Smiling elf sitting cross-legged in an open microwave with popped popcorn spilling out.

Elf activities: Image descriptions

Use this mischievous elf to teach image description tech skills!

Updated 11/22/23 for iOS 17 software updates.

Our mischievous elves are back! What is your little imp up to? The classic “Elf on a Shelf” is a prankster little elf who helps children behave as he observes children’s actions and magically flies back to Santa each night to report who has been naughty or nice. In the first Elf post, we learned about the classic Elf on the Shelf tradition along with the year 2020 twist on how to bring classrooms and families virtually together during the pandemic. The Elf Activities: Bringing People Together! post also included educational elf-themed activities. In today’s post, we will be expanding the Elf on Shelf theme to teach all students, teachers and family members how to embed image descriptions in their elf photos.


In this activity, students and classmates will create a fun elf scenario using props available in the classroom or home. Once the elf is staged, the student should take a picture of his/her deliquent elf, add an image description and share it with the class. If this is a class activity, each school day, one or two students will share their picture(s) with the class. The class will have fun creating and discovering all the ways the elf can get into trouble!

Note: Before doing the elf activities, the student should explore an elf doll and describe the elf’s clothing. If a different type of elf is used in the class/family photos, point out those differences!

Activity modifications

Need help coming up with scenarios? A quick internet search will provide tons of ideas! (Note: These online images are rarely described.) This is a great opportunity for your student to self-advocate by asking a peer to describe the image for him/her. If desired, try using autogenerated images. If using an iPhone with VoiceOver, turn on VoiceOver Recognition for the autogenerated image descriptions. Settings > Accessibility > VoiceOver > VoiceOver Recognition (on). Keep in mind that these autogenerated images may not be accurate or they may not provide the best information!

Note: When reading images that have that had image descriptions added manually, it is best to turn OFF the autogenerated image description on your iOS device, as both descriptions will be announced.

Image Description: 

Snow angel elf: Elf lying spread-eagle on a kitchen counter making a snow angel out of sugar crystals.

Snow Angel Elf: Spread eagle elf lying on sugar crystals on a kitchen counter making a snow angel.

Creating the Image Description

Top three goals for these elf activities: Practice listening and understanding image descriptions, providing opportunities for students to learn the tech skill of adding image descriptions to photos, and exposing sighted classmates, educators and family members on the importance of image descriptions and practice on how to create image descriptions. 

As always, it is important to consider the context of the image. In this scenario, the focus is on what the naughty elf is doing. Since the student has already been exposed to the elf, the image description does not need to include details about the elf’s physical appearance, unless the elf has additional clothes or the physical appearance has a direct relationship to what is happening in the picture. Example: The elf has chocolate smeared across his face after eating a chocolate bar. When creating image descriptions, it is also important to keep in mind the age of the student who will be listening to the description. Use age-appropriate words. Use more details if the student does not understand the concept. Example: If the student is very young or lives in a southern state without snow, the description of the Snow Angel Elf might need to include more information about what the elf is doing and how that creates a snow angel. The student may need additional information about what a snow angel is!

Understanding the image description

After listening to the elf description, provide the student with similar props and ask the student to re-create the scenario. In the Snow Angel example above, does the student with visual impairments know what a snow angel is? Can he/she recreate the image using an elf and sugar (or sand in the classroom)?

Modification: If this is a class scenario, have all the students listen to the image description before seeing the photo. Can they re-create the scenario or draw a picture from the image description? Discuss what is missing from the image description. If there is too much information in the image description, discuss what is most important and how it can be shortened. Does the image description need more clarification? Should the wording be changed?

Image Description: Smiling elf sitting cross-legged in an open microwave with popped popcorn spilling out.

Elf sitting cross-legged inside an open microwave filled with popped popcorn.

Seeing AI app

Added 11/22/23

There are a number of apps that have developed the ability to create automatic image descriptions. Seeing AI is an app developed by Microsoft for iOS. It uses the device’s camera to identify people, objects, and pictures, then the app audibly describes these things for people with visual impairments. The app can also read text. The alt text for the image above using the Seeing AI app is, “A toy elf sitting in a microwave.” The description is accurate, general description; although, it is not as in-depth as the written description provided with the photo.

Open the Seeing AI app and hold the iPhone or iPad with the camera facing the desired picture. If there is text, Seeing AI will automatically begin reading the text. At the bottom of the screen is a toolbar. (The default focus is on Text.) With VoiceOver on, swipe up or down to move through the options in the toolbar. Navigate to the Scene tab. Touch the center of the screen to move the focus to the camera and then double tap to take a picture. Seeing AI will provide an audible image description and will read any text in the photo.

Listening to an image description of a photo


In this post, we are specifically using an iPhone running iOS 15 to take pictures, add an image description, and listen to the image description. An iPad is very similar; although the physical layout of the digital buttons are different. Other devices (ideally a smart phone or tablet with a camera) can be used.

Currently, iOS 15 has the Image Description text field under Edit > Markup.

How to add VoiceOver image descriptions (for iPhone users who do not rely on VoiceOver)

NOTE: There are two Done buttons on the right side. You must FIRST select the Done Button that Exits the Image Description mode. Then, Select the Done button at the top of the screen. (Exits Mark Up mode). If you select the top Done button (which Exits the Markup Mode), your image description will not be saved!

How to add VoiceOver image description when running VoiceOver

NOTE: There are two Done buttons on the right side. You must FIRST select the Done Button that Exits the Image Description mode. Then, Select the Done button at the top of the screen. (Exits Mark Up mode). If you select the top Done button (which Exits the Markup Mode), your image description will not be saved!

Note: Different iOS software versions may have had different methods on how to add image descriptions.

iOS 14: Tech Standards: Adding Image Descriptions to iOS Photos demonstrates how to use a Swipe Down to find Show Details. In iOS 15, swipe down no longer has the option of Show Details.

In iOS 15, you can use the Info button and add a description in the Add a Caption text field, but the description is NOT announced when the user taps the image with VoiceOver running.

Updated 11/22/23

iOS 17: Open the desired photo. With VoiceOver running, touch the center of the screen (where the photo is being displayed). If an image description has not been added, the VoiceOver announcement will only be the date the photo was taken. If a image description has been added (see steps above), touch the center of the screen and the image description will be announced.

Note: You do not have to open each photo to hear the image description of that photo. In your photo library, simply drag your finger through the thumbnail images and those photos with image descriptions will have the image descriptions announced.

Android phone

If using an Android phone:

Adding alt text to Windows

Importance of learning about image descriptions

Obviously, Image Descriptions help make photos accessible; students who are visually impaired should have access to images – even fun images like the naughty elf.  Not only should students be exposed to image descriptions, students need to know how to create image descriptions for photos that they take. General education students are introduced to images before they learn to read. Mainstream preschool apps are full of images and typically do not include alt text descriptions, often rendering these apps inaccessible to students with visual impairments. Students who use a screen reader should be introduced to images with alt text descriptions early; these students should also know how to add alt text descriptions to digital images that they will be using with mainstream applications, such as word documents, presentations and multimedia tools. It is not appropriate to ‘excuse’ student who are visually impaired from tasks that use images. Professionals who are blind or visually impaired frequently use and create work-related presentations; these presentations should include images.

The elf image description activities are a fun way to expose peers, general education teachers, and family members to image descriptions. The first step in creating accessible materials is knowing about accessibility and then how and what to add to make image descriptions. All students love to snap selfies and share them with friends – now these peers and family members know how to make these special photos accessible!

Image Description: Smiling elf sitting on the counter with his hand in a small bowl of mini marshmallows and feeding 7 toy dinosaurs.

Smiling elf sitting on the counter with his hand in a bowl of mini marshmallows feeding 7 toy dinosaurs.

Image descriptions are not specifically listed in mainstream national tech standards for students; however, the national tech standards do require that all elementary students know how to add pictures to documents and presentations (such as PowerPoints, Slides, and Keynote presentations). A student who is visually impaired should not be exempt from working with pictures; these students need to know how to add image descriptions to photos so that they know which photo they are adding to their assignment.

Where does alt text descriptions fit in to the national tech standards scope and sequence? According to the Technology Skills Scope and Sequence, students have tech skills goals related to images in first grade.

Word Processing: “Copy and paste images within the document and from outside sources”; and, “Insert and size a graphic in a document” (Introduce in 1st grade, Reinforce in 2nd grade and Master in 3rd grade)

Multimedia and Presentation Tools: “Copy and paste or import graphics: change their size and position on a slide.” (Optional in 2nd, Introduce in 3rd, Reinforce in 4th and Master in 5th)

By Diane Brauner

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