box, curiousity and fun as your activity pulls off quite well.

    rock on, Mike! 🙂

  6. Hi Mike,

    Thanks for sharing the ideas and giving us the background. I think all sorts of experiences we’ve had throughout our lives, both from before we we were teachers and since we became them, influence how we teach in many ways and it’s interesting to read about the connections you’ve made.

    And, you dad’s party game, passed onto you and spread through your blog was a big hit with 4th graders in Turkey, so much so that 3 months since they did it, the subsequent wall display remains untouched at the kids’ own insistence. 🙂

  7. Totally with you, Brad. I think it must be such a shame (I actually don’t how it’s possible) if part of you doesn’t come through in your teaching. I got that feeling from the teachers I chatted to on my IELTS course over the weekend, and I just thought, what a pity. Still, onwards and upwards, I’m hoping to meet a few involved, creative and engaged people at ISTEK and IATEFL.

    Rock on, indeed!

  8. Hi Mike,
    How does it feel to be a guest blogger for Ken? Hihihi 🙂

    I really enjoyed reading your post and you know I am a big fan of drawing and colours myself. It’s so natural for kids and adults (well, maybe reluctant at the beginning) love it too.
    But drawings are not just about having fun in the classroom. It does help remember things because every drawing is unique and personal and creates context (more or less meningful :-)).
    Anyway, I plan to try out your activity soon and can’t wait to see my students’ faces as I am sure they will enjoy it too.

    Thanks for nice post!


    1. Hi Vladka,

      Well, it’s great to be in such company!

      I completely agree that drawing isn’t, and shouldn’t, be just about having fun. I remember a recent post on Dave Dodgson’s blog about material he has seen and used with young learners. He mentioned ‘activities’ in published materials which were basically colouring in! I’m not sure how much language that would generate, to be perfectly honest. I think the value in drawing activities, as well as using images and sounds as stimuli, is where you take them, whether as prompts for speaking or writing, or more discrete areas of language such as descriptions or narratives.

      Thanks for your comment!


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