I have always been very interested in the connection between Art and Learning. In many of my workshops and presentations, both as a teacher and teacher trainer, I illustrated my sessions with slides showing pictures of famous paintings or sculptures to make a point. The reaction of the audience was invariably positive.
My love of art and English language teaching made it very natural for me to combine both passions in a more systematic way: teaching English through art. As an experiment, I uploaded some free presentations involving teaching English in the context of art on a website called SlideShare and found out that lots of teachers liked them. Therefore, I realized there was a market for these materials, as they were not common in the field of ELT.
As a result, I started to consider how powerful a pedagogy or andragogy (training adults) that incorporates art as some form of context in the specific area of English language teaching could be. Then, a more concrete plan started to take shape in my mind. I must write a series of supplementary materials on vocabulary, speaking and writing which would tap into famous works of art as a springboard for exercises to be done in the language classroom. I would use paintings of popular artists such as Monet, Matisse and Picasso. This is how the series of ebooks TEACHING ENGLISH WITH ART was born.
At the time I decided to create these materials I was in between jobs, and, therefore, lucky to have a lot of free time to develop my project. I was bursting with creativity and excitement, and couldn’t wait to start working on the plan. Coincidentally, Amazon.com had started offering a program of e-book self-publishing that sounded very straightforward and fast (KDP). This certainly liberated many writers, allowing them to have a go at their dream of producing and publishing content. After all, just like in many other services and industries, the Internet started to affect English Language Teaching and book publishing, which has been undergoing a radical transformation. Learning is progressively taking place online and books are becoming digital. The process has only intensified more recently.
Among the reasons to expose learners to art, I would highlight a few. The list below is by no means exhaustive, and I would appreciate your help in adding your ideas to it.
Fun: Art is a lot of fun. Fun makes learning easier. We all know that whenever learners are enjoying an activity their level of engagement rises and, therefore, they spend longer stretches of time focusing on the topic or task at hand. Considering the goldfish-like attention span of most people today, due to the overwhelming amount of information we are bombarded with from all sides, this is already a victory in and of itself.
CLIL: Most teachers are familiar with this acronym, which means Content and Language Integrated Learning. It’s been around for some time now. It means that language should be taught within a specific context, as a means to an end, rather than as a metalinguistic process. Learners acquire a second language more effectively if they come across real or contextualized uses of it: in a text, a listening passage or a video clip, for example, so they can concentrate on the message as much as on the medium. The length of exposure to the topic may vary: the longer the better. This means that if you teach, for example, history or math in English for a whole term, learners might develop a better grasp of the language than if you had used fragments or decontextualized sentences to focus only on the language itself. Art, therefore, lends itself perfectly to the job, as it provides a wonderful canvas (pun intended) to design innumerable language activities on. It allows the inclusion, in the English class, of other subjects studied in the curriculum, such as history, geography, mythology, psychology and literature. So, it makes for great CLIL lessons.
Emotion: Krashen, the linguist, warned us against psychological barriers that, when up, prevent the linguistic input from reaching our innate language acquisition device. The classroom environment must be as free as possible of pressures and inhibiting factors to be more conducive to learning. Art can be a great help in creating this atmosphere of calm and relaxation learners need to internalize input. But it also keeps them alert, due to its positively emotional impact, which is also a necessary condition for language acquisition. Besides, the beauty, innovation and creativity expressed in artworks makes language points more memorable, when taught in this context.
Flexibility: teaching English based on paintings and sculptures lends itself to all kinds of activities across language levels, catering for different kinds of learning styles. Of course the impact is huge for the more visually oriented learners. But if you add a listening comprehension task about the piece of art or some aesthetic movement you are discussing, or have, for example, learners work on some kind of hands-on activity as a follow-up – such as putting the pieces of a puzzle together, producing their own artwork, or making a collage on the theme – you will be equally catering for the auditory and kinesthetic learners.
Personalization: learning is all about personalization. People have individual learning paces, varied kinds of intelligences, diverse learning styles and interests. Art in its many manifestations allows for different meanings and interpretations. The same work of art fosters different reactions and emotions in different people. Teachers can tap into this. Allowing open-ended responses to a speaking or writing activity based on a painting makes for solid and effective methodology.
So, both teachers and students profit enormously from the inclusion of art in their English lessons. Teaching English through art is indeed a powerful tool. Most people are not really exposed to fine art, despite all the technological means to access it we have at our disposal today. Therefore, in addition to all the reasons listed above, we, as teachers and educators, will be refining the learners’ aesthetic taste, opening up a whole new world of discovery and instilling a wish for self-improvement in them.
After publishing my ebooks on Kindle, I received a great deal of positive feedback from teachers all over the world.
Some of those teachers were also interested in my writing process and asked about it. I tend to choose artists who are famous to start with. Then I go through their works on the Internet or print books to decide if their paintings lend themselves to the creation of interesting and effective classroom activities in three different levels (basic, intermediate and advanced, following the specifications of the Common European Framework of Reference). Then I read a couple of well-known biographies on the painter and watch videos about his works on YouTube, so I understand their life, style and motivations better. Even if very little of this homework is reflected directly in the books themselves, I know I will write better if I have this background knowledge and information about the artist stored in my mind when I start developing the tasks.
Sometimes people also ask me what are my favorite activities in the series Teaching English With Art. I myself love the storytelling activities, both oral and written. Everyone loves a good story, and if you can create your own version of a story based on a painting or a series of paintings, you will certainly enjoy the task. I encourage the use of process writing in the ebooks, which shifts the focus to drafting rather than coming up with a final product immediately. The more drafts a student produces the better writer she will become. Having said that, I suspect different students will enjoy different kinds of activities, so we provide a huge variety of exercises to cater for different tastes and learning styles.
To conclude, TEACHING ENGLISH WITH ART is a collection of supplementary eBooks for students to practice vocabulary, speaking and writing, based on the works of famous painters. The series comprises 8 books so far, and features works by Matisse, Picasso, Caravaggio, Monet, Norman Rockwell, Vincent van Gogh and Winslow Homer. For further information on the series, please access the following article on my blog LINGUAGEM: http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-1lS