Why visual art?
Claire remembers teaching art in a secondary school in Australia, and one day a 10-year-old girl had her head in her hands and was staring at a blank page. She was looking…disgruntled. When asked why she wasn’t working, she said, “Why do we have to do art? It’s not important.” So, Claire asked her to look around the room, her clothes, the garden and buildings outside and explained that all these things started with a drawing, or a creative idea. Even the table she was leaning on had been designed by someone. She paused, deep in thought, then pointed to Claire and said, “You’re good!”
The late Sir Ken Robinson gave a keynote speech in the 2017 Art Ed Now Conference. He was making the argument that art, especially visual art, is a subject that is often regarded as useless in current educational systems (particularly compared to STEM subjects) but that all disciplines should be valued equally because all disciplines speak to different aspects of young people’s development and intercultural understanding. He stated, “the making of visual images, through thinking visually and communicating visually…is an inherent part of being a human being” (Robinson, 2017).
We believe that art has an important role not only as a subject, but as a useful resource and tool across all subjects, including primary English language teaching. The syllabus overview for Cambridge Primary Art and Design (Cambridge University Press and Assessment, n.d.) has the aims of enabling learners to:
- learn to see themselves as artists and become increasingly reflective and independent
- develop the skills needed to express creative ideas and to communicate visually
- understand their place and the place of others in a creative, innovative and interconnected world.
As we can see from the aims above, integrating art into primary English language classrooms offers a myriad of opportunities to develop both lower-order and higher-order thinking skills (see Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy, Anderson and Krathwohl, 2001) in the primary classroom. For example, if we ask learners to learn words for materials, processes, artists and movements, then we are asking them to operate at the lowest level of Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy – ‘remember’. At each level of the taxonomy, we can encourage concrete or abstract thinking in learners. In other words, at the ‘remember’ level, teachers can pose questions to the learners that range from the factual or concrete (what you need to know to do the task) to the metacognitive or abstract (self-awareness and perception) by asking learners about their tastes, preferences and opinions.
The same can be applied as we move from lower-order to higher-order thinking skills. For instance, at the ‘analyse’ level, learners can deconstruct artists’ work to learn specific techniques (an example of concrete thinking) or discover new materials, techniques or skills (an example of abstract thinking). More importantly, children can be encouraged to create, and art is a fantastic medium to enable them to develop their creativity. Learners may produce personal work that demonstrates their understanding of how artists work or develop original products that reflect their own thoughts, experiences and beliefs.
Visual art and the language teacher
Visual art is an excellent resource to use and exploit for developing lower-order and higher-order thinking skills and for intelligent questioning, particularly as 21st century children are surrounded by visual imagery online, in their books, on their streets, and in cartoons. Primary English language teachers can use imagery to interpret, criticise and relate to the wider world we live in. Visual art draws on and enables learners to explore history, politics, geography, society, cultures and philosophy. It generates a language of its own through subject-specific vocabulary relating to, for example, texture, colour, feelings and composition. Through creating art, we are allowing children to have tangible evidence of their cognitive processes and accomplishments. And despite common beliefs, you don’t need to be an artist (or artistically minded) to help children to make the most of art in the language classroom.
Classroom ideas: exploring art
An image can be the inspiration or incentive for language in the classroom. Take, for example, this image by Andy Warhol (https://www.phillips.com/detail/andy-warhol/NY010214/12). The learners will need to know that Marylin Monroe was a famous actor / celebrity. They could think of celebrities that they know and see on TV. You could then ask learners what is the same and what is different between these images. By saying they are the same images repeated 10 times, we could ask them to think of all the places that people can see celebrity images. It’s even possible here to talk about selfies (what they are, if they / their parents or caregivers take them, where they put them, etc.). This will illustrate Warhol’s intention of merging pop culture and imagery, and the fact that we see famous people (and selfies!) all the time in lots of different places. To look at the differences (colours), we could ask how many colours they see, and which image has their favourite/least favourite colours. They could figure out which colours aren’t there and maybe even think of other colours they could add. They could add their feelings, This/These colour(s) make me feel … because …
Using the same image, we could adopt project-based learning and enable learners to explore the question Why do people take selfies? We could ask them to create a survey to ask their peers / families / teachers. They could brainstorm questions that would like to ask e.g., How often do you take selfies? Why do you take selfies? After collecting data, they could work in groups to present their findings both visually and orally.
Pop art is a great start to experimenting with art in the classroom for primary learners as it’s bright, fun and something they can relate to. The children could take a selfie of themselves with something that is important for them e.g., a favourite toy, computer game, food, pet, etc. From here they photocopy this image (A4 or letter size) 3 times at the highest exposure. They then choose the colours they would like to work with (each selfie image should have 3 colours) and they use oil pastels, chalk pastels or colouring pencils to colour over the images (anything that’s not water based as this will ruin the paper). While the learners are creating their artworks, it’s important to encourage them to talk about them. You could do this by mingling and asking them questions and/or sometimes pausing their creative work and asking the children to visit their partner and ask them questions about what they are doing/what they find interesting/difficult, etc. The final product could look something like this:
Once learners have finished their artwork, you can display them around the class/school and ask the children to 1) say why they chose their object, and why it’s important to them 2) write why they chose their favourite thing, and why it’s important to them (to display under their artwork) and 3) ask learners to visit each artwork and describe what they see (colours and objects) and why they like it.
There are endless opportunities to explore, exploit and create images and art in the primary English language classroom. By doing so, we can enable children to explore artworks for meaning, express themselves visually, use higher order thinking skills and be inspired to create evidence of their thinking.
To learn more about how you can explore, exploit and create images in your primary English language lessons, join our IATEFL YLTSIG Professional Development mini-course in October 2021: Using and creating images and art for the English language classroom to inspire primary learners.
Anderson, L. W., Krathwohl, D. R. (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. Longman.
Cambridge University Press & Assessment. (n.d.). Cambridge Primary Art & Design (0067). Retrieved September 29, 2021, from https://www.cambridgeinternational.org/programmes-and-qualifications/cambridge-primary/curriculum/art-and-design/.
Robinson, K. (2017, August 3). The Importance of Art Teachers [Keynote Address]. Art Ed Now Conference 2017, Online. https://theartofeducation.edu/2020/08/23/remembering-sir-ken-robinsons-impact-on-art-education/
Claire Steele has worked in ELT as a teacher, trainer, academic manager and consultant worldwide. Claire is interested in inspiring learners and teachers through student-centred learning, fostering creativity and meaningful professional development. Claire supports inclusive classroom practices for all teachers and students.
Sarah Smith has worked in ELT as a teacher, trainer, academic manager and mentor worldwide and is based in Greece. She is interested in teacher development, reflective practices and learning to learn. She is also an advocate for inclusive classroom practices.
Claire and Sarah are the co-founders of eltonix: www.eltonix.com