Let Your ESL Students Meet Van Gogh, Monet and Others in These 8 Brilliant Art Activities

Want to truly engage your students with English in a creative way?

Art connects with students on a sensory level, getting their whole bodies involved as they learn language.

All that, and it’s enjoyable to look at, too!

Luckily, you don’t have to be an art teacher to use artistic expression in your ESL classroom.

Here are some easy activities you can do to get creative and teach language at the same time.

8 Unique Art Activities with Clever ESL Lessons

1. Simon Says Art

I have no doubt that you have played Simon Says in your ESL classroom. It’s a great way to practice listening skills and get students moving. It can also be a fun way to bring creativity into the classroom.

For this artistic version all you need is some paper and something to write with–crayons, markers or whatever you happen to have on hand. As you play, rather than giving students directions for body movements, give directions for what to draw. Simon says draw a line here. Simon says a draw a circle in the top left corner.

As you play, students will get a great review of vocabulary—especially colors, shapes and prepositions of location. Want to take your artistic expression to the next level? Try some big art or art outdoors in Simon Says format.

2. Wish You Were Here

Whether you consider yourself an art aficionado or not, you will love how classic paintings can get your students talking. Start by bringing in some pictures of classic paintings, at least one for every pair of students in your class. You can have everyone use the same painting or have different options. You might want to consider Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” Monet’s “Water Lilies” series or Munch’s “The Scream” for this activity.

Give each pair of students one painting to look at. Have the students imagine they are in the painting. Direct them to talk about why they are there and what they see. What will they gain from this activity other than speaking practice? It’s a great way to practice present and present progressive tenses, and to introduce and use unusual vocabulary depending on what painting students are discussing.

3. Interview the Subject

This is another art activity that uses classic paintings, but this time students will be looking at a portrait and interviewing the person painted in it. You will need one portrait for each person. You might consider using the “Mona Lisa” or other any other classic portraits.

Before the activity, brainstorm a list of interview questions with your class. Once you have a good bank of questions, give out the portraits to your students. Have each person imagine that they are interviewing the person in the painting. They should choose five to ten interview questions (or whatever you think is appropriate for your students’ language level) and write down a fictitious interview between them and the person in the painting.

Students should imagine how their subject would answer the questions and write those questions down. As they write, they should use either direct quotations or reported speech. In doing so, they will get practice asking questions, doing interviews, writing and using reported speech.

4. Visit an Art Museum

Taking a day trip to a museum might not be something you can do at the spur of a moment, but it does make for a great language-focused field trip for ESL students. You might be surprised to find there are more museums are near you than you might think. The works of art do not have to be famous or expensive; even a local museum will serve the purpose here.

Take your students to the museum and give them some time to look at the various works or art there. Ask students to make notes on what they see and how the various paintings make them feel. They can also take pictures of the pieces if the museum allows it.

Bring students back together either at the museum or in your classroom. Each person should tell the class about how one artwork made them feel without identifying which piece of art it was. Students can give hints about colors and subject matter after they have talked about how the painting made them feel.

The rest of the class should then try and guess which painting the person is talking about. This is a great chance for your students to talk about emotions as well as using descriptive language.

Still unsure about visiting a museum? Take a virtual tour instead. You can view collections at The National Gallery of Art or The Louvre without even leaving your classroom.

You can also use videos from resources like FluentU to bring art and other authentic resources to your classroom.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.

5. Student Art Show

Give your students a chance to communicate about feelings without having to use words in this classroom art activity. Brainstorm a list of emotions with your class and then set your students free to create something that communicates one of those feelings with whatever materials you have on hand.

If you like, take a few minutes before creating to talk about how other artists have communicated emotions through their works (i.e. fear in “The Scream,” tranquility in “The Water Lilies,” etc.) Once everyone has finished their projects, give each student an opportunity to present their piece to the class.

Let the other students share how that piece makes them feel before the artist talks about how they were feeling and what they were thinking when they created it. This activity will give students speaking and presenting practice, as well as giving them a chance to talk about emotions.

6. Starry Night at Home

In this art and language activity, students will create their own starry night inspired by Van Gogh’s well known piece. Before creating any art, have students tell a partner about their home. Then show students “Starry Night” and discuss how Van Gogh used colors to convey emotions. You might also have students talk about how different colors elicit different emotions in them and in others.

When you’re ready to start the creative portion of the lesson, ask students to draw a cityscape along the bottom of a piece of white paper and then cut it out. It might be a city they know or one they imagine. You might want to have a few pictures available in class for students to reference. When their cityscapes are drawn and cut out, students should blob blue and black paint on another piece of white paper, fold it together and smear the paint around so it resembles the sky of Van Gogh’s painting.

If you like, invite students to scratch swirls and other marks into the paint using the head of a pin or other object. When the paint is dry, students should glue their cityscape to the bottom of the painted paper to create their own starry night. Your students will love this creative activity that lets them describe a place and connect a piece of their home with a classic piece of art.

7. I Am Collage

How well do your students really know each other? They may learn some interesting things about their classmates when each person makes a collage describing themselves. For this activity you will need magazines, scissors, glue and paper plates or circular pieces of paper.

Have students draw spokes on the plate to make six to eight sections. Then, students should cut out several pictures from magazines to fill in each section with one color. Once their plates are full, have students cut adjectives out of magazines that describe them, and glue the adjectives on top of the color sections. You can see an example here.

You can display these projects in class on a bulletin board or by suspending them from the ceiling. Your students will get a good review of parts of speech as they limit their descriptive words to adjectives. Give them practice introducing and talking about themselves by letting each student share their project with the rest of the class.

8. Texture Study

Before doing this activity, make copies of West Branch School District’s texture handout for your students. You will also need paper and black pens or fine tip markers. Start by letting students read about texture on the worksheet. Then have students try their hand at creating their own textures on, well, their hands.

Students should trace their hand on a piece of white paper and then fill in each finger with a different texture. They can use the textures on the handout or create their own. Then pair students to talk about the textures they drew and what items have those textures. Encourage your students to use words such as rough, smooth, slippery, scratchy, grooved, etc. and review this vocabulary as necessary.

If you are looking for more ideas on how to use art in the classroom, check out these lesson plans for beginners from the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Whether you consider yourself and your students creative or not, art can be a great way to use language. Try these activities in class and give your students a chance to express themselves through words as well as pictures!

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