I first started teaching English as a volunteer tutor while studying art history at New College of Florida. Since then, teaching ESL and art history have been intertwined in my life and in my classroom. For me, I can share two passions simultaneously; for the students, fine art helps encourage creativity and critical thinking while being a reprieve from the commercial images they consume daily.
Here are some of the top ways I like to use fine art in my ESL classroom.
Describing Pictures: Memory Game
It’s a staple unit in an ESL textbook: describing photos. This unit is usually all about learning directional words and prepositions (e.g., in the top left corner, at the bottom, in the middle, etc.). While the textbooks most often provide everyday stock photos, I like to add an activity with fine art, usually a painting, but photos also work well.
For intermediate teens and adults, I play a memory game with a painting. The Gentleman’s Dream by Antonio de Pereda y Salgado is an excellent choice because there are a large number and wide variety of distinct objects in the painting, ranging from tiny coins to the two figures. The variety of the objects ensures that there will be some objects that intermediate students will definitely know in English (e.g., flowers, book, table, chair, man, money) and others that will be more challenging (e.g., globe, feathers, beads, armor). There will also be some completely unfamiliar or indistinguishable objects (e.g., the gold clock, a hidden violin, tiered helmet) useful for debate later.
I give students two minutes to study the painting and remember as many objects as possible without writing them down. After the two minutes are up, I give them one minute to write down as many objects as they can remember. Usually they remember a fairly large number, which is why it’s important to choose an image with a LOT of objects. If they grow frustrated because they don’t know the word in English, I allow them to write it in their native language.
Once students have their lists, I take a poll of how many objects the students found with a simple hand raise (e.g., “Raise your hand if you got more than five . . . more than ten . . . more than fifteen . . . more than sixteen . . .”) The kids and teens especially love this low-key competitive element.
I then ask for volunteers to name and locate three to five objects that they found. I keep a list on the board next to the image. Encourage students to write down any they missed, especially the ones they got in their native language. When I play this game, I worry more about practicing description and engaging students, but, if you have a particular vocabulary focus, you can swap out the painting for one with more of your target vocabulary.
Besides learning vocabulary and practicing description, this activity also breeds a bit of debate and discussion. As students name objects, others will disagree with their reading and propose alternative objects. Oftentimes, students will want to zoom in and better see these debate objects and objects in shadow.
If you click on the painting directly on the museum website, it will open a high-quality zoomable image perfect for this kind of investigation. I always recommend using the official museum photography over anything you find on Google or Wikipedia, since it will be the highest available quality and often will have a built-in interface for zooming.
This is a great warmer activity to introduce the topic of art or review image description.
Describing Pictures: Famous Artists
Another great way to bring fine art into the classroom is through the artists.
One of the most engaging photos I’ve ever used for this topic was of Salvador Dali in his studio.
My Spanish students instantly recognized him and his paintings. The photo, full of art supplies, furniture and paintings, has plenty of objects to describe, but it also includes some unfamiliar objects and imagery. My younger students are usually confused by the old telephone in the bottom right corner and instantly drawn to the surrealist paintings themselves.
The paintings in the photo lead to meta description, which is more challenging for students and pushes them linguistically as they have to build multiple layers of localization (e.g., “In the painting in front of Dali, there is a big eye in the middle.”). The surrealist images are also unfamiliar and unexpected, and for that reason their descriptions need to be more exact for others to follow.
After describing the image, I ask students to reflect and make inferences from the photo. I ask questions like: What kind of personality do you think Dali has? Why do you think Dali became so famous? What do you think of his paintings? What do you think they mean?
I usually lead a casual discussion since, for me, the main point was to review description and engage students early in the lesson. You could, of course, extend this idea and have students dive further into speaking and writing about art analytically.
Art Museum Field Trip
If you’re able, I highly recommend taking your students to an art museum. If it has gallery guides or wall labels in English, all the better. The activities you can do there are almost endless, and all major museums have a dedicated education department ready to work with you and your learners.
My favorite activities to do in the museum are an artwork scavenger hunt where students find objects within paintings and record or take a photo of where they found it.
A trip to the art museum is also a great culminating task for oral and written work. Most museums publish their collections online. Students can choose a piece in class or at home, research the work, write a report of their findings, then present it orally in the gallery to the class.
If you can’t go to the museum, bring the museum to you. One of my favorite writing activities for students is wall labels. They’re short and formal and also give learners practice writing dates and dimensions in English.
Of course, students can make their own artworks; when working with school kids, they often already have an art class. Once they’ve made a few different projects, have them choose one of their favorite pieces to write a label for in English class. Display the artworks and the student labels in the classroom like a real gallery. You can do a class tour where each student artist explains their work.
Satirical Classroom Museum
For advanced students who are less inclined to make and share their own art, I like to do a satirical version of this activity. Students select a mundane classroom item and then create an official-looking and sounding museum label for their object. This activity requires a good sense of humor, some creative thinking, and upper intermediate or advanced English, so it’s not for every class, but if the students are game it can be absolutely hilarious. If your students can keep a straight face, you can also have fun with over-the-top formal gallery talks about the object.