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Photography in the Workplace:

Empowering ESL Students to Express Themselves at Work

Melina Gallo
Northen Illinois University
Business and Industry Services
Workplace Instructor


As a practitioner, I have found that the challenges of teaching ESL in the workplace often spur me to seek creative ways of promoting language learning in this unique environment. Some of the difficulties frequently encountered in workplace ESL include multi-level classes, technical vocabulary and processes unfamiliar to the instructor, and mismatch between students' and management's learning goals.

This pilot project sprang out of an adult literacy seminar involving discussions of transformative and Freirean literacy. I experimented with giving my ESL students cameras and allowing them to document their lives in and out of work in order to facilitate communication and generate themes for a student-centered curriculum.

Because I have found the use of visual images created by others can be a valuable way of starting conversations in a classroom situation, I felt that using images that the learners themselves had chosen and created would have an even more powerful impact. By taking their own photographs they are able to represent how they see themselves and to present their images as they would like others to view them. This is in sharp contrast to viewing images which others have selected for them or of them. It also allows them to show me their work equipment and type of jobs they do to help my own understanding of their occupational language requirements while facilitating communication for those with limited English proficiency.

What experiences with images created by literacy/ESL students have you used with your students?




Literature Review

The use of images in representing generative themes for purposes of literacy and language learning is not a new idea. Much of Paulo Freire's literacy work incorporated "codifications", artist's renditions of typical situations of the peasants. These were used to illustrate issues important to the learners in order to engage them personally with the learning process . This learner-centered approach allows adults to focus on relevant problems and to use their literacy skills to find solutions. Cynthia Sihabout's work with a Paraguayan literacy program used photographs taken by the researcher to illustrate themes generated by discussions with the participants . Projects encouraging learners to create their own photographic images have been implemented by Wendy Ewald, who has done a considerable amount of work teaching children photography in order to help them share their stories and dreams .

Click here for more information on these types of projects: Auerbach promotes the use of students' photos in LEA (language experience approach) exercises. Here the teacher acts as a scribe while the student tells a story . Iwanaga (1992) has used photos in a community-based ESL program by introducing her photographs and those taken by her students as an impetus for writing captions and stories.

Though photography has been found useful in helping learners in many of the above-mentioned situations, the use of photography in workplace literacy programs has rarely been utilized. The cost, legal issues involving proprietary information, and the generally skill-based behavioristic curricula of workplace literacy programs have made this type of project difficult to implement.

Program Design

I taught two ESL classes for this project. Both were held in a small plastics molding plant in a western suburb of Chicago. Twenty-two workers from Vietnam, Colombia, Mexico, and Yugoslavia participated in this project. The participants ranged in age from early twenties to sixties, and their seniority in the factory also ranged widely from several months to more than 20 years. Their English proficiencies varied as well from almost zero level (knowing only a few common phrases such as "thank you" and "goodbye") to high intermediate (understanding normal speech quite well with some hesitancy in speaking and writing). The classes were funded by an Illinois Secretary of State Literacy grant with matching funds and paid class time provided by the company, while I provided cameras. The adult students were paid at their regular hourly rate for their four hours in class each week for eight weeks as part of an ongoing ESL program. As a pre-test and post-test I administered the FSI (Foreign Service Institute Language Proficiency Interview), an oral language assessment which measures comprehension, fluency, vocabulary, grammar, and accent.

I tried to go into this project with few preconceived notions of where the curriculum should go and let the students generate the themes that they found important through discussions and writing exercises. I introduced the topic of photography by showing photos of people working in factories taken from Born to Work and The Working Experience and also shared photos of my own family, and myself at work. I noticed that my own pictures seemed to generate a lot more questions and comments than the ones from the books that I had found more visually interesting. Questions about my family members (e.g. 'Is she married?" "Is your uncle Mexican?") revealed genuine curiosity and led to conversations about family size, interracial marriage, and isolation from relatives abroad.

The initial response to using the cameras was excitement and enthusiasm. All participants were given cameras and asked to take photographs of what was important in their lives in and out of work. The cameras used were the inexpensive, disposable type with simple point and shoot operation. The film was developed commercially and I photocopied and enlarged the pictures on overhead transparencies for class discussions. The photos taken depicted the students at work and home in a wide variety of candid and posed situations. Click here for samples of these photos. Photo1 | Photo 2 | Photo 3 | Photo 4

We often began class with discussions of pictures displayed on overhead transparencies. With the lights out, I would place a picture on the projector and immediately would hear laughter, groans, or an insuppressible,"That's mine!" I asked basic questions about the picture ("Who is this?", "What is he doing?") and then wrote key vocabulary words offered by the class on the image using a second transparency over the photograph. This seemed to be a fair way of managing a multi-level group because the higher level students could get into more complex discussions while the lower level participants saw, heard, and wrote down new words. Through this process we generated a vocabulary list of 46 commonly used work words which I typed and distributed to the class. We later created picture dictionaries, using photocopies of the pictures and writing appropriate vocabulary words next to each image. These resources were used as reference materials throughout the course. We also practiced and reinforced vocabulary words using games such as picture-drawing charades, card games, and word bingo to provide more vocabulary exposure in ways that were fun and helped to lower the levels of emotional anxiety that can sometimes impede learning.

Our first writing exercise was for each class member to select one of his or her own photos and write a description of it. I collected these short essays and typed them up, making minimal spelling and grammatical changes in order to keep the students' own style intact. Next I photocopied all of the stories with their pictures and made them into booklets for everyone. Adults took turns reading their own stories about their jobs, families, and cultural experiences from the booklets and we discussed them at length. These booklets were also displayed on the company bulletin board for all employees to read, and several workers from the plant and office stopped by our classroom to remark how much they liked the essays and pictures. A total of four editions were created and it was heartening for them to see their own language progress as stories became longer and more descriptive in each book. One student remarked with a note of surprise, "I'm reading more English, I'm writing more English!" Click here for writing sample.

I also wrote short dialogs, which Elsa Auerbach refers to as "codes", in order to expand some of the discussion topics initiated by the class. By working with their ideas and themes, I was able to add new vocabulary words and grammatical structures and open the topics to further discussion. Some of the topics generated included working two jobs, coping with the heat in the plant, balancing overtime and family time, and finding opportunities to practice English. Click here for dialogue code samples. Another exercise we completed was brainstorming ideas for improving production, safety, and scrap reduction and submitting these to the company suggestion box.

Some participants added to the class discussions by bringing in other photos and letters from home to aid telling their stories. One woman transcribed her entire photo storybook in phonetic Vietnamese and shared it with the other Vietnamese speakers. Others wrote their family histories and asked to have them typed up so that they could share them with their children.

How have your students added to the curriculum through their own offerings?


Impact of the Program

As a result of these classes, workers gained the confidence to make suggestions, go to the personnel office and discuss work situations, and speak up about their opinions for improving the company. The improvements on their FSI scores were considerable as well; they moved from an average of 43.4 points to 51.1 points with an average gain of 7.7 points overall. Finding their voices in this way allowed these adults to take control and responsibility for their jobs. As one Vietnamese woman explained, "Before we were to scared to go to the office... now we know more English and we're not scared." Another student commented, "I like the class because I can speak English to my supervisor and the teacher and my children."

It seems apparent that the enthusiasm generated by sharing their images has positively impacted the amount and quality of writing, reading, and discussion going on in the classes. In comparison to the sometimes lackluster responses generated from questions about textbook workplace scenarios and the usual company related materials (memos, employee rulebook, production sheets), the opportunity to work with topics of their own choosing and creation has had a powerful effect on the degree and type of participation in class. One woman remarked, "Now I read more English, and I like the camera." The fact that adult students were engaging in lively and sometimes heated discussions in class, bringing in stories written at home, and initiating conversations with supervisors at work all indicated that this project had gone beyond the impact of a standard workplace ESL class.

By engaging a multi-level class in participatory activities while sharing their stories and photographs, we were able to introduce the technical vocabulary and awareness of work documents desired by company management as well as allowing adult learners to create learning projects which were personally meaningful.

Which qualitative measures discussed here is most meaningful to you. Why?



Worker empowerment is not a goal embraced by all companies offering workplace literacy classes. For some, imparting basic knowledge about filling out forms and understanding orders is all that is desired. However, for the many companies committed to continuous quality improvement and team-based organization, employee empowerment to make suggestions, take responsibility for their work, and implement changes is essential. In these types of organizations, a curriculum built upon employees' needs and concerns is the best way to involve workers in taking control of their own learning and their own work. Encouraging workers to write, speak, and read about topics that they have created is a major step toward empowering the participants to make positive changes in their work environment through their new communication skills.

If you try this activity with your students, please share what changes you make and the results.