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Describing pictures in ICAO Aviation English tests

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 aircrafts 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 picture/photo shows

This is a picture of
In this picture 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 on our blog. We will review it and give you feedback.

Five tips for describing pictures in the ICAO English test

1. Keep it simple
Try to avoid complicated expressions or grammatical structures if you are not sure how to use them.
Dont waffle (speak unnecessarily about a topic), and if you have nothing to say its better to wait for
the assessor to prompt you.
2. Ask the assessor for an explanation if you dont understand the task
If you dont understand what you are supposed to do, ask the assessor to explain. For example, you
could say:

Could you repeat the question, please?

Im 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 dont swallow your words.
5. Practice
Before the ICAO English test, practice describing pictures with a colleague (if you already know
someone who will also be taking the speaking test, ask him/her to practice with you). 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.