The art of teaching

Photographer and EL teacher Steve Pellerine talks to Claudia Civinini about using the visual arts to boost
learners’ literacy

Handing English language learners a sponge and some paint and asking them to ‘paint what comes’ might not appear like a promising teaching method for a foreign language. But Canadian EL instructor and photographer Steve Pellerine has found that the technique, along with others based around the visual arts, has helped some of his most challenging groups to learn.

His love of both art and education has even led him to study for an MSc in migration studies – looking at how visual arts may be the key to unlocking literacy skills and motivation for migrants who need to learn English.

Steve has been investigating this form of alternative literacy instruction since he noticed that his students in Dubai, where ‘there is a widespread motivation problem’, were more motivated and learned faster when taught English through photography. He then became interested in how best to teach migrants in English-speaking countries, and decided to carry out a study in Africa.

‘I isolated migrant communities in Ethiopia who were illiterate in all languages,’ he explained. ‘This allowed me to gain insight and collect baseline data on whether visual arts could be the primer to start reading and writing instruction. It worked.’

Aided by a translator, he used photography and drawing to start a conversation with these students. He asked students to take photos of their life – or sketch milestones – and then build vocabulary and phrases from their own experiences.

To build literacy skills, he would use devices such as stencils as a ‘way to start writing immediately’, and vocabulary flashcards to glue on worksheets.

He worked with these groups for seven to eight hours a day for a period of about two weeks. By the end, ‘most of them were able to write a few words down’ while others had improved more noticeably.

“Accessing the mind of the individual in unique and interesting ways – even without words ”

An episode that took place in Ethiopia further motivated him to research language instruction for migrants. Some of the women he was working with couldn’t carry out simple tasks as first – and he thought there could be a problem with their sight.

He got them tested by an optician – and sure enough they all needed glasses. This made him consider the language challenges that migrants face and what this could mean in terms of access to services and employment. During his MSc course this year, he found that from an analysis of a public health dataset from the Europe Social Survey, migrants in the UK who lack English proficiency have challenges accessing both primary and secondary health care.

However, he said, integration can be a sensitive topic. ‘In migration studies,’ he explained, ‘many academics fret when they hear “the assimilation or integration of a migrant” into a community.’ But from his fieldwork and experience, he has seen that many migrants want to integrate and see language proficiency as critical.

With developed language skills, Steve explained, ‘success in accessing work and becoming accepted into a community is greatly increased.’

Art can help migrants both master the language and embrace the community. ‘Imagine displaying photos and artwork from a class of migrant students in a local library,’ Steve said. ‘It would build a bridge into the community.’

What’s on the cards for the future? He says he will most probably complete a doctorate in education (Tesol) at Columbia Teachers College in the US.

‘My hopes are to further develop and refine the approach, embedding the theories into initiatives that assist in a smoother transition for migrants relocating into nations where English is the official language,’ Steve explained. ‘Evoking the intrinsic motivation of individual learners is critical,’ he added.

TIPS on how to use art in English language teaching

Since art can teach literacy and improve language skills and build bridges between communities, it may be worth trying it in the typical language classroom. It may even work with those tricky Year 9 students. Steve has some tips for teachers. ‘I think moving away from typical texts is a good way to allow for genuine student-centred learning based on principles of differentiated instruction,’ Steve said. ‘This does not mean curricular or didactic goals need to be thrown away, but on the contrary they now become enriched and personally meaningful.’

1 In a conversation class, give a student a sheet of paper, a pencil and ten minutes to draw anything – and then ask them to present their work in English to the class (or a partner). Their partner should then explain it to another student, and you immediately have personalised content for reported speech.

2 For homework (or in class if time allows) ask the students to sketch a timeline of milestones in their life. Then ask them to present it to the class. As a follow-up ask them to write it up. As a group project compile the milestones and make a class book.

3 Form a group on social media and ask students (if possible) to take a photo when they get a text. Text them four to five times before the next class. Have them print or send the images, and during the next class you have real data for a lesson addressing the past tense.

4 Form a group on social media and ask students (if possible) to take a photo when they get a text. Text them four to five times before the next class. Have them print or send the images, and during the next class you have real data for a lesson addressing the past tense.

5 Abstract painting. If students do not consider themselves great artists, give them a sponge and paint, and let them create whatever comes into their heads. It can be intentional or simply free-form. They – or a classmate – can try to describe it or write about it. Hang them on the walls with captions (if it makes sense to do so).

Like a piece of writing that moves around the table where each participant builds the story, send a blank paper that becomes a sketch. Give students one minute to add to the previous students’ work, let it go seven to ten times (or however many cycles make sense) and have the students sit and discuss it.

7 Decide at the start of a course or unit to make a class book. Decide on a common overarching theme and allow students to select a topic of choice that supports the theme. Each student then develops a chapter.

Steve Pellerine is a Tesol instructor. He has taught anywhere from rural Middle East to lecture rooms at Harvard University.