Engaging with Art in Language Learning

At last Thursday’s Brown Bag, we talked about engaging with art as a way to expand students’ repertoire.  We noted that students gain confidence when speaking about art in a public space, they gain a richer sense of the target culture, and they have the agency to be creative in the language.  And, of course, gathering as a class in the beautiful space of the Yale University Art Gallery (YUAG) has a novelty effect.  We heard from a few faculty members about the assignments they use:

1)   Lauren Pinzka (from the French Department) asks her L5 students to choose a work in Yale’s art gallery and be responsible for presenting it to the class.  As a pre-task activity, her class watches a clip of a classroom of French school children viewing a work of abstract art and responds to it in writing.  On the day of the visit to YUAG, she leads the class through the gallery, warming them up by looking at a few paintings together (traditional, impressionist, and modern/contemporary).  Students then choose a work of art and spend time outside of class preparing their presentation.  In about five weeks, the class returns to the gallery to be the audience for their peers’ presentations.  Lauren also scaffolds the assignment by handing out a sheet of technical terms in French (line, color, composition, etc.), but notes that she does not expect her students to speak as art historians.  She sees this project as helping students to understand France’s pride in its cultural heritage and history.

2)   Connie Sherak (from the French Department) adapts an assignment like Lauren Pinzka’s for students in the first semester of French.  In week four or five, she notes, students have enough vocabulary (color, body parts, adjectives) to speak about works of art.  She hands out a sheet of technical terms similar to Lauren’s, but simplified to match her students’ level.  In the gallery, Connie models analyzing a painting, beginning by having students notice physical qualities, then moving to abstract qualities, like mood or personality.  Students then have the freedom to choose their painting and determine the form the report takes:  Some students invent narratives about the figures in the paintings, while other make comparisons or create a dialogue between the characters.  Connie likes the freedom within limits that the assignment allows students, and she is occasionally surprised by what her students are able to say about the works they see.

3)   Elka Kristonagy (from the CLS English Language Program) brings graduate students who are second language learners of English to the art gallery to do a project because it allows them to prepare a presentation in a field outside their expertise and to practice speaking high-level English in a less scripted way.  The confidence it gives students to speak a non-native language in a public space is also a benefit.  The goal of the assignment is for students to present on a work of art before a small group of peers.  They visit the art gallery as a group to choose their art object and then return to do on-site research on iPads about the work’s origins and history.  When they report to the group of four or five peers some weeks later, Elka notes, they are engaging in higher-order thinking (evaluation, analysis, supporting a claim) that builds fluency in academic discourse.  The visit also builds a sense of community among the presenters, an effect other noted, as well.

4)   Sybil Alexandrov (of the Spanish Department) brings her heritage students to the art gallery for an encounter with Art of the Ancient Americas.  Although the room dedicated to this art is not large, the artifacts are varied and provide a rich opportunity to reflect on these civilizations.  As a pre-task activity, the class reads a story about an encounter between an indigenous culture and European explorers, and they discuss it as a group.  When they visit the museum, they look at the Bonampak mural and talk about its composition.  They then do a scavenger hunt in which students go around the room locating an example of each of the following:

  1. Something made of metal
  2. Something made of stone
  3. Something made of textile
  4. Something painted
  5. Something made of clay
  6. An object that represents an animal
  7. An object that represents a human figure
  8. A piece that includes a reference to a sport
  9. An object that represents conflict, war, torture.

Finally, students choose one object as their favorite and do a follow-up writing assignment on the creation of the object, the reaction of a European to the object, or the discovery of the object. Sybil notes the value of getting students out of their comfort zone and of motivating them to learn more about Spanish speaking cultures.

Hearing these wonderful ideas for engaging with art spurred our group to come up with more strategies:

  • Students could respond to the art by producing art themselves in another media;
  • One student could look at a work of art and describe it, while the other (with her back turned) could attempt to draw it; or
  • Students could create mash-ups about the art, using tools like Michigan State’s CLEAR tools;
  • They could create annotations on Pinterest, or
  • Students could engage in digital storytelling about the object on VoiceThread.

So much art is available digitally that this post-visit engagement seems like a natural follow-up to the gallery visit.


For information about how to schedule a Yale University Art Gallery visit, please contact Jennifer Reynolds-Kaye at Jennifer.reynolds-kaye@yale.edu.


Please keep the conversation going by adding comments about how you use art to teach language and culture.

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