The “draw” of drawing in class

As a language teacher, I often use drawing as a way for students to “learn” language. Students love drawing and it is a very motivating tool that almost every student enjoys Even those students who have difficulty drawing can have fun given a teacher that shows their own inept drawing ability and keeps things “light”.

Student drawing

Student drawing

I wrote “learn” because the real purpose of getting students drawing is not so they “learn” language but rather unconsciously acquire language. The distinction between L1 language acquisition and L2 learning of a language – where, how, when etc… has long been a contentious and debated issue. Please read more here, clicking the links to some valuable ELT history/discussion on this issue. What I’d like to add here though is my belief that “drawing” is one way (music, drama, tpr, laughter, even alcohol are others) in which 2nd language teachers can tap into the unconscious mind and get students “acquiring” a language and not “learning” a language.

When we “draw”, we reach into some primitive and automatic process. We concentrate and relax at the same time. The mind opens up and language can “pour” in. It really can. So much of what we call, “good teaching practice” is only the teacher’s skill in relaxing students, even distracting students so that they can tap into the unconscious processes that allow language to be acquired. I do not believe that there is a “language window”. We can at all times/ages, open that window. It just gets more difficult as we age.

Still, I don’t like the word – “acquire”. I prefer the Chomskyian term “grow”. We grow a language. Yes, at first we consciously and explicitly plant a seed (memorize structures/vocabulary) – but that is only a small part of the whole process. The most important aspect is the care, the watering, the nurturing, the “time” of living and experiencing that allows growth. This is the teacher’s job, to set those conditions so that growth of language happens. Drawing is a great way – it is sunlight to the seed of language. Drawing also make a steel connection to the “ego” of the learner. It is highly personal and provides titanium like context – something invaluable for teaching and language acquisition.

But enough theory! Let’s get practical!

Here are some of the ways I’ve used “drawing” with my students. They work and I highly urge all teachers to use them when possible. And please note *** drawing is not just a “kids” thing!

1. Describe and Draw: One student describes a picture and the other draws it. A basic two way task. See my description with resources HERE. Another option is to just give students an A4 piece of paper. At the top, write a common title. Then ask students what they see. As they describe, draw together (the teacher draws large on the board). Label too, as you go along. A very informal but beneficial lesson….

2. Draw and Describe: Put on “mood” music. Give students a theme – let’s say, “At the ……..”. Then let them draw for 5 min. Afterwards, in groups, they label and describe their drawings.

3. Vocabulary “solidifying”. It is difficult to acquire “words”. However, when we draw those words while learning, we activate a powerful part of our brain. I have students draw pictures in their notebooks beside newly acquired vocabulary. I also have them do so on worksheets, word searches etc ….. One concrete example would be a 2 way task where a student tells their partner the vocabulary to draw in “X” box. See the example below.

4. Storybook Making / Cartoons: Students make story/picture books to help them acquire language. They first draw the pictures for the story using a storyboard (very easy to make, just fold an A4 piece of paper into as many boxes as you need to detail the story). Then, the students write the story for the pictures. The teacher or peers correct and then they make a final product / book. Susan Kapuscinski is an amazing resource and teacher whose Making Storybooks, I highly recommend. Use her videos (on ehow or youtube) showing how each book is made too!

5. Doodle Songs: much like making a storybook only this time, students “tell” the song by creating pictures to contextualize the lyrics. Do a song the students like. Give students parts/lines of the song (make sure they number their picture so you can put it in order afterwards!). The students draw a picture for their line of the lyrics. We have a full player of doodle songs on EFL Classroom. See the wonderful example above, a teacher on EFL Classroom made. More in our videos!

6. Pictionary: Yes, the obvious standard. Students are given a vocabulary picture they must draw. The other students guess and the first person guessing correctly wins a point. There are many variations. Here are two online options. A) Odopod sketch slideshow. Students watch and describe/guess. They will be WOWED. B) Draw My Thing – my game of 2009. Students can play at home or it can be used as a filler in class. Just like pictionary but in real time and online. You draw with your mouse and you compete for points!

7. Online tools: If you just want a handy way to draw on the computer or big screen – Go HERE or HERE. Scribble Maps is also a great way to draw with maps. Sketcast is also a big winner!

8. Other ways! Drawing can be brought into almost any lesson plan. Too many ways to elaborate but think about how you might incorporate drawing into each of your lesson plans if possible!

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Teacher trainer, technology specialist, educational thinker...creator of EFL Classroom 2.0, a social networking site for thousands of EFL / ESL teachers and students around the world.

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2 Responses

  1. John says:

    You write “When we “draw”, we reach into some primitive and automatic process. We concentrate and relax at the same time.” I don’t think it is some primitive process, that would involve the amygdala, the so-called “reptile brain”. What you seem to be drawing on is the right side of the brain, the image and feeling side of the brain. I don’t know if there is anything in SLA about this, but you might look at Daniel Pink’s “A Whole New Mind” to get a sense of it. There is some research supporting your “solidifying” activity since learners exposed to text and pictures tend to recall the words better than those exposed only to text. By involving the students more, you may even be strengthening the associations.

  2. ddeubel says:


    I must profess, I know very little when it comes to cognitive science or neurocognition. But I used the word “primitive” to allude to the feeling of empowerment and connection (what the shaman might experience on a more intense level as a mystical experience) that comes when drawing. Have you watched Ken Robinson’s first TED talk where he talks of the girl drawing and the teacher asking, “What are you drawing?”. The girl replies, “God” and the teacher reprimands her saying, “Well, dear, nobody knows what God looks like!”. The little girl replies, “They will when I’m done!”. Chaim Potok refers to this feeling often in his wonderful book on art, “My name is Asher Lev”.

    But I really don’t know what part of the brain it comes from. I do think that there is no “old” part of the brain except that which is physically original. The brain is amazing and even new parts of the brain encompass old parts and functions. I’m not even sure about the bicameral theory of the brain so hesitate to label this feeling as “right sided” . We know so little of the brain and I’ve read a number of articles detailing how those born without one side of the brain, suffered no ill effects at all! So I’m a doubter.

    But you are right, it is about getting the students involved and taking ownership. Empowerment. I love this story by Peter Reynolds… ISH. It says it better than I can…

    But I should look at the research behind this more… however I hesitate because of so much pseudo (meaning not humble about what we don’t know and too quick to conclude) science when it comes to the brain. Lots of money in any brain related research and that begets lots of quackery. But I’m sure there is also a lot of good stuff out there.

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