Professional Development

Introducing the Unit Part I: Packing a Punch With Pictures


Planning a unit is like developing the script of a James Bond film.

That opening scene starts off with a bang! The viewer is immediately thrust into a high-powered action thriller, be it a car racing around hairpin curves, a speedboat jumping a dock, or a hang glider weaving between mountain crevices. It’s only after this initial thrill, after the viewer is drawn into the story, that the plot plays out and the viewer discovers the connection between that initial drama and mission elements.That’s how I want learners to experience each unit of study in my classes. Realistically, we may not be able to bring that same excitement that we feel watching James Bond as he chases or flees from the bad guys, but there are a number of ways we can begin our units that connect learners to the content, help them understand why we’re learning that content, and motivate them to want to know more.

Motivation emerges from a hierarchy of motivators.

First, the subject matter should be intrinsically motivating. Relevance or pragmatic utility usually play a part in this intrinsic motivation.

First, the subject matter should be intrinsically motivating. Relevance or pragmatic utility usually play a part in this intrinsic motivation.

Second, instructor enthusiasm is key. High energy and excitement for the content on the part of the teacher fuels student interest. And, it needs to be genuine; learners can tell when we’re feigning.

Third, and this is where James Bond comes in, there needs to be a focusing event that gains the attention of the learners and hooks them into wanting to know more. It goes without saying that the focusing event should be relevant and connect to the content of the unit.

Last, and not least, elements of fun should be included – not just for the initial focusing event – but, woven throughout the unit.

Let’s zero in on focusing events for opening a unit of study.

A great option for these is the use of photographs, artwork, or even video clips from the target cultures. Teachers have been using these kinds of authentic resources to introduce units, lessons, and segments of study for longer than most of us have been teaching. Along the way, we’ve refined the technique to include strategies that move learners beyond simply identifying what they see in the images. One such technique comes from TCI™’s social studies curriculum, History Alive!. Visual Discovery brings to life compelling visuals as learners discover key concepts. The strategy sharpens visual-literacy skills, encourages learners to construct their own knowledge through higher-level thinking, develops deductive reasoning, and taps visual, intrapersonal, and body-kinesthetic intelligences.

To begin, choose 2 or 3 images to introduce the key concept(s) of the unit. Make sure they include a combination of the following:

  • connect to the curriculum and student outcomes;
  • illustrate key concepts;
  • graphically show human emotion, suspense, or interaction;
  • are interesting or unusual;
  • have the potential for learners to “step into the scene;”
  • are culturally relevant.

Ask learners carefully sequenced questions that lead to discovery of the key concepts. Questions move through three levels, from basic identification to higher-order processing.

Level 1 – Gathering evidence (identifying the details)

  • What do you see in this image?
  • What are some details?
  • How would you describe the scene and the people?
  • What do you hear (or smell) in the scene?

Level 2 – Interpreting evidence (providing evidence to support answers)

  • Where might the scene be taking place?
  • What is happening in the scene?
  • What are people saying in the scene?
  • What might this person be thinking?
  • What might have happened prior to this scene?
  • What might happen next?

Level 3 – Making hypothesis from evidence (formulating ideas)

  • What is happening?
  • What does this say about the concept or culture?
  • How do we know?

Have learners interact with the image(s) to show what they have put together by:

  • taking the roles of characters in the image.
  • inserting themselves into the scene and acting accordingly.
  • creating captions for events depicted.
  • crafting summaries of events.
  • conducting news reports on the scene.
  • interviewing key characters.
Let’s look at examples from Wayside Publishing’s Spanish series, EntreCulturas 1, 2, 3.
EntreCulturas 1, Unidad 5 – La vida es un carnaval (p. 252)

Productos de la República Dominicana y del estado de Nueva York

Observa las imágenes. ¿Puedes identificar las que representan la República Dominicana? ¿Y los Estados Unidos? ¿Puedes identificar algunas conexiones entre los dos lugares?

Each unit of EntreCulturas 1 begins with a collage such as this one. Learners note items depicted in the photos (Level 1) and then, make comparisons and connections between the two places on which the unit focuses (Level 2). From here, have learners make predictions about the kinds of things they may be studying in the unit (Level 3). Refer them to the unit’s goals and essential questions for additional clues. Then, have learners identify items in which they are interested and would to know about.

EntreCulturas 3, Unidad 2 – #CiudadaníaDigital (p. 58)

¿Cómo se defina la ciudadanía digital?

En esta unidad, vas a explorar el concepto de la ciudadanía digital, algo que afecta a todo el mundo. Para empezar, examina las siguientes imágenes. ¿Puedes adivinar la definición de la ciudadanía digital? con el apoyo de Google. “Todo a un clic”. Extrado de

Use the Cooperative Learning structure, “Jigsaw,” to have learners process six images taken from the video they will view, Todo a un clic. Have learners work in small groups of six members each; assign each member one of the six images. Then, have learners regroup and sit with classmates who have the same image. In their “expert” groups, have learners discuss their image using the Visual Discovery approach. First, they note what they see in the image; have them identify nouns, adjectives, and verbs that apply to the image (Level 1). Then, have them make inferences about what is taking place in the image. Have them extend their thinking to identifying consequences of the actions depicted (Level 2). Finally, have them jot down advice for the viewer: what to do and what not to do (Level 3). Then, have learners return to their original groups and work together to draft a definition of digital citizenship. After viewing the video, Todo a un clic, and working through the tasks connected with the opening activity, have groups revisit and refine their definition. Post the different versions around the room and have learners note similarities and differences. Have them identify which one component they believe to be most important. As learners proceed through the unit, have them refer back to the definitions and their choices. Do they change their mind as they delve deeper into the theme?

Want to know more?

Check out the resources in the reference section and let us know in the comments section how you are using images to start off your units!

Resources (used as references in this post):
  • Mar, A., Davis, R., Sloan, M. & Watson-López, G. (2017). EntreCulturas 1. Freeport, ME: Wayside Publishing.
  • Espitia, D., García, P., Cornell, J., & Vásquez Gil, I. (2017). EntreCulturas 3. Freeport, ME: Wayside Publishing.
  • For more information on Visual Discovery, visit TCI™ –

Deborah Espitia

Deborah Espitia has been a world language educator for more than thirty years. She is a lead author on EntreCulturas 3 and has written numerous articles for Wayside surrounding proficiency-based learning.
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