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.

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

  1. each part of an aircraft,
  2. weather and time of day,
  3. the physical layout of an airfield and
  4. 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 …

Exercise

  1. Take a look at the following picture for 30 seconds.
  2. Describe it in as much detail as possible for 90 seconds
  3. Explain how you think the situation occurred for 30 seconds.
  4. 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.   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.  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.

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 instant access to free demonstration units of the ICAO Aviation English Online course, special offers and details of courses in your area.


  1. Rafael

    Thanks a lot for your help!!!
    My main difficulty is even describe pictures.
    Thank you again.

  2. Hi Rafael, glad to be of help. Feel free to post your descriptions and we will review them for you. We will have plenty of other practice exercises during the next few weeks.

  3. Radiant

    Thanks for this great article ! With this I should be able to pass my english test !

  4. Josue

    Describing the picture: these picture shows a dark car in movement. There is a guy without any shirt trying to get off the car through the front window on the right hand side. The guy has got his right arm up trying to reach a small single engine aircraft that is flying in a low altitude right over the car. – Can I get a reply of my description in my email please? Thanks it will help me a lot!

  5. sevastena

    a pilot in a small single engine aircraft couldn’t retract the one of the landing gear. so guy on on the car is try to make it manually.being over the car. and the pilot flying at low altitude parallel to the car.

  6. Bahruz

    From the picture I can see there is someone on the roof the dark car who is trying to catch an aircraft’s main landing gear, what did not open when the pilot retracted them. An aircraft is making low pass too close to the ground and a man is going to extend it by manually.

  7. Ibrahim

    The picture shows an airplane flying at low altitude and shows a car driving beneeth the airplane.
    there is a man standing in the car trying to touch the airplane.
    I think that the airplane has a problem in it’s right leg of landing gear (undercarriage) so the man trying to pulldown the leg.

  8. Here we’ve got a picture of a white low wing, single engine, piston propeler aircraft. it looks like a piper arrow, there are some stripes running across the fuselage and tail.
    Bellow of the aircraft there is a car and one person trying to deploye the right main landing gear because it is jammed.
    In the foreground of this picture I can see the pavimente and in the background it shows trees, and a mountain area.
    I believe the weather is good because the person is whitout shirt and also i can see the sunshine on the aircraft !

    that’s all

  1. 1 Vocabulary for describing fixed wing aircraft « English for pilots, ATCs, cabin crew and airport staff in Asia

    […] a previous article, Describing pictures in ICAO Aviation English tests we learned some techniques to describe pictures.  One of the lexical sets we said was necessary […]

  2. 2 How to prepare for the NEW CX ICAO ENGLISH TEST « Aviation English Asia Blog

    […] should learn how to describe a picture – then contact us to get feedback because its the feedback that is most important if you want […]




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