Using Art in the ESL Classroom

Using Art in the ESL Classroom
Does art have a place in language learning? Children are naturally creative and respond to visual images, so art can assist a teacher with many aspects of teaching English.

Does art have a place in language learning? I believe it does. Children are naturally creative. They respond to visual images and have most active imaginations. Isn’t creating images what art is all about? Art can assist a teacher with many aspects of teaching English.

You don’t have to be an artist. If you have artistic talents, then you likely already know the value art can have in the language classroom. If not, here are some ideas for you.

Teaching colors

Use art when you are teaching the names of colors:

Primary: White, Black, Red, Blue, Yellow

Secondary: Green, Pink, Orange, Brown, Purple, Gray

What about sky blue, teal, magenta, lilac, scarlet, azure, chartreuse, burgundy, crimson, apple green, lemon or canary yellow, burnt orange, dusty pink, forest green, battleship gray, chocolate brown, mahogany, tan, ivory, off-white, etc.

A color wheel can help you to demonstrate these. Pick up some car brochures from local dealers and see how they describe the colors of their vehicles. These can augment a lesson on using more descriptive adjectives. In one lesson, I first show my class a black and white illustration of a typical office situation with several people engaged in various routines. The students describe what people are doing. Then, I show the students a color version and have them elaborate on their description. Color makes a big difference.

Teaching shapes and tools

You can use art to teach shapes and simple tools artists use (including tools students use every day such as pencils, pens, erasers, rulers, etc.)

Vocabulary building

A book with different styles of paintings makes a great vocabulary building reference tool. Every painting can be a topic for discussion. Even just reading the various descriptions in the book can be a worthwhile language activity.

I had a two-CD set of ‘Great Museums of the World’. You could use your computer mouse to navigate through each museum on the screen, enter different rooms and zoom in on a specific painting – even a section of the painting – which would prompt a pop-up description of what the artist had done. Aside from its artistic merit, what a great teaching tool! Unfortunately, it remained at a former school. I must look for it again.

Drawing programs such as Paint, Corel Draw, ZBrush, Smart Draw, ArtRage and Twisted Brush can be useful if you have artistically inclined learners. Pick a program and open the tutorial section. Students can greatly improve their vocabulary as they learn to use the program. There is a whole world of digital art and digital artists who use these programs to create images for cartoons, animated films and book covers. Creatures that you see in films were more often than not created on a computer. There are special digital art magazines (quite pricey!) and regular art magazines (not so pricey). Any one of these should start our creative and artistic ESL juices flowing. Check out the magazine section of a major bookseller in your area. I have used one of these in an English Conversation class to talk about the images in the magazine.

Speaking practice

If, like me, you are teaching in a different culture, students can be invited to bring in a piece of art and ‘show and tell’. This is a wonderful speaking opportunity. Think of possible related research and writing assignments you could apply as well. Local artists? Local museums or art galleries? Exhibitions? Art schools? Painting clubs? Any of these may have someone who would be willing to come in to talk to your class about what they do – maybe even put on a short demonstration.

Writing practice

Finally, students can use their artistic talents to illustrate their writing efforts – essays, short stories, descriptions of homes, friends, family, vacation, and other such typical ESL topics. I have had students make Japanese scroll stories where they have six or so panels on which to write and illustrate a short story. They then tape the panels together to form a scroll, tying the finished product with a ribbon. In the next class, students untie their scrolls and read their stories to the class.

Art can add another dimension to teaching English and is another way you can take advantage of local resources to support your efforts. Through the Internet, you have the whole artistic world at your beck and call.

If you use art in your class, I’d be interested in hearing from you.

Robert WF Taylor
If you would like a copy of Robert’s e-book “Introduction to Teaching Overseas”, e-mail Dr Robert Taylor has been teaching English in Thailand for close to ten years.

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  1. I’ve used Artrage on Tablet PCs with secondary students a lot, and it really motivates them. Most commonly, I’ve asked them to complete a piece of writing (limerick or haiku works very well) and once they have finished it they can make an illustration using the art software. We then display both the writing and the illustration in a class wiki, or on the wall of the classroom. Of course, this could also be done with paper and art materials, but given that our students are such ‘digital natives’, use of the computer software, plus all of the extra artistic effects it offers, is an important part of the equation”.

  2. I taught a Visual Arts ESOL programme for many years in Sydney at an Intensive English Centre. We prepared newly arrived migrant children for the NSW school system and all teachers had dual qualifications in key subjects plus English as a Second Language training.

    Art is a wonderful way to teach English and group projects such as murals encourage co-operation and communication between students of all ages. As making art involves many different processes it is excellent for sequencing and following/giving instructions. It is also an effective way to acquire and implement language of description and comparison and, as you have pointed out vocabulary acquisition for the elements of design (shape, size, colour, texture, tone etc.) is so much more enjoyable if done in a practical and hands-on way.

    Expressing ideas and feelings through art is also of immense value where students are at the beginning stages of English language acquisition and for many of my refugee students was a form of therapy. It is also a way to respect, explore and share the cultural traditions of different cultures, both of the host country and of the students themselves. I found your article very interesting! Thank you”.

  3. I use art all the time in my ESL classroom. The one thing you have to be careful of is your students knowledge of the words you are using. I demonstrate and use the words along with what I’m doing and then have them repeat the words. A lot of it for them is memory. They do enjoy doing creative things though at all levels. You don’t have to be an artist to use art! Use the online resources. is a wonderful resource and there are many others”.

  4. As a teacher of both adult beginning ESL students, and high school middle level ELL students, I find that art is an invaluable way to help students focus on the writing process while appealing to other modalities of learning. Having used graphic realia for years to help bring the words alive, I also find that when they can create a visual to go with a story, or when beginners can create murals/collages with pictures of themes (e.g. food) I get more enthusiastic response, and better overall participation and learning. Two modalities simultaneously are always better than one!

  5. There are 6 artists spread over 3 generations in my family. I am not one of them, however, I do use art in the classroom. I visit galleries and exhibition locally and when on holiday and buy cards of interesting pieces to use in class. I teach business English to business people. The course is very intensive and art works as a great diversion and talking point. 99% of people have an opinion some will see it as pointless, waste of time and money etc , while others will see it as an essential part of any culture. Try contrasting Modern Art with the Traditional, Italian, Asian etc. Asian students often have a great knowledge of European art and can put us to shame. I use it to help give opinion and teach them more direct language than they would normally use. Rubbish, garbage, trash, brilliant, awe inspiring, full of life, colourful, inspirational, soul destroying, disturbing, nauseating, worthless, priceless,… I could go on and on. Adjective heaven. For lower levels simple degrees of love/hate, interest/disinterest can be explored. The main thing is to enjoy it!

  6. I have used art a lot while teaching English to students in southern Thailand. One lesson the students particularly liked was one in which I had a picture which I did not show the students. Instead I looked at the picture and described to them what was in the picture, and they had to try to reproduce it. For example you could have a picture of a beach or a park with many things going on. An alternative is to give them a cartoon strip you have drawn but leave the story unfinished so they have to complete it. In the next lesson they write a description of what is happening in their version of the cartoon and then read it to the rest of the class. I also do pictures on flash cards which I later give the students a photocopy of and use the whiteboard a lot to illustrate new vocabulary.

  7. I once went to a session at a conference that discussed using art as a teaching tool. I learned a lot… using a piece of art as a conversation piece, giving instructions on making an object and my favourite thing was It is a great way to engage students when there is only 5 minutes left in class and their attention is elsewhere.

  8. This is a great article! I too like to use art in the classroom, especially because I believe that it’s more efficient when trying to learn a new language to understand concepts than to try to translate everything. I usually act out new verbs or draw on the board to show the meaning of new vocabulary. I think the visuals help the students remember the meaning better, and it’s also fun.

  9. A creative and innovative concept to use for an effective classroom lesson. It not only provides a field for ideas to keep aimless, wandering minds of students’ busy but is also an efficient tool to explore English language in a new direction. Thanks for sharing the idea.”

  10. Thanks for that, my degree is in art and I have always had a keen interest in teaching english through art. This article was inspiring and now I will feel more confident to use my skills in the classroom.”

  11. Thanks for giving me such original and creative ideas. I’m teaching English as a Foreign Language in Spain. Although I often try to make my classes enjoyable and I like creating projects, sometimes I run out of ideas. I have always liked art and it’s awesome to merge both English and Art in class. I will try some of them! Thanks!”

  12. I think using art in an ESL class would be great way to get students to open up a bit more and to be more expressive verbally, but there are students who are turned off by visual art, like drawing and painting, they are bored by it.

  13. Great subject. I love art and I was wondering how I could use it in my classrooms while I do practical work. You gave me some wonderful ideas. Thanks.

  14. Hello! Thanks for this article and the comments. I wonder if you could provide me references of theoretical “scientific” articles showing that art really helps language Learning and showing how that works. Thanks a lot.

    • I’m also HOD visual arts and we have many esl students and a separate small section of Japanese and Korean school within our main school. I teach art and use ESL resources a lot together with art to ease them into new language acquisition. Also for my research I’m also looking for scientific articles. If any references will be very helpful.

  15. Thank you for excellent article. I see much potential in using art with storytelling to teach language and literacy.

  16. Excellent article. You are 100% correct. I usually utilize arts in my ELT classroom. It is very easy and fascinating in using arts in teaching almost all four skills. The most interesting thing is the students are delighted in this method of English language learning. Thanks for the fantastic facts you provided!


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