One of the most powerful lessons I learned about the teaching and how it does or does not impact the world did not come from a text book, it did not come from a lecture, it did not even come from a discussion; it came from looking at a mural painted on a library wall.  No words were needed for me to grasp the complex and nuanced ideas that were presented in that work of art.  

That mural, entitled “Gods of the Modern World”  was painted by Jose Clemente Orozco and is located in Dartmouth College in Vermont.  His critique of academia is harsh but it got me thinking and to this day, it influences my teaching philosophy.  The only reason I saw this mural was because my Spanish class went on a field trip to look at it.  

Art can be beautiful, stimulating, thought provoking and even therapeutic so why not use it to teach English to beginners?

1.  Take your class to a museum

There are museums about everything you can think of from fine art to parasites.  I have personally spent several afternoons in the Parasite Museum in Tokyo after my husband stumbled upon it and came home raving.  He then sent the brochure to my mother who is a veterinarian who just had to see it when she came to visit.  Unless your class is full of medical students who love parasites however, I would recommend some kind of art or other cultural museum.  Of course you want your class to be focusing on learning English when they go there so give them language related tasks to do before, during and after the visit.  Here are some ideas for how to do that.

Before the visit: As the teacher, go to the museum beforehand and take note of some of the big obvious pieces as well as some of the smaller pieces that may not be so easy to see. Write down some things for students to look for both in the works of art themselves as well as in the descriptions of the pieces.  You might want to also look in the gift shop.  

If your students are beginners, they probably won’t have enough vocabulary to talk about the art in detail but you could focus on things like color, shape, texture, or the emotions evoked in the art.  You could also print a map of the city or town and have students give each other directions from the school to the museum.

Things you could do before you go to the museum:

  • Practice giving directions from the school to the museum.  You could give half of the directions to half of the class and the other half of them to the other half and have them work together to find out where they are going.
  • Do some basic research about the artists and the art they will find in the museum – Where is the artist from?  When did he/she live?  What was he/she interested in?   What medium did he/she work in?
  • Practice the vocabulary and phrases students will need to successfully ask about museum hours/prices/exhibits.  Have students call the museum and find out the answers to those questions.
  • Have students talk about museums they have visited in the past.  Do they enjoy museums?  What kind of art do they like?  What is their favorite museum?  

Things to do while you are at the museum.

  • Have a scavenger hunt.  Split the class into small groups and give each one a list of things to find. Those things could either be information or objects to look for in the pieces of art.  Students could either draw/write what they find or, if the museum allows, they could take pictures.
  • Give each person or small group something specific to look for.  Since your students are beginners, you want to keep things pretty concrete.  You could have each student look for a different color.  They could be charged with making a list of all the things they find that are that color.  They could look for different kinds of people, for example, children, women, men, older people, people of different races/cultures, people of different religions.  Who is represented? Who is not represented?  How are they represented?  
  • Ask each student to choose 5 different pieces of art in the museum.  They are in charge of describing those pieces and finding out as much as they can about those pieces as they can either by reading the descriptions or asking the museum staff. 

Things to do after they visit the museum. 

  • Create a narrated presentation of the information they found.  You could ask your students to make a power point using pictures they took while at the museum or images of the art they find on-line.
  • Create new products for the gift shop based on the art they saw.  The products should incorporate elements of the art but not just be a reproduction of the art.  Encourage students to be creative.  They must then write a short description of the product and give it a price. 
  • Use elements of the art they saw to create new pieces of art.  For example, if students were looking for everything they could find that was red, they could create a new, red piece of art that used all of the red things they found.  You could have a rainbow art exhibit of all of the new pieces of art they created.
  • Critique the exhibits.  Students can use modals to talk about what should/should not have been in the exhibit; what could have been there but wasn’t and what they must do to make it even more popular.  You could have students work together to create a newsletter about the visit to share with their friends, family and the rest of the school.  
  • Write a letter to the museum thanking them for the visit.  Ask students to write letters explaining what they liked about their visit. 

If there are no museums in your area you could take your students on a virtual tour of a museum. The following web sites show images of entire collections.
The Museum of Art and Design in New York City
The Aspen Art Museum in Colorado
The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston

2. Use their vocabulary to create works of art.  

I love to ask students to do is use words in interesting ways.  One way to practice writing vocabulary is to use the words to draw pictures.  You could have students use individual words or short sentences to draw things like fingerprints or a room in a house.  There are some amazing stories told in fingerprint form on this post by Holly Portraits.  This post by the Digital Art Teacher shows how to put words into shapes on the computer but I think students could use the same techniques to do it by hand.  

3. Hidden Pieces

Half the Image. Give each pair of students a picture that has been cut in half. Either you can keep the other half or you can give it to another group. Make sure that the students know the vocabulary to describe what is happening in the picture or give each group a list of words to go with each photograph. Ask them to match the words with what they see.

Ask each pair to think of a short story explaining what is happening in the photograph. This can be in the present continuous tense and the simple present.  For example, “The girl is waiting for her mother.”  When they are done, ask them to share their stories with the class. Then either give them the other half of the picture and have them compare their story with the more complete story they see. If you gave the other half to another group, have the 2 groups get together and write a new story for the complete picture. Then have the students compare what they thought with what they now see.  

Spy Glass. Give each group of students a picture or painting of something close up. Cover them with larger pieces of paper, each with one or two small holes in it. The groups can move the paper around to reveal different parts of the art but they can’t see the whole thing at one time. Ask them to describe what colors they see, what shapes they can find and what they think the painting or photograph might be. Have them draw a picture of what they think is behind the paper.   You can use this to review vocabulary by making the pictures under the holes of things they have recently been studying.  Students could use words like “It might be…  It is probably… I am sure it is… I am not sure because…”

4.  Emotional Connection

Art often evokes feelings.  A great warm up is to have a variety of different works of art on one of the tables as the students enter the room.  Ask each student to choose one piece of art.  Then ask them to say how the art makes them feel and why they chose that piece.  If you do this warm up activity several times you could gradually add new vocabulary to describe feeling.  You could start with basic feelings like happy, sad, angry, tired.  Then you could expand to feelings like nervous, relaxed, confident, embarrassed.  Some artists I like are listed below.
Roy Lichtenstein 
Frida Kahlo
Gustav Klimpt

I hope these ideas have inspired you to bring some art into your classes.  Do you have a favorite way to use art while teaching English?  Please share in the comments below!  I would love to hear from you.

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