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HomeFeaturesLanguage Learning with a Side of Art to Go

Language Learning with a Side of Art to Go

Nile Stanley is excited by the potential of using art-focused apps to inspire language learners

With the international threat of COVID-19, educators and families face the problem of keeping students separated while still providing language enrichment programs when faced with shuttered schools and reduced capacities. These are challenging times for language learners who cannot attend classes or meet face to face with tutors and need inspiring, convenient spaces to practice language and grow vocabulary.

Mobile-assisted language learning (MALL) with smartphones and personal digital assistants bridges the knowledge gap and expands the boundaries of where and how languages are taught and learned. Several benefits of mobile-assisted learning in using visual arts to teach language are discussed. How can existing literature, core beliefs, standards-based learning frameworks, and virtual resources for using visual thinking strategies (VTS) with art help to improve language skills?

Fig. 1. Bey (1878) Young Emir Studying, [Oil on Canvas] Louvre, Abu Dhabis, Saudia Arabia.

The new Louvre in Saudi Arabia, which opened in 2017, is a partner of the world’s most famous art museum, the Louvre of Paris. It features Eastern and Western artworks from prehistory to modern times. It has one of the most virtually accessible children’s museum learning experiences, with an app for tablets in six languages: Arabic, English, French, Mandarin, German, and Hindi.

Mobile and wireless technologies have created an ever-changing environment for learning that is more directly connected to real-world artifacts and living artists. Kukulska-Hulme (2009) offered reflections on how, alongside formal education, the outside-of-school opportunities to access learning resources on both fixed and mobile devices have multiplied. For example, in the MyArtSpace project (Sharples et al., 2007), students went to a museum and used their mobile phones to view, analyze, and discuss multimedia content linked to specific exhibits. They shared with peers their observations, artifacts, audio, video recordings, and notes. The results showed the effectiveness of using a mobile device to support and extend second-language learning in self-directed ways, especially to build knowledge of vocabulary.

Shadiev, Liu, and Hwang (2020) reviewed the literature from 2007 to 2016 concerning mobile language learning and concluded that elementary through college students had positive perceptions of mobile language learning and that it had positive effects on language proficiency.

The researchers suggested teachers design learning activities based on a student-centered approach in authentic environments focused on solving real-world problems. Instructors and students were recommended to create and share content on various subjects with other students and instructors from the same or different schools.

Visual thinking strategies (VTS, 2019) are used by schools and museums to incorporate art as the medium by which students discuss and share their opinions. VTS are used for exploring artwork to improve the language output of speaking and writing for first- and second-language acquisition students.

Online art galleries display artwork from current, past, future, or real-time exhibitions. VTS ask three questions of learners: What’s going on in this picture? What do you see that makes you say that? What more can we find?

Student oral and written production about a variety of artworks demonstrated increased critical thinking skills, cultural awareness, and collaboration with peers. A study by Bomgaars and Bachelor (2019) indicated that by way of engaging in VTS, L2 high school students showed significant gains in various writing skills as well as the quantity of speaking production.

Becker (2019) reviewed the arts integration, language, and literacy studies and found positive outcomes in print knowledge, alphabet knowledge, syntax, vocabulary, narrative, reading, and writing for children with language impairment and other disabilities using the visual arts. Additional insights from her review included that visual-based experiences capitalize on students’ nonverbal learning strengths and can help compensate for the effects of L1 language impairment, which impedes expressing ideas, feelings, and personal feelings.

Core Beliefs
Students in the digital 21st century have been brought up in a culture dominated by visuality. With a critical eye, students learn that artworks often tell stories. The art shifts the focus from the self-conscious learner to the work of art. Multilingual learners use and develop language through activities that intentionally integrate multiple modalities, including oral, written, visual, and kinesthetic modes of communication (WIDA, 2020). Visual stimulation promotes active exploration of the language. Language and art can be used together productively (Vasquez, 2018). When a concept is not clear in its written form, the visual form can assist the learner to comprehend. Likewise, when the visual form is confusing and unclear, the written form can facilitate understanding. To comprehend both texts and art requires sustained observation and attention to detail. There are many competing screen images in students’ cyberspace. Slowing down is required to find the story awareness of how artists visually tell their stories through the use of color, line, gesture, composition, and symbolism. Some art does not tell a story and is less about lives, history, and things but more about the exploration of color, line, and shape.

According to Becker (2019), arts-integrated lessons can address a range of language and literacy components aligned with multiple standards, such as the National Coalition for Core Arts Standards, 2014; WIDA, English Language Development Standards, 2020). Students’ learning experience may be maximized by viewing examples of standards-based learning activities for beginning, intermediate, and advanced language learners. Teachers can develop lesson plans and communicate these to students. Included in the plans should be the purpose, objectives, activities aligned to standards, recommended websites, and rules of cyber etiquette and safety. This can promote collaboration among students and help establish groups to accommodate students who may not have smartphones or internet access. Teachers should use set procedures for receiving and sending messages.

A practical process for using art with MALL for beginning, intermediate, and advanced language learners as a means of instruction follows.

Beginning Language Learner

Fig. 2. Wyeth (1923) The Giant, [Oil on Canvas], Brandywine River Museum of Art, Chadds Ford, PA.

ELP 1 Reading: Search for topics on websites, in libraries, or using other sources with a partner from a list.
VA: Re7.2.Ka: Describe what an image represents.

Essential Questions: “What’s going on in this picture? What do you see that makes you say that? What more can we find?” (VTS, 2019)

Activities: Ask students to break the ice and chat with friends to see what virtual museums they like and why. Take notes on the museum exhibits and send the notes as a text message to the class or to the teacher. Use the camera feature to copy and store favorite works of art. Create a scavenger hunt for finding interesting exhibits. Make drawings of paintings seen and share with others (Reinders, 2010).

Intermediate Language Learner

Fig. 3. Rockwell, (1958) Runaway, [Oil on Canvas], Saturday Evening Post, Indianapolis, IN.

ELP 1 Writing: Integrate information from multiple sources to list, summarize information, and/or produce poems or short stories.
VA: Cn11.1.1a: Understand that people from different places and times have made art for a variety of reasons.

Essential Questions: “What is the story being told? What do you think happened before this scene? What do you think happened next? What emotions do you notice in the artwork? What is the meaning or message? What title would you give this artwork?” (Ingram, 2017)

Activities: Use the device’s voice recorder to share stories about artwork. Do collaborative writing in which students create a story together by sharing and adding one text message at a time.

Advanced Language Learner

Fig. 4. Nelson (2017). So Together [Watercolor] picture book, Blue Sky, White Stars.

ELP 1 Writing: Answer questions to agree or disagree with current issues from models depicted visually or graphically.
VA: Cn10.1.2a: Create works of art about events in the home, school, or community life.

Essential Questions:
1. Describe: What do you see? How are the elements of line, color, texture, and shape used?
2. Analysis: How is the work arranged? How did the artist use contrast, emphasis, unity, and balance?
3. Interpretation: What mood or message does the art communicate to you? How did the artist use color, space and contrast?
4. Judgement: Is this a successful work of art? How does the message of the art make you feel? (Feldman, 1994)

Activities: Use a mobile phone to keep a multimedia blog about personal experiences, museums visited, and favorite exhibits. Do a language exchange where two students who want to learn each other’s languages work together and swap text messages. Act as a tour guide for a virtual museum (Wigglesworth, 2020).

MALL using VTS with art provides teachers, students, and their families a promising medium for instruction that is supportive of a range of needs, interests, and ages of L1 and L2 students.

A review of literature and studies revealed that MALL supports a range of language and literacy outcomes that are aligned with multiple standards. Multilingual learners use and develop language through activities that intentionally integrate multiple modalities, including oral, written, visual, and kinesthetic modes of communication.

Becker, P. A. (2020). “Teaching Language and Literacy through the Visual Arts: An interdisciplinary, literature-based approach.” Teaching Exceptional Children, 52(3), 166–179.
Bomgaars, J., and Bachelor, J. W. (2019). “Visual Thinking Strategies: Exploring artwork to improve output in the L2 classroom.” Journal of Foreign Language Education and Technology, 5(1).
Kukulska-Hulme, A. (2009). “Will Mobile Learning Change Language Learning?” ReCALL, 21(2), 157–165.
Feldman, E. B. (1994). Practical Art Criticism. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Ingram, C. (2017). “82 Questions to Ask about Art.” Art Class Curator.
National Coalition for Core Arts Standards. (2014). National Core Arts Standards.
Reinders, H. (2010). “Twenty Ideas for Using Mobile Phones in the Language Classroom.” English Teaching Forum, 3.
Shadiev, R., Liu, T., and Hwang, W. Y. (2020). “Review of Research on Mobile- Assisted Language Learning in Familiar, Authentic Environments.” British Journal of Educational Technology, 51(3), 709–720.
Sharples, M., Lonsdale, P., Meek, J., Rudman, P. D., and Vavoula, G. N. (2007). “An Evaluation of MyArtSpace: A mobile learning service for school museum trips.” Proceedings of 6th Annual Conference on Mobile Learning, 238–244.
Vasquez, D. (2018). “Teaching a Second Language through Art.” Yale- New Haven Teacher’s Institute.
Visual Thinking Strategies. (2019).
WIDA (2020). English Language Development Standards.
Wrigglesworth, J. (2020). “Using Smartphones to Extend Interaction beyond the EFL Classroom.” Computer Assisted Language Learning, 33(4), 413–434.

Bey, Osman Handid (Artist) (1878). Young Emir Studying, Oil on canvas, 45.5 x 90 cm, Louvre, Abu Dhabis, Saudia Arabia.

Nelson, Kadir (Artist) (2017). So Together,Watercolor, 20 x20 cm, picture book, Blue Sky, White Stars by Sarvinder Naberhaus, Dial Books.

Rockwell, Norman (Artist) (1958). Runaway, Oil on canvas, 35¾” x 33½ cm, Cover, Saturday Evening Post.

Wyeth, N.C. (Artist)(1923). The Giant, Oil on canvas, 182.9 × 152.4 cm, Brandywine River

Museum of Art, Chadds Ford, PA.


Art Museum Links
Louvre Abu Dhabi, the Children’s Museum (
Louvre, Paris, France (
Metropolitan Museum of Art (
The J. Paul Getty Museum (
The New Children’s Museum – Art Museum for Kids (
The San Diego Museum of Art (

Nile Stanley, PhD ([email protected]), is a regular contributor to Language Magazine with 15 articles published. He is associate professor of literacy and arts education at the University of North Florida and a visiting scholar to China, Vietnam, and Germany.

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