Use Art to Improve English Learners’ Writing

Most teachers today use a process approach to writing where the focus is on learning to think and write rather than on the final product. Some writing pieces are developed throughout the full writing process and others are left at the prewriting or draft stages because they have served their purpose.

Part of this writing process includes providing time and space for students to complete pre-writing activities. Things like talking with peers or constructing graphic organizers allows writers to sort through and solidify their thinking before committing ideas to paper. Strategies such as these are vital for English learners since they have the added barrier of not yet possessing a solid grasp on their second language. 

Another strategy you might consider is incorporating art into the writing process.

Often, teachers allow students to illustrate narratives or essays once they are complete. However, English learners who take more time and struggle with the writing process may never even make it to this step. I recently found an article that suggested—instead of viewing artwork as a final supplement to the completed narrative or essay—students should be led to create an art piece as their first medium of expression

Discover what they know

In The Universal Language of Pictures: A Critical Tool for Advancing Student Writing, Beth Olshansky provides a sound rationale for viewing artwork as a worthwhile strategy for improving ELs’ writing. She suggests that pictures can provide a “bridge into literacy learning” (p. 4) because the act of creating visuals allows students to demonstrate the complex thinking that is in their minds. As you know, ELs always know more than they are able to express in English. You’ve experienced this yourself in a foreign language class when you could “picture” the answer to the teacher’s question, but you didn’t have the vocabulary or grammatical structure to verbally express what you knew. By examining their artwork, you will have a better understanding of how much your ELs know about a topic, even if they can’t tell you in words.

Anchor their thinking

If ELs construct artwork before writing, then they have a place to store their thinking. Writing a narrative in your second language requires a person to keep the story in their minds while using correct vocabulary, grammatical structures, spelling, and writing conventions. As ELs struggle with writing conventions, it may be easy for them to lose the complex idea they were trying to write about. With the artwork beside them as they write, the student only has to refer back to their picture in order to remember. Such as, they were going to set the narrative in a city at night or that the tiger was even bigger than the man or what the boy’s face looked like when he saw his mother.

Dig for more details

If you have ever helped ELs, or actually any student, learn to write, you know that sometimes it’s hard to help. They may say they don’t have any ideas to write about, or they have an idea, but they can’t express it verbally or in writing. Students may write two sentences and then say they can’t think of anything else. Artwork can assist here, as well. 

When students appear stuck, teachers can refer back to the artwork and ask perceptive questions. “Look at the setting you drew. I see big beautiful trees. Look at the detail you put into the tress. What do you notice?” “Why did you put these two people over here, but the one boy on that side? What was happening?” Questions such as these may help students determine new details or descriptions to include in their writing.

Move beyond crayons and markers

Olshansky (2018) recommends providing students with actual art supplies beyond those normally found in the classroom. Crayons and markers will lead to “typical” pictures and may not have as powerful an influence over the writing as hoped. Showing students how to use watercolors, chalk, or clay to create pieces of art increases their excitement about the process, but also gives them additional time to clarify their thoughts. The thinking that occurs during the art construction process will be time well spent when they begin to write. 


The full article via Google Scholar is linked below. It provides much more detail about how you can conduct an Artist’s/Writer’s Workshop with your students, as well as examples of student work. I am considering how I might use this idea teaching my own university classes next semester. 

How could you incorporate this strategy into your work with ELs, even if you are teaching remotely? Share your ideas in the comments.

Or, you could add photos and descriptions of your successes in the Discussion Forum, Teaching Reading and Writing, under a brand new topic titled Artist’s/Writer’s Workshop.

It’s also a great time to register as a new user in order to participate in discussions within the Dear Dr. Mooney community.


Take a Deeper Look 

Olshansky, B. (2018). The universal language of pictures: A critical took for advancing student writing. TESOL Journal, 9(402), 1-16. Full Article

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