They go together…

Words and images are natural partners.  After all they are both about communication.  Think how they complement each other in haiku, where illustrations often accompany these short but sweet poems.  As someone who loves the visual and the textual, I constantly seek new ways to marry them in my language teaching.  So when I saw this article How the arts can engage hard-to-reach students in Times Educational Supplement (tes), I jumped on it.  The author describes how the arts can be used in learning across the curriculum, however in this post I will focus on how visual arts may be used in the teaching (and learning) of languages.

Art and Behaviour

Here’s just one reason to include imagery in language learning – art affects mood.  Putting feelings onto paper has a soothing effect (if not taken too seriously and not done under pressure).  Thinking I couldn’t do art, I abandoned it as a child but never stopped taking an interest in that of others (Pre-Raphaelite art probably being my favourite).  Over the last nine months I have been drawing regularly, since my daughter suggested I might like to have a go with her oil pastels.  I became hooked.  With art I can relax and focus, even when there is noise around me.  Likewise, in the classroom, some of my most ‘hard-to-reach’ students have worked amazingly when visual art has been involved.


Cabbage in oil pastel. Drawn by Amanda Tamsin.

So how can you partner the textual and the visual?

Here are some of my favourite ways of building art into language learning.

Accompany writing

I will mention haiku again.  They are are great for this!  You just need to write three little lines (traditionally 5, 7, 5 syllables, capturing a moment in time in the natural world and written in the present tense).  Bend the rules of tradition if you wish though, for example pick an aspect of study, such as three verb tenses (i.e. past, present and future) or a theme of your pleasing.  Then create your own illustration to make the poem whole.  Alternatively, some students (often the more challenging ones) work better if they create the image first. They are then more likely to give you the words (their bit in the deal)!

Enjoy reading haiku too!  They can be found in many languages now.  A friend of mine writes them in Spanish as part of a Facebook group.

I am currently reading a most wonderful book Writing and Enjoying Haiku: a Hands-On Guide by Jane Reichhold .  The author encourages the reader to write their own haiku in the book, using the author’s poetry as inspiration.  A gentle way to begin.  Besides, when we write in books they become more sacred.

Memorising Vocabulary

For many it is easier to memorise vocabulary when there is a visual element.  This may be as simple as creating a little illustration beside a word or by designing a piece of word graffiti.  There is more on these techniques in my posts on developing writing skills.

Bringing a strong cultural element into language lessons

Art provides a lovely focus for a cultural lesson. In some classes we have discovered France through impressionist art.  From Paris train stations via Monet, to the banks of the Seine via Seurat to Van Gogh’s Provence.  Creating posters on Parisian themes in the Pointillist style was an excellent motivator for the tough class on a Friday afternoon.  A kind art teacher lent me some watercolour pencils, perfect for the dots and not too messy.


Gare St. Lazare by Monet. A favourite for discussions on Paris.

Describing art

This activity can be perfect for learning colours, shapes and prepositions in another language.  Dadaist art works well here, as does Miró (the idea of using the latter came to me via  A wonderful site by the way, described once by another teacher as ‘a cheat code’)  There are also many opportunities for describing people; Picasso is an interesting choice, especially as he painted figures in such odd colours!

After describing someone else’s art, you could create your own and describe that in the target language too.

Artists like Arp and Miró are especially fun to work with in class, as students find emulating these styles enjoyable!


Man, Moustache, Navel. By Jean Arp

Sculpt and label

This is on my ‘to do list’ and is likely to work well with students who struggle to both write and draw.  The student could mould an object (i.e. person, monster or animal) from clay or dough then bake it if necessary.  They could then create a label with a title in the target language for their artwork.  Salt dough has been suggested to me as a good medium.  The idea was given to me by the art teacher who lent me her pencils.

Pictures on the board

One for the teachers…  This makes a lesson with those who know little of the target language so much easier.  Get drawing!  Even if you think you can’t.  I now look up anything I don’t know how to draw online and copy some simple clip art designs.  If I’m teaching a class at a lower level, I sometimes even bring in a picture dictionary and copy outlines onto the board.  If it all goes wrong with the ‘art’, you are likely to have amused the students and captured their interest anyway.

Artistic Displays

For school again, or even for at home with your own children or to please your ‘inner child’!  The article in tes described how cross-curricular artistic displays (created by students) became sacred in the kind of school where they would normally have been torn down.  Once, in one such school, my pupils (from the traveller community) took over the lesson.  They created a large poster, a wonderful collage of their culture, icons and language that really did become untouchable.  When the blu-tac failed these students were not happy, even some naughty ones from another class recognised it as special and stuck it back on the wall.

A passion for learning…

For those who might be thinking, doesn’t all that colouring in, design and fun stuff take up to much time?  I quote the poet W B Yeats who said “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” (quoted in the tes article).  So if art captivates them, I say go with it.