As the saying goes, ‘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. In this article I will describe its place in the classroom by exploring the following areas and discussing some practical ideas
- Why use art?
- Potential problems and solutions
- Three ways of using art
Why use art?
Lessons based around works of art have many benefits for both the teacher and the students.
1. Responding to art 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 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 the class or syllabus 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.
These are just some of the reasons why art can be successfully used in the language classroom. Now let’s have a look at some of the common problem areas and try to identify some solutions for these.
Potential problems and solutions
Problem: As we all know, art is very subjective and therefore we may be faced with students who are reluctant to engage with the chosen examples of art.
Solution: Encourage students to either choose which works of art are explored, or alternatively ensure that a variety of styles are represented. Choosing art that has some relevance to the students is always a good idea, either from its subject matter or the background of the artist.
Problem: Students (and teachers!) may not perceive some art-related activities to be useful for language learning.
Solution: As this is our primary goal, it is therefore very important to structure activities carefully so that there is a clear outcome and learning point. For example, a simple discussion about the meaning behind a piece of modern art can be combined with input on functional language for giving opinions and agreeing and disagreeing. Meanwhile, other activities can be language-led. For example, using a piece of art to generate wh- questions which are then given to another pair of students to answer. Considering structure will also help to control the direction of discussion/lessons based around responding to art. This can otherwise sometimes be difficult.
Three ways of using art
1. Looking at art
There are lots of different activities that involve students looking at and responding to pieces of art. For example:
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, practising 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).
2. Sharing art
Ask the 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 the 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.
Get the 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
3. Creating art
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 visualisation 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.