Putting the ART in Language Arts (or any other subject)

  • Elementary
  • High School
  • Middle School
Putting the ART in Language Arts (or any other subject)
Irene Smith

“A picture is a poem without words,” according to the famous Roman poet, Horace. 

Who am I to argue with someone whose own words have lived for over 2000 years?

     My students have lifted the craft of drawing and artistic project creation to joyful levels. It enhances their learning and makes our classroom an interesting and enjoyable place. We share our work eagerly. We giggle about our own lack of skill and celebrate the accomplishments of the distinguished artists in the room. Art can offer equity opportunities.  Students enjoy the recognition when others are appreciating their craft. A student who struggles in many other ways, may be a top notch artist. The work hanging on my walls comes from every student.

     The projects students design and develop provide a source of pride and accomplishment. Art allows them to add to their own best writing efforts and create something special beyond itself. Art is a universal form of communication and can be used to enhance learning and increase engagement in any subject area.

Happy Little Accident

Teacher is looking at student work.

     I didn’t start with the intention of using art to enhance learning. It was one of those happy little accidents that Bob Ross speaks of. As a brand new teacher, I just wanted parents to see attractive and intelligent student work instead of blank, boring walls at Open House. Students clearly enjoyed creating and decorating their posters. Since I’m all for student motivation, I was determined to incorporate more of this type of activity for the benefit of student engagement (and to make my walls more interesting!) Despite my unscientific beginnings, I actively embrace integrating the arts into any discipline. Art is REALLY good for everyone.

     It’s important to me that my students see me being brave with my art. As a middle school teacher, with a ready audience of mockers, I have had to endure some pretty tough art criticism. Nevertheless, by modeling my willingness to share my unpolished, unsophisticated efforts and celebrate my work, I provide a safe space for others to do the same with any aspect of learning. I always point out that I improve with practice, although students may dispute that. My art also provides an opportunity to discuss the appropriate use of constructive criticism, friendly teasing, and the inappropriate use of rude comments before the teasers get a chance to eviscerate a fellow student.

     The following strategies are some of our favorite strategies and projects for incorporating the visual arts into Language Arts.

Get to know you posters   

Teacher created get to know you poster.

      At the start of each year, I am eager to get to know students better, and  identify where students are with basic concepts and skills- theme, thesis, anecdote, sentence formation, organization in a paragraph, punctuation and spelling, use of quotation marks, use of relevant images/graphics, etc. So, each year I begin with an integrated assignment that requires students to create posters.  These posters are tied to a theme related to our first course of study, such as “finding happiness.” I do mini-lessons on the component parts, and students create beautiful, useful posters that serve as a diagnostic performance task to guide instruction for the first few months of school. Often the art components are graphics cut from magazines, photographs or images found online. Many students prefer to create their own illustrations. Connecting images to text develops higher level thinking about theme and meaning. Many students treasure their posters. We use them at our Fall Student Conferences to illustrate student ability, and then they take them home.

Vocabulary Art

Student Frayer model vocabulary practice with illustrations

     Weekly vocabulary lists have provided some of our favorite shared experiences with art. Students work together using an adapted Frayer Model graphic organizer to define and illustrate the meanings of vocabulary words. The skill of the artist is of very little importance, but the results are often very entertaining and engaging. We use the document camera for students to share their results, providing useful clarifications about word meaning (denotation and connotation.) Several students develop themes or stories to connect their six words. One previously shy student has a running gag about a confident fish named Craig. When he shares his work, he is not the only person in the room laughing helplessly.

Graphic Novel summaries

Student summary and illustrations of Twelfth Night

   Sometimes when we study challenging fiction, I have students create a graphic novel summary version. My initial reason for doing this was to make difficult material more accessible to students who were not persevering with and/or comprehending the reading. For example, recently our class studied Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night, and worked together as a class to summarize the various scenes. We started with two pieces of copier paper folded to create 8 uniform frames for each summary and picture. As we read together from the play, a children’s book version, and viewed a movie version of each scene, we filled in each frame. Students increased their skill in writing summaries, comparing and contrasting different text forms, and each were well prepared for our Socratic discussions and argument writing about practical jokes and bullying. Even my students who are struggling to understand English and students who spend half the period in our resource room for learning support, were able to make connections to the text. Visualizing text and attempting to recreate that vision is a powerful memory aid.

Illustrated How-to or Informational Mini-books

Student book cover on Medieval Japan showing pagodas and cherry blossoms

     Students teaching other students about a topic can be a powerful learning experience. In constructivist classrooms, teachers facilitate student empowerment and meaningful learning through relevant projects. At least once each year, I have my History students work collaboratively to research and design a children’s book about a topic we have been studying.  In Language Arts, they work in groups to create a helpful, informational “How-to” book on a topic relevant to younger students. We have a ready audience to companion-read these books at our 1st-8th grade school.  In the past these books have included “How to trick or treat safely,” “How to make and keep friends,” and “How to make healthy snacks.”  Students use the writing process as they learn about form, audience, and purpose and further develop their writing skills working together to create their books.


     Youth are increasingly becoming content creators, particularly for sharing their work on social media platforms. Teachers can capitalize on this growing area and respond to the needs of today’s students by incorporating videography learning in their classes. Video creation makes student thinking more clearly visible and has the potential to reach wide audiences.   

Students video recording a student disposing of lunch waste.

     Certain skills must be pre-taught, and student designed media can be very powerful. My students have created public service announcements (PSA’s,) informational videos, and short content messages. I begin by requiring storyboard approval before students are allowed to use cameras. PSA’s have been an excellent vehicle for helping students craft powerful persuasive messages. I begin by teaching a variety of persuasive techniques for students to identify in commercials and elsewhere. Then I help them create their own effectively persuasive messages. With their classmates or the wider community as their audience, students are engaged and empowered.

Powerful communication

     Some of our most powerful communications don’t require words. Remember, a picture is known to be worth 1,000 words. Perhaps like Horace’s Roman teachers may have done, I hope that one or more of my students’ words will live on through their creations for thousands of years.

How have you used art to enhance learning and improve engagement in your classroom?

  • Arts
  • Common Core State Standards
  • English Language Arts
  • integration
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Irene Smith Board

National Board Certified Teacher at Discovery Lab School

Irene Smith teaches middle school Language Arts and Social Studies to clever, interesting, and energetic students.She is married to her best friend, Brad, and they have five grown up children.She loves backpacking on the Olympic Peninsula, spending time with her grandchildren, reading and writing books, and going to Shakespeare plays.

Twitter: @TeachLearnHope
Website: irenesmith.org