The power and the story

You’ll never guess what happened!

Last weekend I went to Bonn and you’ll never guess what happened. But instead of me telling you, I’ll try to show you. See if you can guess using just the pictures below and sentence beginnings next to them. Complete each sentence with whatever comes into your mind, it can be as silly as you like!

Mike in Bonn


Philip in Bonn

Nickin Bonn2


Wiltonin Bonn
How did you do? Unless you knew already: no, I did not go to Bonn to go to see an orchestra and no, Mike Hogan is not my brother (not ‘blood brother’ anyway)! If that’s what you thought, you are not alone, that’s what my students thought too!

This activity is an old favourite. I first saw it on a young learners course in Portugal. The procedure involving a blank sheet of paper was something like this:


If all goes to plan the resulting story will send young learners into fits of giggles. The same, as I discovered in Bonn, is true of Business English trainers! I pulled the idea out of my ELT activity-hat when preparing for my workshop at the IATEFL BESIG (Business English) Conference but unsure of how it would go down I asked my travelling companion, Wilton Mills (the mayonnaise man). He convinced me to go ahead and use it but it would need a bit of tweaking first.

The subject of my workshop was the language of the environment and I wanted to demonstrate using the English on the streets of Bonn. So, on the afternoon before my workshop I took a break from the conference and went for a walk to see what I could find. I didn’t need to go far.

The next day at the workshop, I read out the sentence beginnings above to the participants and asked them to write them down and complete them. Each time I did so, however, I also showed them one of the pictures I’d taken. I suggested they only use theses to help them think of something to write and not necessarily use their words. It worked a treat! I can’t remember seeing the participants of any of my workshops on the edge of their seats waiting for my next line.

Back in Hamburg after the weekend, I tried the same activity with my students. My first class on Monday morning was a group of immigrant teens whose average level is pre-intermediate. They often enjoy showing one another the pictures they have taken with their mobile phones but are often told all too quicly to put these away at the beginning of the lesson. This time instead of telling them to put their phones away, I shared my photos and asked them to guess where I’d been. By doing so I not only captivated their interest but also shared something quite personal. On our next trip out I will ask them to take their own pictures of the English they see around them and then encourage them to use these to write a story.

On Monday evening I tried the same activity with a group of advanced adult learners, preparing for the CAE exam. I told them that the activity, once completed, would help them to analyse their writing and use of English skills. It also allowed them to look at their discourse management and cohesion, and their stories helped them recognise mistakes they’d made in inconsistent tense usage and the use of subject/object pronouns.

As Wilton also pointed out, the activity is perfectly adaptable to a business context. He often uses a very similar task to get his students to write business letters. My use of pictures gives students a further visual aid and helps those who often groan and shift uncomfortably when I ask them to use their imagination. If these pictures are of language they can identify with in a real life setting, it gives them a sense of relevance and helps them to contextualise.

Here are two of the stories the students wrote. The first, written by the immigrant teens, the second by the advanced adults:

When Mr Grundtvig arrived in Bonn he wanted to see his brother and then he take photo. Mr Grundtvig had a problem because he wore a red trousers. Mr Grundtvig doesn’t live in Bonn so he ask people to help. Someone told him to listen to advice But they went home. At the end of the day his friend told him quality is better than quantity.

When Andreas arrived in Bonn he wanted to visit an orchestra/cinema compound.
Andreas realised he had a problem so he went to a souvenir shop nearby to buy a clean t-shirt.
Andreas doesn’t live in Bonn so he required support and found immediately somebody with a ‘helping shirt’ who could suggest anything. Someone told him if these guys can go, why shouldn’t I! But the shop he was sent to was unfortunately closed so he wasn’t able to buy anything there. At the end of the day his friend invited him for dinner and showed Andreas everything what is important in life.

And in case you still want to know what really happened:

When Andreas arrived in Bonn he wanted to share an idea with teachers and friends at the BESIG Conference. Andreas realised he had a problem because the people in the pictures he had taken had no connection to him. Andreas doesn’t live in Bonn so he asked Phillip Davaraj, one of the excellent helpers, if he could take his picture. Someone told him to come for lunch (that someone was Nick Munby). But after lunch Andreas went to the centre. At the end of the day his friend, Wilton, was enjoying his meal when Andreas interrupted and asked if he could take his picture with a packet of mayonnaise.




  1. This is a brilliant idea, Andreas, I’m searching my archives for photos right now! Hope you Mike and Wilton had a great time at Besig:-)

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