ICAO Level 5 Vocabulary Practice: How To Describe Pictures?

An ICAO speaking part of a test can be a challenging and stressful situation, so when it comes to describing pictures it’s better to keep in mind a clear structure that you’ll follow easily. Each picture can be interpreted in a few layers – the first one consists of a description of the undeniable facts; the second is the speculation phase and the third is the comparison. In this article, I’ll discuss all the three areas and I’ll give you the best piece of advice how to enrich your exam speaking time and impress the examiners with a wisely-organized and planned speech structure.
How to describe a photo tips

1) FACTS – Describe What You See

Try to always begin with the easiest and most natural, which is the description of facts. Say what the undeniable facts are and what everyone can see. You can surely use a few phrases in almost every case:

Foreground versus Background

in the foreground: the front of the composition,
in the background: the back of the composition.

Indoors versus Outdoors

indoors: inside a building; describe the interior and design.
outdoors: taking place outside; describe the weather conditions.

Top versus Bottom

Probably the easiest but candidates tend to forget about them.
– “At the top”
– “At the bottom”


Are a perfect point of reference:
– “In the left corner”
– “In the right corner”
– “In the bottom left/ right corner”
– “In the top left/ right corner”

The Picture Itself

– “In the picture”
– “The picture shows”
– “The picture depicts”
– “This picture illustrates”

Use Present Continuous Tense

Use present continuous tense to describe what is happening in the picture. The example:
“The person who is sitting in the foreground seems to be an elderly woman in her min 90s. She’s wearing a polka dot dress, yellow jacket, and black high heels.”
Photo description


Once you finished describing the facts that are presented in the picture, it’s high time to try to use your imagination and say what could have happened and what is going to happen. The aim of this part is to express possibility and present your ability of logical thinking followed by a plain English structure. The layer number two is the tremendous area of speculation. It allows you to use your favorite and well-practiced grammar structures:

The Beginning of A Sentence

– “I think… ” (my comment: well… if you really have to say, “I think”, then do it. But it’s one of the commonly used structures. It’s not impressive at all for the examiners’ ears. Use forms that will make your speech outstanding.)
– “I guess / I suppose…”
– “It looks as if…”
– “It seems…”
– “I’d say…”
– “Judging by his/ her appearance, he/ she seems to be…”
– “As far as I can see, this picture was taken…”
– “My intuition suggests/ tells it could be…”

Modal Verbs

– “It must be / They have to be / He may be”…
– “It must have been / She should have never brought…”

ParaphrasePhoto and picture - descirbe

A paraphrase is crucial during the speaking exam. In case you realize there is a word that you don’t know or you’ve forgotten it, never ever admit you don’t know what to say. It’s the worst thing that you can do. Paraphrasing is saying the same but using the other words; imagine you’re playing a Taboo game 😉
A forgotten word is a forbidden word and you have to describe it the other way round. Even if you haven’t ever played the Taboo game, the art of paraphrasing is really useful during the examination. Remember always to do your best and never give up; never admit you don’t know a specific thing/ occupation, etc. Try as much as you can and believe me, your effort will pay off.


The last area of your interest should be comparing and expressing your opinion.


If there is anything that links you somehow with the people or circumstances from the picture, emphasize it. Find similarities between yourself and a picture. Your speech will sound more natural then.
– “Everybody who works in aviation industry should know that…”
– “This photo deals with one of the most dangerous aspects of my work…”
– “I always admired people who…”
Picture speculation and giving opinion

Remind the Rules

You are allowed to invoke aviation rules and regulations.
– “According to a shortly republished ICAO amendment, all the pilots and air traffic controllers are obliged to…”

Give Your Opinion

– “In my experience…”
– “If I were in his/ her situation, I would…”
– “I wish…”
– “As far as I know…”
– “I may be wrong but…”
– “In my opinion…”
– “As far as I am concerned…”
– “I’d like to emphasize that…”
– “My personal view is that…”
– “I claim…”


To sum up, if you’re speech has a clear and organized structure, you’re more likely to pass the exam. You eliminate chaos because you follow a clear pattern that leads you from the very beginning to the end. First of all, concentrate on a picture and gather ideas for a short time; then, say what is happening in the picture (present the facts) with the support of present continuous tense (She is bending down and holding her knees.). Secondly, try to speculate using various tenses (She’s in her late 30s.) and imagine what has happened (It could have been a terrorist attack.) in the past and how it could influence the future (In my opinion, these situations should be eliminated in the future due to increasing detailed security check carried out by the airport staff.) Mix tenses here. Never stick to just one structure because it will sound dull. It’s better to try and make a better impression for the effort than not trying at all.
And remember non-verbal communication also contributes to the overall candidate’s impression. Smile to the examiners and be polite 🙂
how to describe a photo