Ready, Set, Draw! 4 ESL Drawing Activities That Get Students Doodling

Lines, curves, dots, scribbles, squiggles—everything about drawing is just plain fun. 

This is especially true when you get a chance to doodle outside art class.

In ESL class, students don’t have to produce Da Vinci quality sketches or focus on technique.

They just have to enjoy themselves while putting pencil to paper!

So, why should you start drawing with your ESL students?

Well, let me ask you this: Have you ever looked for a classroom activity that was fun for your students and incredibly quick to evaluate?

Of course you have.

Lesson planning is time-consuming and challenging. Sure, you love doing it (we’re teachers for a reason, after all!) but it can be hard to come up with an activity that will hold your students’ interest and allow them to practice their reading and listening skills. Beyond that, ESL activities need to provide you with solid work you can evaluate (either for troubleshooting problems or for grading). That’s a tall order!

Drawing is something that all of us have done, and all of us can do (albeit with varying skill and ability levels). Yet it’s often neglected as a classroom tool. Below you’ll find four important reasons to use drawing in your ESL classroom, a discussion of why it doesn’t matter if you (the teacher) can’t draw (in fact, it might be better if you aren’t a great artist!) and four activities to get you thinking about ways to use drawing in your classroom.

4 Reasons Your ESL Students Should Draw

1. Drawing offers a way to assess listening and reading skills without requiring speaking and writing.

Often when teachers are assessing listening or reading skills, they ask students to speak or write to demonstrate their understanding. But doing so often interferes with the assessment of listening or reading—a student may understand what they heard or read but not be able to communicate that understanding clearly in English. Allowing students to draw removes the more challenging skills from the equation.

2. Drawing eliminates fear.

The biggest impediment to success in any language classroom is fear—a fear of embarrassment or a fear of inability can keep students from participating in class for fear of failure and humiliation. Since drawing is easier than speaking or writing, some of their fear disappears when we allow students to draw. The more frequently students experience success with English, the less fearful they become of using it.

3. Drawing allows more students to experience success.

By this point we all understand that there are multiple intelligences (need reminding what they are? See this article from The Washington Post). Because drawing uses bodily-kinesthetic intelligence rather than the linguistic intelligence required by most academic work (particularly in the ESL classroom), it not only links language learning to kinesthetic activity, but also allows those who have this type of intelligence to find success which might otherwise elude them.

4. Drawing is fun!

Drawing, like singing, is one of those things that everyone enjoys, even if many people are too self-conscious to admit it. (In fact some research suggests that doodling while listening can actually improve retention—see this article from The Wall Street Journal).

How to Deal with Objections to Drawing

There is really only one major worry or complaint that you’ll hear from students: “I can’t draw!”

This stems from self-consciousness and, as it turns out, isn’t even a problem for ESL students engaged in drawing activities.

I’m not great at drawing either. In fact, my students have spent many happy moments laughing at my drawings, whether I was sketching the outline of the United States or a stick figure.

So what happens when I draw on the board? I become human. My students see that I’m not good at everything, and they also see that I’m okay showing this inability to them. This is such an important thing to model for your students—that being lousy at something isn’t a big deal. Just think: Many of them probably feel that they’re bad at learning English!

This is one big step to getting over those negative thoughts and feelings. So, to get your students to this positive place, do the following warm-up activity with them.

Get Students Warmed Up

Here, adapted from Lynda Barry, is an activity to remind you and your students that you can all draw, and to let them use their English too!

1. Have your students fold a piece of paper into four equal-sized rectangles. In the top two, they should draw a closed figure like a circle or square. In the bottom two, they should draw lines or dashes.

2. Set a timer and have students create their own mini monster drawings around these shapes.

3. Have your students make a list of 10 activities (it could be a to-do list or a list of activities related to current vocabulary, for example: “I have to read a book”). Then give each monster drawing an activity (“He has to do his biology homework.”) What does it look like each monster could be doing? Students should share these and have a good time laughing at each others’ cartoons!

Use Technology

This is another approach to getting students on board with drawing activities.

Technology can help with drawing in several ways. First, games like the app Draw Something can be fun for your students and can give them practice both with English and with drawing quickly.

esl drawing

Draw Something (iOS | Android) is a fast and fun guessing game which asks one player to draw a picture on their device and then lets the other player(s) try to guess what’s being drawn by choosing letters to fill in the blanks. You can play against a friend or a random opponent.

Technology can also give your students tools for drawing and creating animated drawings (look for a future post on using animation in the classroom!). Some useful free apps include:

esl drawing

Autodesk SketchBook (iOS | Androidhas an easy-to-use interface and allows for quick sketching and coloring on your device. There is also a fuller-featured tablet version called SketchBook Express.

Paper by FiftyThree (iOSis another easy-to-use drawing program that makes diagramming easy, so it can be useful for note-taking too.

ArtFlow (Android) is a top-rated Android drawing app which offers 20 useful tools for drawing (you can access more through in-app purchases).

4 Activities for Using Drawing in Your Classroom

1. Listening / Reading Quiz

Skills: Listening and/or reading

An easy way to check listening skills is to simply ask students to listen as you read a description and draw what you describe. Depending on the level, you might be describing a face and asking them to draw a large nose or small eyes, or draw the stores on a street map. Alternatively, you can have students read a description and draw it out. This has the benefit of being very quick to check, too! FluentU offers a wide variety of interactive videos that could easily be utilized for this activity.

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

2. Match the Picture

Skills: Speaking and listening

For this activity, students should work in pairs or small groups. In each group, one student will be the speaker while the others listen and draw.

For the speaker you might want to choose a stronger student, or at least one who’s comfortable speaking or reading.

Hand the student speaker a picture. They should look at it but keep it hidden from the other students. The other students will each need to have their own piece of paper and writing utensil.

The image can be anything, from a beach scene to an image connected to a different academic subject, as long as it highlights the vocabulary which you’re working on with your students (this is a great activity to use when teaching prepositions!).

The speaker should look at his or her picture and describe it to the others student(s) in the group. The listener(s) should listen closely and draw their own versions of the picture as they hear it described. Allow them to ask questions or for repetition if necessary.

Finally, have all the students in each group share their images. Did they draw the same thing? Why or why not? Let them talk over (in English, of course) what they got right or wrong.

3. Pictionary

Skill: Reading

Hand out index cards and spend some time brainstorming, as a class, words and phrases that they’ve been studying recently. Then have each student create one or more index cards with the terms and phrases on them. These could be linked to a current learning unit, or connected to curriculum from other academic areas or parts of their life (such as slang to use with your friends).

Divide the class into two teams. One student from team A comes to the board with their index card and has 1 minute to draw as many words or phrases as her team can guess in that time (use a timer). Team B then takes a turn. Can the students guess what’s being drawn? Each correct answer earns one point.

4. Creating and Playing with Bingo Boards

Skill: Listening

Create a bingo card template with a blank image filling all the squares except for your free space. For example, if you’ve been teaching about food, put a plate in each square. If you’ve been teaching about emotions, put the silhouette of a face in each square. You can use this Picture Bingo Card Generator to help you out.

Then give your students a list of terms to use when drawing on their bingo cards. They might draw one type of food on each plate, or one emotion on each face.

Once the cards have been filled in, play bingo! Choose items from your list randomly, read them aloud and let students cross them off or cover them when they hear the items on their cards. Who will get 5 in a row first?

These activities are just the tip of the iceberg—there are a million ways to use drawing in your ESL classroom, so let these four samples inspire your own creativity!

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