How is drawing beneficial at English lessons?

Drawing is something that we use quite often in English lessons. Painting, colouring and sketching are an integral part of teaching young learners. The older our students get, though, the less drawing happens at the lessons. Such a limitation may seem unreasonable because drawing is superior to activities like reading or writing and helps learners process information in multiple ways: visually, kinaesthetically, and semantically. 

Teenage and adult learners can find getting back to drawing really useful as it has a huge number of benefits:

  • Drawing is an international language. It is understood by everyone, so it can be used even with absolute beginners as a way to convey meanings or to ‘tell’ about yourself.
  • Drawing is a tool of self-expression. It might help your shy or just less talkative students to get involved in the lesson.
  • Drawing helps us memorize things better. 
  • Drawing is a creative activity which can add variety to your classroom routines and boost your students’ creativity. 
  • Drawing can be done easily both offline and online, individually or collectively, by an amateur or a pro. It doesn’t require many materials or tools and is relatively easy to administer. 

Drawing activities can get your students excited, relaxed or just a bit more motivated. There are a lot of reasons why we use pencils and crayons — or should I say Word, Paint and Adobe Illustrator — while teaching and learning English.

Draw to illustrate grammar

As most of us are reported to be visual learners, we benefit a lot from images which boost our memorization skills. Teachers quite often illustrate grammar rules to provide a mental clue without even realizing it. The most illustrated topics I’ve come across are adverbs of frequency, there is / there are, prepositions, narrative tenses, demonstrative pronouns, you name it. It’s always a great idea to ask students to illustrate some grammar concept while you are working on it. It will help them remember the thing better. If your learners are not good at drawing, basic doodling will do too. After all, you can illustrate the difference between ‘It’s going to rain’ and ‘It will rain’ with just a couple of clouds and a stickman. 

Given as part of homework, the task like ‘draw a little comic based on ‘used to’ can be then turned into communicative activity if you put students in pairs and ask them to give a comment on their work. 

Screenshot from 2020 06 20 23 02 07 Skyteach
(from “Cross-Curricular Resources for Young Learners” by I. Calabrese and S. Rampone)

Draw to practise target language

This type of activity is, probably, the most used in the lessons. Picture dictations work well with students of all ages and describing self-drawn images to a speaking partner is a good way of putting words into practice. The best thing is that such drawing activities can be incorporated into any topic or unit. Here are some ideas to try:

  • Give each student a template of a room. Ask them to draw 5-6 objects there without being too detailed. Then, give out one more empty template each. Put students in pairs, ask them to describe their rooms without sharing the pictures. While one person is talking, another is listening and drawing. Next, ask them to compare the original with the picture drawn. This one is great for practising there is/ are, prepositions and house vocabulary. Another option might be filling a fridge template with pictures of food and then asking each other questions like ‘Are there any bananas in your fridge?’.
  • After having done a unit on movies, play some music and tell your students that it’s part of the soundtrack for their film. Ask them to think of the main character and draw them while listening. Give some time to think about the personality of the character as well. In pairs, students then describe their drawings, telling about the film star they’ve created.
  • Draw a poster for an environmental campaign. Not only will it help learners to revise the vocabulary, but also it will enable them to make a difference.
  • Collect idioms learnt within a certain period of time. Write them on slips of paper and hand out 1-3 slips to each student. Ask them to recall the idioms they have and draw a little illustration of each of them on a separate piece of paper. Shuffle, take one picture, and name the right idiom.

Draw to boost creative thinking

In Penny Ur’s book “Discussions and More” there is a doodling activity which activates creative thinking and is quite communicative. Draw a doodle on the board —  there might be just lines or random shapes. Then invite students to say what they think it represents. Elicit as many interpretations as you can. Vote for the best or the most original interpretation. The student who produced the best interpretation draws the next doodle. The language for discussion might vary from one-word sentences to longer utterances with modals of deduction or “It looks as if…” structures.

photo 2020 06 20 23 15 26 Skyteach
(from Penny Ur, “Discussions and More”)

Draw to relax

Sometimes a bit of drawing is just what you need to change the pace of the lesson or set up the mood. If you see that your students come to class tired, play some energizing music and ask them to draw anything that springs to their head while listening to it. After a minute of drawing you can shuffle the pictures and run a little guessing game: ‘Whose picture is it?’. For an online class an option might be to play shorter pieces of music and pass the control to students one by one, asking them to add to the picture you already have on screen. You can use some tools for collaborative drawing like SketchTogether, Sketchboard, Miro board and others. 

You can also ask students to draw something to build a closer bond between them or to personalize a task. Once I visited a workshop of Chaz Pugliese, the author of “Being Creative. The Challenge of Change in the Classroom”. At some point, he asked each of us…to draw a tree which had some personal significance for us. A couple of minutes laters we were discussing our trees with speaking partners, taking a trip down memory lane. Though it was totally unexpected, the task helped us find some common ground and share some of the pleasant memories. 

All in all, drawing helps students overcome shyness or embarrassment. It can get them excited, make a change in a lesson pace, set up the right mood or help learners build rapport. It has even been proved that drawing and doodling can significantly improve retention. Now when more and more digital drawing tools get available, it’s high time we took a closer look at a full variety of activities we can add to our lessons.

How do you feel about drawing?

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