Using Art in Language Classes Boosts Engagement

Art is all around us. In its many forms, it presents fantastic opportunities for discussion, focused language work, and skills-based activities. However, this bottomless cultural resource is largely underused by many language teachers. Using art in language classes is a great way to boost student engagement. Let’s take a look at why that is and how to do it. 

Why Use Art?

Lessons based around works of art have many benefits for both the teacher and the students.

  1. Responding to art in language class can be very stimulating and can lead onto a great variety of activities. In its simplest form this might be describing a painting, but with a little creativity all sorts of things are possible. For example, the well-known ‘grammar auction’ activity can be redesigned as an art auction, where the students have to say a sentence about the piece of art – anything they like – and then the rest of the students bid according to how accurate they feel the sentence is.
  2. Using art in language class provides a useful change of pace. While many teachers use visual images to introduce a topic or language item, actually asking the students to engage with and respond to the piece of art can encourage students to become involved on quite a different level.
  3. Incorporating art into language class can take the students out of the classroom and encourage them to use their language skills in the real world. A visit to an art exhibition or an assignment that involves research on the internet can generate all sorts of language.
  4. Thinking about or even creating art can be very motivating. It can take the emphasis off of accuracy and put it onto fluency and the ability to clearly express thoughts and ideas. This is great for students whose progress in speaking is hindered by a fear of making mistakes.
  5. Responding to art has the potential to develop students’ creative and critical thinking skills. Students as low as pre-intermediate level will be able to read a short biography of an artist and discuss how their art depicts different aspects of their lives.

How To Use Art in the Classroom

  1. Looking at art in language class: 
  • A ranking discussion where students choose a famous work of art for the school to hang in its lobby or voting for the winner from the Turner Prize shortlist.
  • Ask the students to choose a character from a painting or sculpture and write a mini-biography or story about that character.
  • Compare two pieces of art with similar subjects, practicing comparative language and adjectives.
  • Ask the students to look at the website of a famous gallery (see some links below) and write a quiz about the works of art to swap with the other students to answer.
  • Write questions to ask an artist or a character in a painting. Then role play the interview in pairs, followed by writing up a news article about the interview (using reported speech).
  1. Sharing art in language class:
  • Ask students to identify and bring in a copy of a piece of art by an artist from their country. Make a gallery in the classroom and ask the students to decide on a title for each piece of work in groups. 
  • Ask students to bring in a photograph they have taken and ask the other students to write a short story about the events leading up to the moment the photograph was taken (practising past tenses) and/or what happened after the photograph was taken. Then check whether their guess was right with the owner.
  • Ask students to bring in a piece of art that represents their childhood and ask the other students to form sentences about what they ‘used to do’ and/or write questions to ask the owner who brought it in. 
  1. Creating art in language class: 
  • Put the students into groups and ask them to create a piece of art using a variety of easily found materials – plastic bags, string, tissues, cardboard boxes – whatever you have to hand! Get them to title their piece of work and judge them according to originality, teamwork and use of materials. 
  • Do a visualization exercise where you get the students to imagine painting the most beautiful picture they have ever seen. Then ask them to describe the picture to a partner who tries to draw it. 
  • Get the students to record vocabulary by writing the letters in a way that depicts the meaning of a word – this works best with adjectives. For example, ‘happy’ can be written in the form of a smile.
  • To get feedback on a course, ask the students to draw a picture in groups to represent how they felt about the course and then describe/explain it to you and the other students.

Art absolutely has a place in the language classroom and can be used in many different ways. It is a great resource for class discussions, as well as for practicing a variety of languages. Activities incorporating art are motivating for students, providing a welcome change of pace as well as stimulation and opportunities for developing creative and critical thinking skills.

Allison Green
Boston Tutoring Services

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