Picture Stories, ALG Concept in ESL

In Linguistics and Language Learning on January 23, 2009 at 2:32 pm

Applying ALG Concepts to Teaching English EFL (TESOL, ESL)

By Antonio Graceffo



Mulan and Shrek both stopped by my classroom to help me teach English to second graders. Man, I wish that had happened when I was a kid in school.


Picture story is an incredibly fun and useful tool which can be used in a foreign language classroom for teaching real speaking and listening skills. The methodology can also transition into a writing exercise.


The way picture story works is this. The teacher stands at the board and tells a basic story. Here in Taiwan, I usually try and use a Disney cartoon, such as “Mulan” or “Kung Fu Panda” which the kids are already familiar with. Sometimes, I use old Chinese legends which I read in my Chinese class, so that the stories will be culturally appropriate.


See the video on youtube:


While I tell the story, in English, I draw very simple pictures, on the board, depicting the key points. I write character and place names and any new vocabulary under the appropriate pictures. When I finish, I invite the kids to come to the board, one at a time, and retell the story. I make sure that the kids understand, I am not grading their ability to memorize or repeat what I have said. I just want them to tell the story, as best they can, in their own words, and at their level.


Listening to the story is obviously a listening exercise. Getting up and telling the story is a speaking exercise, which gives each student several minutes of focused speaking time. Again, this is real, not scripted speaking. While the other kids are telling the story, most kids will listen, to see how he deals with certain difficult areas, or if he makes mistakes, which they all love to hear. Once the students are comfortable with the method, I will jump up and make changes to the pictures. Suddenly, between students three and four, I add an elephant to the Pinocchio story. Between children seven and eight I add a UFO or a space alien. The children then have to cope with these new additions to the story. This is completely free speaking, as I haven’t given them a model of how to deal with these new dimensions.


At the end, when the board is completely full of pictures, you can transition into a writing exercise. Have the kids take out their notebooks and write their own version of the story, incorporating every single item on the board.


To help them remember the story and talking points, I give them a pointer, and instruct them to point at each picture as they talk about it. If the child gets stuck, which doesn’t happen very often, I just lead him to the next picture and ask questions.


“Who is this?” I ask, pointing.

“He is Schrek, Teacher.” Answers the student.

“And where did he go in this picture?”

“He went to the castle.”

“Why did he do that?”

“To save his wife.”


Once the kids have done the exercise a few times, it is amazing how rarely they need any help at all. And even when I jump in and lead them, they usually pick the story up on their own, and continue on. As a teacher, you don’t have to worry that helping the student is preventing him from learning, if you are asking him questions, as opposed to him speaking to the class, you have just transitioned the exercise from public speaking, to real conversation. Both very useful skills.


Picture story is an exercise which developed out of my studies of Thai language in Bangkok. There, the director of studies, David Long, is the world’s leading expert on ALG, Automatic Language Growth, a listening based language teaching methodology. The ALG concept is pretty simple. Chinese babies listen for two years before they start speaking Chinese. And when they speak Chinese, they speak it at native speaker level. But most ESL programs expect kids to speak English five minutes into their first lesson. Afterwards, parents and educators wonder why kids have an accent and make grammatical errors. ALG says the errors come because the kids didn’t listen enough. So, in a strict ALG classroom, students would listen for around 800 hours before they are permitted to start speaking.


In our Thai program, we listened as Thai native speakers told picture stories, acted out movies, did news broadcasts, or gave lectures in the front of the classroom. Most English teachers believe that in a one-hour lesson, the students are getting one-hour of listening. This is absolutely not true. Modern English teaching methods instruct the teachers to keep their talk time down to 15%, in order to give students a chance to practice speaking. So, the students are only getting nine minutes of listening per hour. They are also getting a lot or minutes of listening to their classmates speaking English, which gives them an improper model.


In an ALG classroom, one-hour of class, is exactly one-hour of listening. And of course, because students are not allowed to speak, the students are only listening to the perfect native-speaker model.


Sadly, EFL, ESL, TESOL and whatever other acronyms you want to use for English language teaching, is a business. If parents knew that their kids weren’t speaking in class, they would pull their students out and send them to another school. And you would lose all of your students, and then lose your job, and then lose your apartment and wind up living in the park where you would have to eat food from a garbage can. And, since no one likes eating food from a garbage can, you do as you are told.


“Just keep them talking!” is a mantra I have often heard from employers. But how can students talk if they have nothing to say?


Since real ALG wouldn’t go over that well with Taiwanese parents and employers, I struck a compromise. While I am telling a picture story I try to be as entertaining and long winded as I can. This gives the kids the longest “real listening” they will probably get. Telling a story is much better than artificial listening exercises done with a tape or CD. Those stories and conversations are generally scripted. But real communication isn’t. In real life, you make mistakes, you double talk, shift gears, use new vocabulary, and of course, you don’t always speak in neat little sentences.


My drawing skills are quite elementary. In fact, I only know how to draw one animal. It sort of looks like a cow, but I use it for a dog, a wolf, or vegetable salad. When I draw it, I tell the students what it is that day. “This is a giraffe, by the way.” I tell them, and they all laugh. Sometimes I may write under it “giraffe.” The bad drawing just adds to the humor and makes the kids laugh. They stay entertained and listen more intently.


One of the reasons for the pictures, and for the live teacher using hands, body language, and facial expressions to tell the story is to show the kids that most of communication is non-verbal. So, even though you may be using some words that they don’t know, or talking too fast, the kids can still follow the story, using the verbal clues which they catch and the visual clues which you give them. This will increase their self-confidence as well as giving them other communication tools to draw on to make themselves understood in a real conversation.


When kids work with a lab book or do a traditional listening exercise, they are listening for very specific information, so that they can fill in the answers to the questions. Once they have answered question one, they stop listening, and wait for question two. With the picture story, they have no choice but to continue listening, all of the way through, because they will need to retell the whole story.


Perhaps the correct mantra should be “Keep them listening.”


In an ALG classroom students aren’t allowed to have paper, pencils, notebooks or dictionaries. I have the same rule during picture story. I don’t want the listeners to be distracted by these tools, and again, I don’t want them to take notes and try to memorize the story or retell it verbatim. I want them to listen, enjoy, and understand and then retell in their own words and at their own level.


This method can be used for adults as well as children. And it can be used with learners of all levels. Since listening should develop faster than speaking, you can allow low-level students, after listening in English, to retell the story in their native tongue. This is another point about the ALG classroom, if students need to speak or are called upon to answer questions, the teacher speaks the language the students are trying to learn. The students should answer in their own language. Here in Taiwan, most of the English schools (called Bushi Bans) state, in their advertising or on huge signs hung over the door, “The No Chinese Bushi Ban,” or “The English Only Bushi Ban.” They are so proud of their English only policy which is complete silliness.


In language teaching you need to decide what you are practicing in a given exercise or on a given day. So, if you are practicing listening, practice listening, and don’t worry about speaking. If a low-level student can listen to my version of “Toy Story” in English and then retell it in Chinese, then good on him! It means he was listening. He was listening in English and he understood. We can work on speaking another day. If I required him to speak English, and he wasn’t ready, he would get crushed. He would be embarrassed and lose his motivation to learn English. Instead, by allowing him to speak Chinese, his self-confidence and motivation will soar.


Most experts will tell you that motivation is perhaps the most important element in successful language learners, and yet, it is the one we know the least about and the one we most neglect.


Picture story gives students opportunities for real listening and speaking. It is entertaining and helps students stay focused. And, as an adult, it gives me a chance to explore the deeper interpretations of “Toy Story” as a metaphor for life and the dangers of membership in a religious cult. Do you remember the little green alien squeak toys who worshipped the claw? You don’t? Then I’ll get my students to tell you about it tomorrow.



Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. His areas of expertise are applied linguistics and second language acquisition. See is video on “Picture Story” applications on

His book, The Monk from Brooklyn, and all of his books are available at See his martial arts and adventure videos on youtube.


His website is

Join him on

Contact Antonio:


Antonio is currently seeking admission to and a scholarship for MA/PHD studies in Asian linguistics or a related field. If you can help, or know someone who can, please contact Antonio: Feel free to forward this story to anyone who might be interested.


Language,acquisition,theory,linguistic,automatic,growth,alg,esl,tesol,efl,second, language,EFL,TESOL,ALG,Antonio,Graceffo,linguist,martial,Taiwan,teaching


  1. Maybe one of the best things I have read in the last months! All I have to say is that you’re awesome and I know I can learn a lot with you. Stay in thouch!

  2. […] Like, hundreds and thousands of hours of listening.  Some classes are already working with this, not allowing students to say a word of their L2 until they have listened to at least 800 hours of it. My personal take on it is to let output come when it comes, after some “critical mass” […]

  3. Bookmarked it right away. Will start implementing it in my classes, thanks!

  4. […] out the following video, and after that read the article! You have to! January 23rd, 2009 at 3:31 […]

  5. It is great to finally come across a fellow Linguist/Martial Artist/English Teacher! I am actually writing a book on how to acquire Mandarin, learn martial arts, and teach English in Taipei ( I would love to interview you for my podcast series if you’re interested…

    Anyway, I think the Picture Stories concept is excellent: 1) it can be scaled up or down for different ability levels, 2) it focuses on listening first and allows students to produce output at their level, and 3) it taps into one’s visual/spatial intelligence instead of relying only on aural or textual input.

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