Monday, July 10, 2017

The Science of Using Art in Language Classrooms

KFieldingKristine Fielding teaches ESOL at Lone Star College in Houston, TX.

What’s the difference between art and science?

I suppose a person’s answer will be based on her perspective. For example, when I was a Chem 101 student, I fell in love with the elegant beauty of the periodic table. Such a simple design, yet it represents an enormous amount of information. As a starry-eyed student, I felt art and science were the same. On the other hand, a politician looking to cut a state’s education budget would have a much different view of art and science.

As language instructors, we have another perspective, especially when it comes to teaching. We often mix art and science to maximize time and student success.

One of the most popular uses of art in a language class is showing students pictures to activate background knowledge. We know if students associate new knowledge with old, they will understand new concepts better and remember them longer. But I would like to talk about another way we can use pictures in language classes: We can use simple images as symbols for new ideas.

A few weeks ago, my low level adult ESOL students were learning the different forms of the simple present “be.” From experience, I knew some students would forget the three forms and would have difficulty recalling them when writing short sentences, so I decided to use a simple image to help them remember. I drew a triangle on the board and asked the students to tell me the three simple present “be” verbs. When students gave me the answers, I wrote each word on a corner of the triangle. Later, when I was helping students with their sentences, I only had to draw a small triangle to help students remember that “be” has three forms.

Using simple representations to remember concepts isn’t revolutionary. In fact, many of us encourage our students to draw simple pictures of vocabulary words as a reinforcement activity. But why do pictures work? Because of the pictorial superiority effect. In other words, we remember pictures better than words (Zadina, 2014, p. 39).

Why is this? One theory says pictures plus words use two neurological pathways, thus developing a deeper understanding of the concept (this is Allan Paivio’s duel coding theory); another theory says a person can look at a picture and make an easier connection to it than by looking at words since words are made up of arbitrary letters (Whitehouse, Mayberry, & Durkin, 2006, p. 768). This second theory can easily be demonstrated: Think about the last time you were in an airport in a non-English speaking country looking for a bathroom. Did you look for a picture representing a restroom or words for “restroom”?

In any case, we can increase success by using images or symbols to help students understand concepts. However, we have to use them carefully. Below are a few guidelines when using images to help students remember ideas.

  • Use meaningful pictures. This may seem like a no-brainer, but we often spice up a PowerPoint by adding funny clip art; however, irrelevant images wastes students’ attention and may cause confusion (Zadina, 2014, p. 41).
  • Keep it simple. Simple images are easier to recall because our brains remember basic elements of pictures then fill in the rest of the details later (Biederman as cited by Dehaene, 2009, p. 138-39). Traffic signs are a good example of simple images.
  • Don’t use mirror images for different ideas. This can easily become confusing. Our brains aren’t good at remembering the direction of a picture. For example, which way does Lincoln face on the penny? Does it really matter? No. Remembering the direction of an image isn’t usually important, so we haven’t evolved to do this (Dehaene, 2009, p. 269).
  • Universal images will appeal to more students. This will reduce cognitive overload, and universal images are like pictorial cognates.

The science of using art in language classrooms is a new and exciting field of discovery. As Edward G. Bulwer-Lytton said,  “Art and science have their meeting point in method,” and it seems that point is at hand. We can leverage discoveries about learning to create new techniques that increase student success.


Dehaene, S. (2009). Reading in the brain: The new science of how we read.New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Whitehouse, A. J.O., Mayberry, M. T., & Durkin. K. (2006). The development of the picture superiority effect. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 24(4), 767-773.

Zadina, N. J. (2014). Multiple pathways to the student brain: Energizing and enhancing instruction. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


Comment from Dadkhah.Mohammad
July 29, 2017 at 2:41 am

Dear.Instructor.Mrs. Kristine Fielding.
Good afternoon to you. I would like to inform you that I have read your valuable & fantastic essay on the science of using art in language classrooms several times so far and I found it very useful special for English teachers. I live in Tehran Iran & I am an English teacher. Herby, I express my deep appreciation due to providing this kind of essay.
with the best regards.

Comment from Basant Mudgil
August 23, 2017 at 7:38 am

This post is really valuable and helps to improve teaching experience.
I am from India. I am an English teacher and want to experience a global exposure regarding teaching methods and techniques.

With Regards

Basant Mudgil

Leave a comment on this post