Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Caption, My Caption

Saudi students at the “prep” (beginner) level learning English as a foreign language were asked to write a caption for a picture as part of their first quiz of the session.

We had spent a fair amount of time during a recent class writing captions for a series of story pictures from the textbook, such as “Francisco plays baseball”…“Maria listens to music”…“The Garcia family lives in an apartment” and so on. I could have selected one of those pictures to test whether they could remember what a caption is and write a complete sentence about it. But my Saudi stude
nts often just memorize answers from their text. And, if they don’t remember the correct answer they’ll simply write down anything they do remember, even if it’s a totally different picture. So I wanted a picture that they almost certainly would not have seen, one with ambiguous circumstances, but with enough identifiable language elements—men, papers, table, room—to give them something to go on.

I also reckoned that the messy papers on the floor would give me a chance to reinforce the idea of the process of revision and editing from the previous unit.

I would have accepted captions such as “Three men in a room are looking at papers.” In truth, I was ready to accept just about any sort of description that was remotely readable. And as expected, the range of answers followed a bell curve from “it is captain” to “three old men, one standing, two sitting.”

However, there were three extraordinarily perceptive responses.

Here’s the quiz item:

Q3 Write a caption for the following picture (3 pts)




And here are the top three answers, verbatim. Family names have been removed for privacy. I left the original spelling errors intact as a reminder that these are beginning English learners.

“There are three took [talk] about community thing. They try to solve or find the answer for community problem.”
(Ali, Group H)

COMMENT: Not only is this right, it’s exactly right. The picture of three founding fathers of what was to become the United States meeting to draft the Declaration of Independence is in essence a community problem-solving meeting.

“Three people planing [planning] to makes a war. The leader is reading a message.”
(Ahmed, Group F)

COMMENT: I have no idea how the student came up with “war” from this ambiguous historical image but one could say that the logical conclusion of drafting the Declaration of Independence is a call to war.

“Three men trying to write some kind of a law or doing a research. And they look like they are lived before 100 years ago.”(Mishaari, Group F)

COMMENT: Again, spot on. During class discussion, most of the students said that the men were British or French. Technically, “British” would be correct but as I pointed out, this image shows the very point in time at which these Brits were becoming Americans.

I’m not sure if it was a bit of moistness in my eyes and catch in my voice or simply a desire on students’ part to get on with the more exciting business of subject pronouns and gerunds but they were strangely silent as I described this moment of transformation in history.


Other responses that I think are interesting in their own right:

“They are looking for an old papier.” [paper]
(Abdullah, Group G)

“3 people I think old. They are write something. I think they are prences.” [princes]
(Hussain, Group H)

“Ali read the paper. Ahmed listen to Ali. The room isn’t clean.”
(Mohammed, Group H)

“They look befor[e] hundreds year. I think they’re writing letters for money and take a letter and read it. I think they help who can’t read or write a letter, but not free. It’s a job.”
(Saud, H)

I certainly don't mean to make fun of beginning students of English--I'd certainly hate to have my own meager Arabic scribblings exposed to the public eye. Rather, I wish to honor the difficult and rewarding process of writing, reading, revising...and declaring.

Image: Benjamin Franklin reading a draft of the Declaration of Independence. John Adams is seated and Thomas Jefferson is standing, holding feather pen and paper.
Original painting by J.L.G. Ferris. Source: Library of Congress



  1. Very interesting!

    The Saudi school system is notorious for repetitiveness and lack of creativity. What you displayed shows that something might be changing.


  2. خطوة خطوة

    Step by step brother Tarab.

  3. It definitely shows that they used their own imaginations and perceptions instead of just repeating something from memory - great exercise for them. Those gears are turning in their heads... and it's all good!

  4. "Three men inside on a beautiful day doing tedious work when I know at least one of them would rather be outside, flying a kite."

  5. Well Susie, it shows that 5 or 6 used their imaginations. It also shows that about half spent an hour working on captions during class but had no idea what a caption is when the quiz came around.

  6. Arcticlars: No wonder there's so much paper on the floor. You'd think they were working on something important...like a company mission statement!