The Benefits of Talking about Art


You may be teaching working professionals in the business world or even a group of teens with more interest in this summer’s blockbusters than what’s on exhibit at a local art gallery. You might be teaching undergrads, but there isn’t a single art major among them. So why talk about art in the ESL classroom?

  • Art stimulates thought. We have an immediate reaction to art. As the moment stretches out, we begin to search for words that help us make sense of what we’re feeling. Not everyone will want to share their thoughts immediately, but thoughts will form. A language teacher can pull those ideas into the open, and with his or her guidance an intriguing piece of art can prompt speech that becomes a springboard into a full lesson.
  • Art is subjective. There’s no right or wrong response to art. If students know that any opinion is acceptable, they may feel more encouraged to voice their reaction to artwork.
  • Artwork can easily support a wide range of language points. I used knick-knacks off my bookshelf to teach the order of adjectives. I used my children’s artwork to teach some uses of the prepositions by, with, and in. In an earlier post, I shared ideas for teaching the passive. I think art and the passive voice are a wonderful match-up. Don’t you?

Here’s an idea for high intermediate students in need of a review.

  1. Give each student a penny or Monopoly money (“play” money from any board game will do). Tell them they’ve been commissioned to draw a portrait. Explain you’re creating a collection of portraits and you need each of them to contribute. Let them discuss the meaning of be commissioned to draw. Who will draw? At whose request?
  2. Pair students up. Give each student a blank piece of paper and a few minutes to sketch their partner’s face. Remind them that all artwork must be signed. You only want copies signed by the artists.
  3. Use Free Stock Photos of borders to frame the sketches. You can have a set already printed out for quick framing. Alternatively, you can have students take a picture of their sketches and use an app like FrameUrLife. Physical or digital copies can be displayed for the class to see.
  4. Ask students either as a class or in pairs to recall the process. Challenge them to use both passive and active verbs: Who commissioned you to draw? Who did you draw? Who drew your portrait? How and where were the portraits framed and displayed? Are all the portraits signed? You can work as a class to write a short summary on the board. Underline instances of the passive.

In my latest YT video, I collaborated with a popular portrait artist to teach words related to art. I hope the content can supplement one of your own lessons. Enjoy. thumb with text from Xiaonan

There’s also a short interactive activity for mobile devices to review some of the vocabulary. Click to view.



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