English learning advice from Aviation English Asia. Article written by Michael Egerton
In this article you are going to learn techniques to describe pictures in ICAO English tests. As mentioned in a previous article, The ICAO English test - guidance and advice, describing a picture is a common part of many ICAO English tests. Describing pictures isn't something that pilots and controllers tend to do as part of flight operations, but the AEROSTA Framework and ICAO Document 9835 does indicate "giving a visual impression" as a relevant linguistic task.
What language skills are required?
Quite often the pictures will be of unusual or unexpected events such as damage to an aircraft, a crash/collision or a malfunctioning piece of the aircraft's equipment. You will need to develop your vocabulary so that you can easily explain these situations without being lost for words. As a pilot or controller you will need vocabulary to describe
- each part of an aircraft,
- weather and time of day,
- the physical layout of an airfield and
- various types of damage that can occur.
You will also need a good command of verb tenses so that you can describe:
- what is happening now
- what has happened before
- what is likely to happen in the future
You should also learn the language skills needed to explain why these events have occurred. This will involve (among others) modal verbs of possibility/probability, conjunctions and infinitives of purpose. You should also use prepositions to describe the physical location, or path of movement of the various objects in the picture.
Phrases for describing pictures
Start by giving a brief description of each picture.
- The incident involves ...
- This is a ...
- I can see ...
- This is an incident that happened ...
There are different phrases you can refer to parts of each pictures. For example:
- on the left / on the right (hand side)
- in the background / in the foreground
- behind x / in front of x
Depending on the picture you will need to use appropriate tenses. For example:
- an aircraft is trying to land (present continuous because it is something happening at the moment the photo was taken)
- the aircraft in this picture has collided with a ground vehicle (present perfect because it is something that happened in the recent past with a result in the present)
- a ground vehicle is about to make a wrong turn that will surely cause a problem for aircraft that are landing.
The assessor might also ask you to give your opinion about the picture.
- In my opinion ...
- I think that ...
- It looks like ...
- x seems to be ...
- Take a look at the following picture for 30 seconds.
- Describe it in as much detail as possible for 90 seconds
- Explain how you think the situation occurred for 30 seconds.
- Post your description as a comment. We will review it and give you feedback.
Five tips for describing pictures in an ICAO English test
1. Keep it simple Try to avoid complicated expressions or grammatical structures if you are not sure how to use them. Don't waffle (speak unnecessarily about a topic), and if you have nothing to say it's better to wait for the assessor to prompt you.
2. Ask the assessor for an explanation if you don't understand the task If you don't understand what you are supposed to do, ask the assessor to explain. For example, you could say:
- Could you repeat the question, please?
- I'm sorry, could you explain what the word .... means ?
- Could you please ask the question in another way?
3. Use full sentences Avoid answers which are single words or answers that sound like a list of bullet points. Demonstrate that you know how to form sentences correctly and can use a range of structures to express yourself.
4. Be aware of the time limits When you are asked to describe a photo and explain why something has happened, make sure that you leave some time for explaining your own opinion if that is a required part of the task. You should also avoid rushing, as speaking slowly and clearly is an essential skill in aeronautical communications. You will have better pronunciation if you slow down and don't swallow your words.
5. Get feedback Before an ICAO English test, get expert advice from Aviation English Asia Ltd. If you only practice with friends in a study group, you might copy their mistakes, and you will not be aware of your actual difficulties or proficiency. Remember, it's not what you say to answer a question, it's a matter of how well you answer a question. Students at Aviation English Asia are a friendly bunch who really make the effort to help each other. Of course, all our English courses for ICAO compliance offer thorough practice of these skills in each unit.
What to do next
For feedback and more information about Aviation English Asia’s courses please visit http://aviationenglish.com. We can help you improve your English whether you are an experienced pilot, a cadet entry pilot, a controller, engineer or flight attendant, with custom courses designed specifically for your needs. If you haven’t already please join the Aviation English mailing list for special offers and details of courses in your area.