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Mastering the art of language

Claudia Civinini hears how studying art can boost students’ motivation as well as benefit their cognitive, literacy and language development


CUTTING EDGE A student gets to work in the fashion studios at Nottingham Trent University (Courtesy Nottingham Trent University)

‘All art is quite useless,’ says the preface of a novel whose protagonist had his life transformed by a portrait. While some agree with Oscar Wilde, many would beg to differ – especially in the education sector, where art is valued as a tool to foster critical thinking, literacy and language learning.


Art is also perceived by students and teachers as an interesting subject which can do wonders for student engagement. However, is added motivation the only value that art brings to the classroom? If so, then any other subject would do the trick – as long as students find it interesting. Or is art intrinsically better at facilitating learning, especially thanks to the collaborative and practical activities which it lends itself to?

There are many studies that support the idea that art increases a child’s ability to learn in other academic areas, even maths. A public school in Vermont, US, saw the number of third graders achieving numeracy standards more than treble three years after the implementation of its Integrated Arts Academy programme. More specifically targeting ELT, the New York State Department of Education report Art as a Tool for Teachers of English Language Learners states that art benefits students’ cognitive, literacy and language development, it caters for diversity and it encourages problem-solving skills and critical and conceptual thinking.

Art for language then, but what about language for art? Art requires a precise set of communicative skills and vocabulary that should not be taken for granted even in native speakers. Professor Paul Haywood from Middlesex University, an institution offering various courses combining English language and art, explained: ‘We hope that overseas students will benefit from these programmes but we would also encourage home students to consider their value, as an awareness of subject-specific language, terminology and expression is not at all common in student vocabulary as they enter higher education.’

To investigate the relationship between language and art, we looked at some of the programmes on offer in language schools and universities which combine English with art, design, film and theatre, media, and most often fashion. We also asked Anna Phillips, an experienced course designer and writer now developing an English for fashion and textiles textbook, to provide us with some insider knowledge into course design.

Types of courses, age groups and the single biggest challenge. Most of the institutions we heard from offer either open courses or foundation and pre-sessional courses designed to equip students and professionals with the necessary set of skills to undertake study or work in the field of art. Some offer EL summer courses in which art is a ‘plus’ option. The biggest age group is 18–24-year-olds, but these courses are also popular among older professionals, students undertaking further studies and younger students with a passion for art.

When asked about the single biggest challenge for a teacher running these courses, institutions responded in unison: catering for the different needs of students in terms of interests, language level and expectations. Kings London mentioned that students were ‘interested in developing discrete and sometimes very specific art skills more than others’, and for this reason programmes must be precisely tailored. Diversity always breeds a very fertile environment, however; as the University of Westminster observed, ‘An aspiring playwright and a film director have a lot to learn from each other.’

Art for language – what is the benefit of including an artistic component in the course? Art can reach students with any level of language ability. Bell London observed that teachers were able to use a broad variety of materials to meet different learning needs, and the art and design component could be included at any level of language and artistic ability.

Art gives students ownership over their learning and gives them plenty of meaningful practice. As Middlesex University noted, ‘Learning is best absorbed if it is “active” and students feel involved because they become “pro-active co-creators” of content at the very start of their experience.’ Nottingham Trent University added that students benefit from the opportunity to test and apply their language skills in a ‘lively studio environment’.

Art also helps develop students’ higher-order thinking skills, such as analytical and questioning skills, as observed by Kings London.

All institutions mentioned the high interest and relevance of the topic, which fosters students’ motivation and, according to Scarborough International School of English, can even facilitate the study of grammar.

Language for art – what are the most important communicative skills in this field? As International House London summarised, students need to ‘communicate precisely and efficiently in their area of expertise’. To achieve this goal, they have to be proficient in a variety of communicative skills. Nottingham Trent University observed that students should develop core verbal skills to express their ideas confidently, as well as listening and reading skills to be proficient in an art and design studio and to conduct further research. Kings London added that students must be able to reflect and articulate their ideas, while the University of Westminster listed critical writing and critical reading as core skills. Keele University also underlined the importance of specific terminology, a concern shared by Middlesex University, which noted that ‘some terms require a deeper understanding of process and methods within the discipline if they are to be used sensibly’, observing that sometimes students display a lack of confidence in using qualitative and descriptive language.

Examples of tasks and issues of course design. The University of the Arts London stated that one of the biggest challenges is to strike a balance between ‘the level of interest and specialist content of materials for all students whilst simultaneously addressing linguistics needs and development in a systematic way’. They also refer to a corpus for creative language to inform their course design. Keele University uses a small corpus of media-related vocabulary to support students in their path from the analysis to the production of media. The University of Westminster employs a similar strategy, whereby students analyse and then create critical reviews which, thanks to their structure, help develop students’ first descriptive and then evaluative language.

Anna Phillips observed that ESP textbooks need to include activities to foster both general communication skills, such as performing well in an interview, and more specific skills, such as annotating a sketchbook or writing a profile for a fashion customer. The challenge is balancing content and language, keeping in mind that ‘as language teachers, it’s the skills and strategies we need to focus on’.n

Thanks to Anna Phillips, Bell London, International House London, Keele University, Kings London, Middlesex University, Nottingham Trent University, Scarborough International School of English, University of the Arts London, University of Westminster