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Using Art to Teach ESL English and Speaking Classes

written by: Linda M. Rhinehart Neas • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 12/30/2013

Classroom activities designed to encourage ESL students to share their imaginative interpretations of American art through discussion and journaling, satisfy the learning needs of ESL students who seek an academic or sophisticated impression of society in the United States.

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    Art and Language

    The process of studying American artists like Norman Rockwell, Grandma Moses and others can evoke powerful feelings that are well Perpetual Motion Cover suited to expressive language. In particular, studying American art allows ESL instructors to promote an understanding of American culture and history. Paintings of American life present the wisdom and values considered important during various periods in American history.

    For these lessons, English language students discuss American art, as well as write in reflective journals. Students may share journals, but it should be at their discretion.

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    ESL Beginners

    For beginning level English language students, choose paintings that depict people engaged in familiar activities and movements. This will facilitate discussions about who the people are and what it is that they are doing. The lithographs of Currier and Ives give vivid portrayals of life in the late 19th century.

    • Have students study the picture - if possible, give each student a picture (Hint: Old calendars are great resources for these lessons.)
    • Ask students to list as many action words (verbs) as they see in the picture.
    • Have students pair up to discuss the actions found in their pictures.
    • Later, ask students to list as many descriptive words (adjectives) as they can.
    • Have them write a story using the verbs and adjectives they found.

    Grandma Moses is another artist whose art tells stories.

    • If possible, give each student a Grandma Moses picture; otherwise hang a large poster on the wall.
    • Have students study the picture. If using a poster, you can allow students to get up close to study details.
    • Have students take a few minutes to make notes on the story of the picture.
    • If each student has a picture, have him or her tell the class their story.
    • If only one picture is used for the entire class, begin a progressive story by having students take turns telling the story one sentence at a time. In other words, students build on what the person before them said.

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    ESL Intermediate

    The intermediate level students should be able to add more detail to the task above. One idea is to display Norman Rockwell's Thanksgiving painting.

    • Have students reflect on the painting.
    • Using their reflective journals, have them write about the feelings this picture evokes - Are they universal? What is happening? Have they ever experienced something like this?

    High intermediate level student could take a virtual tour of a museum. For example, the Smithsonian Art Museum has an online page that offers several different tours.

    • Students take the tour individually or in pairs.
    • Break students into small groups, assigning each group an element to discuss (theme of art, feelings evoked, what they learned about America, etc.).
    • Have students share with the class what they learned.

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    ESL Advanced

    Introduce advanced level ESL students to specific communities of artists, such as the artistic contributions of women, African Americans, Latinos or Native Americans, whose artwork, after decades of neglect, has begun to gain the recognition deserved. Artists such as Mary Cassatt or Marisol Escobar give the students much on which to ponder.

    • Have students pick an artist from the community of choice.
    • Students must research the artist thoroughly the artist's life, work, etc.
    • Students prepare a research paper on the artist citing their work (Hint: This is a good time to introduce the use of Writing Styles - MLA, APA, etc.- in citations.)
    • Have student pick on piece of artwork from their artist that speaks to them.
    • The student writes about this piece in their reflective journal.
    • Students may decide to share their thoughts and favorite work in class.

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    Multi-level ESL

    Students at all levels of ESL enjoy guest speakers. Invite local artists to visit the class, giving participants the chance to interact with them while viewing and discussing that artist's work.

    Discussion questions include:

    1. How would you describe the work you are looking at?
    2. Does the image convey a particular mood or atmosphere?
    3. Does the artist appear to be making a particular social, political, or ideological statement?
    4. Is the image telling a story?
    5. Does the art of the visiting artist remind you of another artist you have studied? If so, who and why?

    No matter the particular resources an ESL instructor taps into, the study of American artists and their work is both an effective vehicle for English language learning and academic preparation in an ESL setting, as well as a creative means to encourage all levels of ESL students to adopt a broader, more intellectual, appreciation of American civilization.

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    Resources

    The following sites offer resources for educators as well as virtual tours for students.

    • Getty Museum: Education, 2011 - http://www.getty.edu/education/
    • Guggenheim: Education, 2011 - http://www.guggenheim.org/new-york/education
    • Metropolitan Museum of Art: Education, 2011 - http://www.metmuseum.org/education/
    • MoMA: Learn, 2011 - http://www.moma.org/learn/index
    • National Gallery of Canada: Learn, 2011 - http://www.gallery.ca/en/learn/index.php
    • Museum of Latin American Art: Education, 2011 - http://www.molaa.com/education.aspx

    References - Content is from author's experience.

    Photo credit: Perpetual Motion by Norman Rockwell under Public domain on Wikimedia Commons