How to Use Art Activities to Illustrate ESL Vocabulary

Bring your students into a colorful, textured, brilliant world.

Teach them artistically in class and let their imaginations run wild!

Have you ever thought about using art in your lessons to teach vocabulary?

You really should. You can hit two birds with one stone: Teach any key English lesson with art projects while also teaching art-related vocabulary.

And, no, don’t worry—you don’t have to be a great painter or sketch artist to do so.

All you need is a bit of imagination, and away you go!

Why Art and Vocabulary Go Hand in Hand

Incorporating art to teach vocabulary in your ESL classroom is a great way for all learners to get engaged with your lessons.

You can teach (1) any kind of vocabulary and (2) art-specific vocabulary at the same time.

This strategy is accessible for everyone because students don’t necessarily need high levels of English in order to get involved and engaged with the lesson material. Since art is so hands-on, all students can understand your instructions. When you’re introducing the activity, you can model it to them or use some sort of visual cue in order to convey what it is that you mean. Show them step by step what to do while introducing some new art vocabulary to explain the activity.

This means that you don’t necessarily have to lower the level of vocabulary you teach the students. Rather, you can use art to break down complex ideas and vocabulary in a way they can understand. Using art to provide the right language support helps your students to reach their potential, and to learn concepts that are appropriate to their age level. It gives them a way to follow along without feeling completely lost, and what little they don’t understand, they’ll be motivated to learn. For example, if you’re teaching drawing in your class and you’re explaining objects you’re drawing, your students would be interested in learning what those objects are in English. On the other hand, you could instruct students to draw out pictures of new fruit vocabulary and then teach them drawing-related words like “sketch, “lines,” “erase” and “stipple” at the same time.

Even if you have higher ability students in your class, using art is still a great way to teach anything. The visual learners in class (and believe me, there are definitely a few of them) will really appreciate this approach. If all they’re exposed to is text or just listening in class, art might be a welcome break for them. It helps these students express themselves and through that you might be able to build more rapport with them. The more they enjoy what you do with them in class, the more you’ll see them learn.

Art is also a great way to help your students boost their confidence. Through lessons such as drama activities, you allow them a chance to be more outgoing. Provided that you give your students an environment where they won’t be scared of being laughed at, they could flourish under the guidance of these activities. Drama activities help build fluency and vocabulary through repetition. If they have to memorize a script, it means they’re exposed to the same words over a period of time. This means that they’ll be able to learn the words you incorporate into scripts.

Let’s not forget that using art to teach vocabulary helps teach descriptive language. Many ESL students might find it hard to really decipher a text or read to find nuances in the English language. Using images or the arts, you can create something outside of a textbook and get them interested in learning how to describe things. These types of words are more tangible when connected with an art activity, making the concepts seem less complex for your students.

Art projects in class are also highly rewarding and satisfying, since they allow a chance for your students to see something tangible they’ve created, allowing them to feel a sense of accomplishment.

Now that you know why you should incorporate art, let’s get started creating some lessons!

How to Blend Art and Language Lessons

Even though you might think it’s really easy to incorporate art into your lessons, it might not be. In fact, if you incorporate art the wrong way, you might end up having the opposite effect you want.

Here’s how to avoid some common mistakes when incorporating art into lessons:

Don’t translate — The point of teaching vocabulary is for your students to practice using English as much as possible. If you keep translating certain parts of your lesson into their native tongue, you lose the point of why you’re incorporating art in the first place. The art component is to serve as a (literal) model. If your instructions are too complicated, then your students aren’t ready for that lesson just yet. Keep it simple, and draw things out step by step.

Don’t over-prepare — There’s no shortage of wonderful and fun art activities that you can use to engage your students. In fact, there are so many websites out there that your head might start to spin just from how many great choices there are. But as great as some of these lessons are, you want to bring it back to your goal: teaching vocabulary to your ESL students.

Don’t judge the art! — You might make the mistake of worrying too much about what the art pieces look like. Don’t forget why you wanted these lessons in the first place. The quality of the art itself if not the thing to watch. You’re just using art as a vehicle for teaching other things!

Always introduce plenty of art-related vocabulary — You might be so wrapped up in the art activity and having your students produce beautiful work that you don’t use vocabulary related to the art activity itself. Some art-related vocabulary words you should incorporate in your lessons may include:

    • model
    • frame
    • equipment (e.g. paintbrush, pencil, crayon, etc.)
    • audience
    • stage
    • performer/actor/actress
    • sculpture
    • artwork
    • craft
    • imagination
    • director
    • classic/contemporary
    • portfolio

How to Get Started with Art in ESL Class

One of the easiest ways to incorporate art is to build upon existing lesson plans.

Take a look at what you’re currently doing, and see if you can do something as simple as having them draw it out. For example, if you have a reading comprehension exercise, have your students draw out a scene from the story instead of having them write a summary about it—or perhaps they can draw a frame-by-frame cartoon to illustrate their summary.

You can also use your existing lesson plans to incorporate drama activities that promote team-building. Think about how you can ask your students to collaborate on a performance piece that explains their understanding of the material you’ve taught. For example, your students can act out a script, or even do speeches using vocabulary words you’ve taught them.

If you want to use art in new lessons, try to assess their knowledge of art vocabulary and concepts first. That way, you can use that as a baseline to create lessons with more complex vocabulary or concepts. A great way to do so is to take them to an art museum so they can see the practicality of why you want to teach them vocabulary related to art. You can also see what they already know just by the response you get.

5 Imaginative Activities That Blend ESL Vocabulary with Artwork

To give you some ideas on what you can use in your lessons, here are some suggested activities:

1. Draw It Out

Have students write a simple story. Then have everyone swap their stories around. They could randomly switch them around, rotate all their papers around in a circle or choose a buddy—it just depends on how you think they’ll focus best. After these stories make their way around the classroom, have students draw out the stories they’ve received to demonstrate their understanding of the stories. Then slap those drawings on the chalkboard and have students guess at what happened in the original stories!

This is a great follow-up to writing practice or reading comprehension exercises. You could also do this activity after teaching a new round of vocabulary or grammar, and then have students incorporate these language lessons into their stories.

2. Descriptive Writing

In this activity, students will describe an object, event or character of their choosing and have another student draw it out to see how accurate their description is. This is awesome for teaching descriptive language and getting in some speaking practice.

3. Visit an Art Gallery

Students can learn to have conversations in the real world and talk about art by paying a visit to a local museum or gallery. Have them choose a painting or other work of art and describe it in a brief summary, using vocabulary related to art techniques and materials. You could also have them do a sketch of their chosen artwork to accompany the summary.

This can double as a non-art language lesson too, by choosing artwork that’s specifically related to another area of language study. For example, have them choose artwork that features people and have them describe the features and personality of the people, while also describing how the art techniques and materials used convey this. Or have them choose artwork that shows a party so they can practice party-related vocabulary, artwork that features sporting events, historical events, fruit and vegetables, and so on.

4. Pictionary Relay

Students are given random vocabulary words and they have to draw them out. You can achieve this by having everyone write thematically connected vocabulary on little pieces of paper and then drop them together in a hat, so students can then pull the words out at random.

The first person who guesses the vocabulary word correctly based on the drawn image then comes up to draw and the game begins again.

5. Drawing Instructions

Students write out instructions on how to make something (such as a sculpture, painting, piece of pottery or anything art-related) and other students will then follow the instructions to see if they’re correct.


Incorporating art into your ESL lessons can be both fun and rewarding for everyone involved. With a little planning in advance and caution to avoid lesson planning mistakes, you can find enjoyment out of all the suggested activities that your students will.

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