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Using Modern Art to Teach Language and Culture to ESL Students


This unit on looking at modern art can be used with intermediate to advanced adolescentand adult ESL learners. Many consider contemporary art simplistic, perplexing,and just plain weird, which makes it a perfect topic for generating discussionand language learning in the ESL classroom. As learners become engaged in thetopic they will be developing their language abilities. The unit employs an integrated,four-skills approach embedded in a cultural theme, and teachers can pick and chooseactivities according to student needs and available time.

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Unit Objectives

Language and Skills

Vocabulary (New words can be recycled throughout the unit)

Speaking and conversation practice





Students will learn about some famous Western artists and theirworks.

As students learn about the ideas behind the art they learnsomething about Western thought and culture.

This unit can also be used in an intercultural approach to languagelearning. Students are likely to become more aware of their own culture whenthey come face-to-face with aspects of other cultures. Understanding one'sself as a cultural being is the first step towards attaining interculturalcompetence (See Byram, 1997).

Day One: Setting the Stage (1 ½ hours)


Modern artprints (at least one per student)

Student dictionaries

Chart paper


Advance Preparation

Beforeclass, put up the modern art prints all around the classroom. In large letterson the blackboard write, What'sthis?

The Lesson

  • As students arrive they soonnotice the art on the walls and will be intrigued. It is best to say as littleas possible at this point.
  • To begin the class, ask everyone to get up and havea more careful look at all of the prints.
  • Then have students sit down and write down their thoughtsabout the art they have just seen. Once they have done this, go around theclass and ask each student to make a brief statement about their impressionsof the art prints. You can be certain that everyone will have an opinion!(E.g., I could paint that! A child could do that. What is it? What doesit mean? It's so simple. That's not art!).

Class Discussion Centered Around Student Responses

Some ideas for discussion include:

  • The price of these works and why they are so expensive.
  • Is it art? Why or why not? What is art? What's the point?
  • Is it worthwhile?
  • How do these paintings compare to art in the students' own cultures?
  • Which ones do students like? Dislike? Which are the strangest?

Vocabulary Activity

Divide the class into groups of three or four. Each group collectively generatesa list of 10 words to describe the paintings in general, consulting a dictionarywhen needed. Challenge learners to find the most descriptive words they can. Theword lists are written on chart paper. Each group then chooses what they considerto be their two most original words and explains them to the class. The word listsare posted around the room for the duration of the unit for easy reference.

Day Two: Creating a Classroom Art Gallery (1 ½ hours)


  • Modern art prints.

Advance Preparation

  • Put up art prints in the classroom before the students arrive.

The Lesson

  • Ask students to imagine that they are going to open their own class artgallery. However, there is only enough money in the budget to purchase a limitednumber of paintings (one per group of four students).
  • Students are then asked to choose one of the prints on the wall. It worksbest if they select one they actually like. One of the great things aboutusing modern art in the ESL classroom is that it is open to personal interpretation.Learners pretend that they are the artist who created the work, and are invitedto fabricate any information they wish about their painting (e.g., why theypainted it, what the message of the painting is supposed to be, etc.). Theyhave total freedom to think of something wacky or entirely serious. Studentswith a good sense of humor will have a lot of fun with this. Others will becompletely engrossed in what an artist might actually have been trying tosay through his/her work.
  • Divide the class into groups of four. Each "artist" must tryto convince the other members of the group of virtues of his/her painting,giving reasons why it should be the one from their group chosen for the classgallery. The teacher might want to model the activity for the whole classfirst. After each group member has had a chance to present his/her argument,the group must reach a consensus on which painting to put into the gallery.
  • There may be students who are unsure of what to do at first, so it is agood idea for the teacher to walk around and check that everyone is on track,providing help when needed. The teacher also helps students with languageand vocabulary when needed.
  • Once all groups have reached a consensus, one member presents the group'sfinal choice to the entire class, giving reasons why it was selected. As eachwork is presented it is posted at the front of the room.

Day Three: Visit to the Art Gallery /or/ a Virtual Tour (2 hours)


  • Worksheets (see below).
  • Pens.

Advance Preparation

  • Arrange a guided tour of the contemporary art exhibit at a local art gallery,or find appropriate web sites for a virtual tour.
  • Prepare worksheets.

The Lesson

  • Guided Tour:
    • Arrange a guided tour of the modern art exhibit of a local art gallery.These are generally 50 minutes long. Encourage students to ask the guidequestions. Many students have never visited an art gallery, so the visitoften makes a real impact on them. If an in-person visit is not possible,students may take a virtual tour of a gallery (see Resources belowfor suggestions).
  • Post-tour Activity:
    • Students work with a partner. They are given 30 minutes to explore anddiscuss the contemporary art exhibit on their own. Students complete theworksheet below (this can also be used for a virtual tour). They list thetitles and artists of 3 works that they looked at together, and write abrief description and response for each one.
  • Worksheet:

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Art Gallery Visit: Contemporary Art

With a partner, take 30 minutes to explore the contemporary exhibits.List the titles and artists of 3 works that you looked at together and discussed.Write a brief description of the work and a sentence describing your responseto it.

Painting #1


Name of artist:

Description of the work:

Your response to the work:

Painting #2


Name of artist:

Description of the work:

Your response to the work:

Painting #3


Name of artist:

Description of the work:

Your response to the work:

Optional Lessons

Listening Activity

  • There are numerous videos available in most local libraries introducingmodern art, or teachers may wish to focus on a particular artist and his/herwork. Pre-teach important vocabulary and have students complete comprehensionquestions after watching the video.

Oral Presentations

  • Students choose an artist or work of art to research and prepare a shortoral presentation. To work on fluency and accuracy, rather than have one studentat a time present to the entire class, students can give presentations insmall groups of three or four. They then switch groups until everyone hasgiven their presentation three or four times.
  • Alternatively, students could make a presentation on an artist or art fromtheir own culture.

Writing Assignments

  • Students research an artist or a work of art (from their host or homecountry) and write a short report.
  • Students imagine that their national government is going to spend one milliondollars on a new painting for its national gallery. They write a letter tothe editor either supporting or opposing this purchase.

A Class Debate or Group Task

  • The class debates a question such as: The government should continueto spend money acquiring modern art. Arguments against this statementmight deal with how money might be better spent (e.g., on the poor and homeless).
  • To encourage as much speaking as possible, conduct a mini-debate. Studentsare put into groups of four. Two in each group argue as a team in favor ofthe statement and the other two argue against it. Each group tries to reacha consensus, and at the end of the activity one member of the group providesa summary of their discussion for the entire class.

Focus on a Particular Painting

  • Before going on the visit to the art gallery, introduce learners to oneparticular painting in more detail. Choose the most famous work in the galleryor perhaps the most expensive or most controversial. Provide some backgroundinformation. When students come face-to-face with it in the gallery it willbe more meaningful for them.

Reading Activity

  • Find an article relating to contemporary art at the appropriate readinglevel. Create a jigsaw activity in which each member of a small group of twoor three reads a section and explains it to the other member(s) of the group.Teach new vocabulary from the article. Follow up with comprehension questionsand language activities.

Closing Activity

  • At the end of the unit students respond to thefollowing question, first as part of a class discussion and then more privately,in writing:
    • Have your attitudes towards modern/contemporary art changed in any waysince the beginning of this unit? For example, do you like it more/less?Do you understand it better? Do you think it is worthwhile or not? Doesit make you think?

Note to Teachers

Teachers need not be art experts to carry out this unit successfully. The ideais not to "teach" students about modern art, but to discover itwith students, with an emphasis on personal response (and modern art certainlyoffers much to respond to). When looking at art students should be asked tothink about what kind of society produces such works. What does it tell us aboutwhat is valued in Western culture (e.g., creativity, originality, independenceof thought, etc.)? This is often very different than what is found in art fromother cultures and international students often find this fascinating.

Some Ideas-in-brief About Contemporary Art

  • It is a form of communication.
  • It says something. It's not just pretty.
  • It takes into account our senses.
  • It reflects society.
  • It gives meaning or new understanding to the world.
  • It begins inward and moves outward.
  • It is the spirit of the time.
  • It's about making statements.
  • We know it is art by the discussion it generates.
  • If it transmits a point or message, it is art.
  • We need to understand the context within which the art has emerged to understandit.
  • It makes you think.
  • It is open to interpretation.
  • Understanding modern art is like learning a new language, except there isno Berlitz course.
  • Contemporary art is the art of our times.