Learning About Voice Through Photographs

Grade Levels: 3 - 6

Finding one’s voice is a challenge for many writers. In this exercise, students use classic photographs to explore the concept of voice.


  • Students will use brainstorming techniques to explore the tone and content of the photograph.
  • Students will use first person narration to convey decisions he or she has made about a person in the photograph.
  • Students will use the first person to provide the reader with a sense of the speaker, including the person’s feelings and mood, thoughts at the moment, age, and origin.


  • At least four computers with images loaded
  • Notebook paper OR word processing programs for every student


  1. Before students go to the computers, review first person narration. Ask the students for examples of first, second, and third person narration. If you haven’t talked about the concept of voice already, introduce it now. One effective way to do this is to ask students what different voices they use in speaking. For example, how do they talk to the school principal? To their best friend? Or how do they talk to their mother when they want to stay up late vs. when they’re angry with her for enforcing a rule? Each of these is a different "voice" that can be used in different circumstances. The same kinds of voices can be used in writing. Read a brief passage from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
  2. Following are four photographs that students can look at on the Web. Bookmark the computers you’ll be using to view these four photographs, or provide students with the list of URLs.
  3. When students sit down to the computer, they should very briefly look at all four photographs and choose one that interests them. (This exercise could also be done using four computers, with each machine set to a different image and a small group of students gathered around each one.) After they’ve chosen a photo, give them one minute to study it, asking them to think about what might be happening, and to choose one person they want to write about.
  4. Once the student has chosen one person in the photograph to focus on, ask them to consider the questions below as they look at the image. Students should write their responses down, making a descriptive list. Depending on students’ keyboarding abilities, you might also have them do the writing portions of this lesson in a word processing program. This is a brainstorming activity and should be done quickly. Allow the students no more than five minutes.
    • What is this person thinking?
    • If this person were to speak, what might he or she say?
    • How would the person sound? Is it a high-pitched voice? Quiet or loud? Hesitant or excited?
    • How does the person feel? Is he or she afraid? Happy? Hungry? Cold?
  5. Now ask the students to write a paragraph in the voice of this person. Remind them to use first person. Their writing should capture the person’s personality. Students will have an opportunity to write a second paragraph, so limit this first attempt to about five minutes.
  6. When the students are finished, ask for two volunteers to read their paragraphs to the class. Can the rest of the students identify who the speaker is? Has the writer used descriptive language to evoke the speaker? For example, "My lips are so numb I can’t remember what they feel like," provides us with more information about the speaker than, "I’m cold." Use the two passages you’ve heard aloud to provide the rest of the class with techniques on how to improve their next paragraph.
  7. Have the students choose another of the five photographs and repeat the exercise. For this version, they should try to be more descriptive, and they should also imagine one important piece of information about this person. For example, in the photo of the kids with the water hydrant, a writer might imagine that it’s the hottest day of the entire summer – 103 degrees! This would heighten the speaker’s joy at playing in the water. The information doesn’t have to be stated in the paragraph, but the effect of that information should be felt. In other words, we should hear the relief from the extreme heat that this speaker is experiencing. Provide students with more time – up to ten minutes – for the second writing exercise.
Learning About Voice Through Photographs Assessment


  • Provide the students with one photograph each. (You might pull photographs from magazines or use picture postcards.) As a class, come up with more questions to consider about a person in the photograph (e.g., Is this person funny? What is his or her favorite food? Does he or she like to read?). Have the students write a short story using this person in the photograph as the first person narrator.
  • Collect an assortment of excerpts that provide examples of different voices. Find examples both from popular children’s literature, as well as the popular press, computer manuals, and personal letters. Read the excerpts without identifying their sources and ask the class to guess at the speaker. Use the same list of questions you devised for the photographs to lead your discussion.
  • Ask the students to rewrite one of their paragraphs using all simple sentences (one subject, one verb) and then a third time using all compound sentences. Discuss sentence length and the need to vary sentence structure in writing.

Standards Correlation
Standards at McRel:

  • Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, and classic and contemporary works.
  • Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
  • Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
  • Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and nonprint texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.

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