Divergence and Convergence, Educating with Integrity: Proceedings of the 7th Annual JALT Pan-SIG Conference.
May. 10 - 11, 2008. Kyoto, Japan: Doshisha University Shinmachi Campus. (pp. 60 - 72)

Incorporating art into language education*

by Miori Shimada (Keisen University)

This paper introduces three ways to incorporate art into university EFL classes. It also discusses art activities which proved useful among small groups of elementary EFL university students in helping those students become more autonomous learners. The art activities include: coloring, collage, and PowerPoint self-introductions. Through these activities, students were able to reflect their own lives and share their thoughts with other students. The paper concludes that art activities would allow language students to explore their personal interests and foster their self-esteem, thereby contributing to motivation in the classroom.

Keywords: EFL classroom exercises, art projects, repeater EFL classes, psychotherapeutic language activities

Lightbown and Spada (1999) point out that we can make a positive contribution to students’ motivation towards learning by creating a friendly atmosphere for students in class. This paper describes a project for repeater EFL students at a university in Japan. First I will provide a rationale for using art projects in class, then describe the actual procedure, and finally present some students’ final works and reactions about the courses to examine how they changed their learning attitudes and improved their English.

Literature review

Recently, there have been numerous books about the brain and its functions with respect to language learning by Oishi (2006), Patel (2007), and Schumann et al. (2004). Danesi (2003) also analyzes brain functions in terms of ways to conduct classes from various perspectives. The Shichida School, which operates child education classrooms throughout Japan and worldwide, has gained popularity because of its focus on developing a child’s right brain ability. With the interest in expanding human potential, more books describing how to make the brain function more flexibly have been published. Sample books for adults that have caught my attention include brain exercises such as a workbook of dye-cut pictures (Ohashi, 2006), a world heritage coloring book (Matsuda, 2006), and the books to trace the texts of traditional poems and stories (Hirose, 2006), or the Japanese constitution (Nazotte Yomu Editorial Section, 2007).

*An earlier version of this paper was published in pp. 332-340 of the Proceedings of the 2006 JALT Conference.

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In 2006 I attended a collage-art workshop by Junji Mizoguchi, a professor of Tokyo International University. There each participant cut out collage pieces from all kinds of magazines the participants brought and pasted them on a large paper. We also gave our creations titles and explained the reasons behind the names. At the beginning of the workshop, Mizoguchi introduced different types of psychotherapy such as reading, music, drawing, clay modeling and collage. After creating our works, each of us described the background of our collage-picture as well as the emotional feelings expressed in the creation. We felt satisfaction and paid more respect to other participants by discovering their unique characteristics or events about their lives while making our presentations.
In terms of Gardner’s (1983) multiple intelligences, we first used our spatial intelligence to visualize information, synthesize data, and group concepts into visual metaphors, and then our interpersonal intelligence enabled us to understand and communicate with each other (Campbell, Campbell, and Dickinson, 1999). Richards and Rodgers (2002) state that a multiple intelligences classroom is “one designed to support development of the ‘whole person,’ and the environment and its activities are intended to enable students to become more well-rounded individuals and more successful learners in general” (p. 120). According to Mizoguchi, the collage-making process helps participants produce several outcomes. Those outcomes are enhanced creativity, imagination, concentration, high motivation, pleasure, organization and achievement. He also told us that this collage workshop as well as other activities using music, drawing, and clay modeling are similar to psychotherapy. These art therapies aim to make patients feel more relaxed and comfortable so that they are likely to continue coming for treatment.
". . . art therapy is like play, and patients are able to feel the pleasure of making their art works. ."

According to Snyder (2002), the advantage of art therapy is to give patients an opportunity to improvise. This improvisation requires no training or special ability. Therefore, it enables patients to express their repressed feelings through art in a natural way. By observing such improvised art works, they are able to see their abilities, reflect on themselves and face with reality in a safe environment. Snyder also states that improvisation in art therapy is like play, and patients are able to feel the pleasure of making their art works.

Research questions

This paper attempts to answer the following three questions:
  1. Do the art activities in university EFL class motivate students’ learning attitudes as measured by their attendance and a self-reported student questionnaire?
  2. Do the art activities contribute for fostering students’ self-esteem which would create a cooperative atmosphere to learn together as measured by their performance and a self-reported student questionnaire?
  3. Do the art activities contribute for students’ English improvement and give them more confidence as measured by student feedback and comments, and writing assignments and presentations?


The first art activity involved coloring. Because this does not require any extra materials other than color makers or crayons, it seems much easier to conduct in the classroom. Moreover, the only thing teachers need to do is to select the suitable textbooks with illustrations to color.

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Class 1

The participants were six Japanese university female sophomores from different departments. They all failed the same course with different teachers using different materials the previous year. Reasons for failure included non-attendance, laziness, family problems, health problems and so on. Their level and motivation were low, and they had a tendency to skip classes. Informants C1-C6 were from this class.

Class 2

The participants were eight non-Japanese female students between the ages of 23 and 28. They tended to be more mature than the Japanese students and their English levels ranged from elementary to intermediate despite the fact that the university said that their levels were pre-elementary according to their G-TELP (General Tests of English Language Proficiency) scores. All of these participants had part-time jobs and kept themselves busy. Though some had a tendency to skip classes, overall their motivation and willingness were higher than the repeater-students in Class 1. None of them had failed this course previously. Key information about these informants appears in Table 1.

Table 1. Key information about the participants of Class 2 in the coloring activity in this study
Name Nationality Academic Year #Years at the univ.
C7 Korean 2 2
C8 Chinese 1 1
C9 Chinese 1 1
C10 Thai 1 1
C11 Chinese 1 1
C12 Chinese 1 1
C13 Chinese 1 1
C14 Chinese 1 1

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Time frame

Class 1 ran twice a week in the 3rd period (total 24 times) from April - July 2006. Class 2 was in the same time frame (total 26 times), but a year later. Both classes were conducted on the 3rd period on Tuesdays and 2nd period on Fridays. All classes were 90 minutes in length.


The textbook (Elementary Anecdotes in American English, Oxford University Press, 1980) featured monochrome illustrations for each story on each double page spread. I assigned students to color the illustration of each unit towards the end of the class for 10 minutes when they had completed the reading practice and relevant exercises and understood the story fully. After coloring the illustration, each student examined the works of the other students, asked them questions about their colored works and exchanged impressions with one another.
During this discussion, I took a different approach in each class since the students’ motivation seemed higher in Class 2, where they insisted on using traditional presentation style. Table 2 contrasts the presentation and discussion styles used in each class.

Table 2. Types of discussion formats used for the Coloring Activity
Class 1 Class 2
Presentation order Circular, clockwise By rows, from left to right
Presenter placement Presenter remained seated Presenter stood in front of the row
Q & A session After all presentations finished
One question and at least
one comment to
any presenter
After each presentation
One question or comment
to each presenter


I adapted a collage activity for two current issues classes. The students were all repeaters and the class sizes were small. Fortunately, this reduced concerns about scattering magazine scraps or sticky pieces.


Class 3

The participants were eight Japanese female students, mostly juniors and seniors, from different departments. They all failed the same course with different teachers previously. Their level and motivation were low, and senior students were especially likely to skip classes. Informants CL1-CL8 were in this class.

Class 4

The participants were four female students, and half of them were seniors. Two of them took the course for the third time, so their motivation was extremely low even in the beginning. Key information about these informants appears in Table 3.

Table 3. Key information about the participants of Class 4 in the coloring activity in this study
Name Nationality Year #Years at the univ. # Previous failures of the same course
CL9 Japanese 4 5 1
CL2 Japanese 3 4 2
CL3 Japanese 2 4 2
CL10 Japanese 4 4 1

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Time frame

Class 3 was in the same time frame as Class 2, but during the reversed periods. Class 4 met from September 2007 to January 2008 twice a week, 26 times in total. Each class was 90 minutes and classes were conducted during the 2nd period on Tuesdays and the 3rd period on Fridays.


Since the students in both classes had a low motivation from the onset, I’d decided not to use any textbooks of current issues. Instead, I chose the article either from online newspapers such as each time. The students read the article, made a translation or summary, and brainstormed the image of the article while cutting out the pieces from the used magazines. They then displayed those pieces on large papers and glued them on the sheets. This took approximately 30 minutes. The students were asked to prepare some paragraphs with the title on back of the sheets as a homework assignment. At the beginning of the following session, the students shared their collage works, and each of them explained the titles and their thoughts in turn and then answered questions.

PowerPoint self-introductions

I joined a PowerPoint one-day workshop with my students in 2006. We followed the guidebook (PowerPoint 2003 Quikkumasuta for Windows, 2005, WeNet) and made the same files in the textbook at first with the help from the instructor. After mastering the basics, we chose the background design and made introductory files about ourselves. At the end of the workshop, our files were projected on the large screen in class, and students did their self-introductions with more confidence. Here I experienced a similar sense of excitement as I did in the collage workshop. I then considered adapting this PowerPoint self-introduction for my English classes.
At first, I was rather reluctant to do this activity because it involved setting up computers for all students and bringing a projector to class each time. However, with the help from the audio staff, the set up time was reduced and students worked more cooperatively than ever.


I conducted this activity only with one class. The participants were six female Japanese sophomores, juniors and seniors. Since this was a repeaters class, many seemed to have lost their confidence in learning a foreign language already from the onset.

Time frame

Although this class ran as the same as other classes (in the 3rd period), it was only in the final month that the students used computers to make PowerPoint files. Prior to that we used the basic conversation textbook (Basic English for communication, Shohakusha, 2002) and completed all the lessons with some supplementary coloring activities. The students met six times to do this PowerPoint activity, and each class time was 90 minutes.


In the first lesson, students learned how to make a PowerPoint files, select their background designs, and discuss the items they wanted to include in their files. From the second to the fifth lessons, they completed their PowerPoint self-introductions. Most students included the following information in their self-introductions: (1) personal information — name, hometown, family members, etc., (2) hobbies and skills, (3) favorite proverb, (4) university schedule, (5) daily routine, (6) school activities, (7) praise for their school, (8) struggles, problems, and possible solutions, and (9) future goals and dreams. On the final day of the course, each of them presented their files with a projector and the big screen in front of the class. Table 4 summarizes the activities used in each of the classes described in this paper.

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Table 4. Class Profiles and Activities Employed in This Study
Class #Stds. Nationality Coloring Activity Collages PowerPoint
Class 1 6 All Japanese X X
Class 2 8 All international X X
Class 3 8 All X X
Class 4 4 All Japanese X X
Class 5 6 All Japanese X

○---Applied as a main activity X---Did not apply △---Applied as a supplementary activity



Class 1

Although the repeater-students using the coloring activity exhibited a tendency to skip classes at the onset of the course, in the latter half, they were absent less often. As Figure 1 indicates, many informed their classmates of their absences or conferred with them about future assignments. Three students used to forget their textbooks or dictionaries at the beginning of the course. Fortunately, this behavior became less frequent. No students were absent more than 1/3 of the entire course and consequently all students passed.

Class 2

Only one student out of eight failed this course. Two students achieved perfect attendance, and another two were absent for only twice. These four students always focused on lectures and were actively involved in discussions by making comments and asking questions while listening to others’ presentations.

Class 3

The attendance ratio in this class was low compared to other classes since 3/4 students were juniors and seniors who had begun job hunting.

Class 4

There were four students in this course, and two of them joined from Class 3. Again, these two students did not show up from the beginning. Two remained, and one student kept perfect attendance, and the other was absent from six times till the middle of the course. Unfortunately, the second student had left the class after the 15th lesson without giving any reasons. She dropped out of the other language courses after that. The absence of this remaining student was five times at the end.

Class 5

For a variety of reasons, a number of students dropped out of this class. Until the class started the PowerPoint introduction in December, the absence of the two remaining students was eight or ninetimes out of 20 lessons. Once they started PowerPoint activity, they attended every class and stayed even longer after the class in the last three lessons as Figure 1 attests.

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Figure 1
Figure 1. Attendance rates of each class in every three weeks during the semester when a therapeutic activity was used


Class 1

The amount of English students used in class during the course increased greatly. For example, in the coloring activity, the repeater-students wrote their reactions only in Japanese in the beginning of the course although I tried to compel them to use English. In the middle of the course, however, they wrote two to three sentences in English each time. As for the final project, I assigned students to type the summaries and reactions of the two stories they liked in the textbook. (See Appendix A) I then had the students present their papers with their colored pictures in front of the class and did Q & A session by themselves for 10-15 minutes.

Class 2

In the international students’ class, the results were the same. In this class, the students tried to use English from the beginning, and they became more confident about using it both in writing and speaking. Therefore, I asked the students to write a summary and reaction of one unit for their mid-term assignments. For their final projects, students created stories with their own visual images just like a textbook and explained those original stories in a poster session at the last class. (See Appendix B).

Table 5. Types assignments for the coloring activity described in this text
Class 1 Class 2
Mid-term No particular mid-term assignment (Sum up the scores of regular assignments such as: mini-reaction paper and the Q&A of each unit) Written reaction (one page) based on the story of one unit which is similar to the final assignment of Class 1
Final Written reactions (one or two pages) based on at least two stories of the textbook and read and read in front of the class with the colored pictures. Then answer the questions from the other students. Create one original story with a visual image and present it in the poster session in the classroom.

Classes 3 & 4

In the Collage Activity, the amount of speaking increased since the students became accustomed to use English to explaining their collage works. The quality of their writings particularly improved because they received feedback on their previous writings and used them to write better pieces next time. (See Appendix B-1).

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Class 5

The students did better and became more active while doing their PowerPoint activities, compared to the first four months when they were participating in the regular lessons with a textbook. One student, who lost passion for learning a foreign language, displayed her skill with computers in this activity. She became a leader in the class, and helped other students and received much respect. She became tenacious and fixed every single mistake in her PowerPoint file when she presented it in the last class.

Interesting comments


Unit 12 featured a story of two boys. Mike, an older boy, and Ted, a visiting cousin, had a competition to see whose hands were dirtier. When Mike said that his hands were dirtier, Ted agreed that because Mike was “a year older” than him.
In Class 1, the most interesting comments of this unit were about the color of Mike’s hands. C1 colored them black and she wrote in her reaction: “because I wanted to represent the dirt on his hands”. She also wrote: “I colored Ted’s hands brown, because I wanted to represent less dirt compared to Mike’s hands.” In the discussion, C6 (who colored Mike’s hands gray) said that he played with ‘clay dough’. C4 said that he played in a ‘sand box’. Moreover, C3 (who used multi-hues) wrote in her reaction: “I painted Mike’s hands various colors. I thought it an interesting picture drew in [sic] hands, because Tim was enviable of it and Mike didn’t like washing hand to keep a picture….” She said in the discussion that Mike enjoyed painting a picture all over his hands. Through this discussion, the students became familiar with new vocabulary such as ‘dirt’, ‘clay dough’ and ‘sand box’.
In Class 2, the discussion continued and expanded. C13 asked her classmate who was doing a presentation, “What kind of children do you like?” And C11 answered, “I like clean kids and kids behave well [sic].”
C12 said that American kids were independent, and C10 asked why. Then C12 answered, “Because they aren’t obedient.” After this, we began to talk about parents sleeping next to their babies and discussed the situation in the States. It seems American parents are likely to sleep separately from their babies soon after they were born because the parents believe it promotes “independence”. Then C13 said, “In China kids sleep with parents until 2 or 3.” We discussed this for a while.


In Class 3, we studied an article about the Virginia Tech shooting rampage. Surprisingly, the students came up with different interpretations. Although the students had some negative impressions, CL4 made a collage focusing on peace, and CL6 made a collage with all kinds of kissing faces entitled Love and Peace. CL5 talked about security in the United States. CL7 pointed out the importance of communication, trying to understand the feelings of criminals (See Appendix C).

PowerPoint self-intros

In the students’ PowerPoint files, the most impressive pages discussed problems students were facing and possible solutions. In order to complete these two pages, the students were forced to reflect on their past lives, which many had not done so seriously before. P4 wrote about her problems in her PowerPoint file, “I spoil myself too much”. On the next page she wrote, “I have to have confidence in me [sic]” and “I try to have a strong will” as solutions. I was very pleased with these comments since she did not smile much, completely lost her confidence and did not work hard enough for her English studies before this PowerPoint Activity.


In the final class, I also gave the students an open-ended question to comment on these art activities in Japanese for the last ten minutes. Tables 6-7 provide a summary.


Table 6. Ranking of the students’ feedback on the Coloring Activity (N=12)
Rank Comment #Stds. making this comment
1 I enjoyed the activity. / It was fun 10
2 My English improved. 6
3 Each story had an appropriate length for the class time and was interesting. 4
4 It was interesting to hear the unique comments of my classmates. I felt like I could do it and will keep trying. 3
5 I was a little confused with this activity at first because I had never been taught this way. 2

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There are a few minor comments which I think are valuable to mention. One is that the student felt the pleasure of seeing her textbook becoming visually attractive each time the lesson was over. Another is that the student realized studies did not mean to be taught all the time but to apply her own ideas.


Table 7. Ranking of the students’ feedback on the Collage Activity (N=6)
Rank Comment #Stds. making this comment
1 I enjoyed the activity. 6
2 I had more desire to communicate with my classmates. 3
3 My English improved and I made more effort. 2

There were also important comments such as, “I learned how to describe my work by listening to my classmates’ presentations” and “I was able to see my English level and notice the types of errors I tended to make as I wrote some paragraphs and presented them together with my collage work each time”.

PowerPoint self-introductions

All three students who passed the course and gave me feedback commented that they enjoyed this PowerPoint activity very much. They also wrote that PowerPoint Activity motivated their learning attitudes so that they made more involvement in learning English. Two of them believed that what they learned in the class would be applicable for their future and in the real society although they did not mention more in detail.


"Art has potential not only as a brain exercise or in psychotherapy, but also in language education."
The use of art activities in English class appear to motivate students and contribute to their language improvement. As Campbell, Campbell and Dickinson (1999) state, “learning is more productive and enjoyable when students feel a sense of belonging and the classroom functions as a caring community” (p. 161).
I would encourage teachers who teach less-motivated students in small classes to try these art activities. I would also like to see these activities applied to larger class settings or classes of young learners.
Art has potential not only as a brain exercise or in psychotherapy, but also in language education. I hope to explore these activities more and create other interesting art activities with students of different ages and levels.


Campbell, B., Campbell, L. & Dickinson, D. (1999). Teaching and learning through multiple intelligences. Needham Heights, Mass.: A Viacom.

Hill, L. (1980). Elementary anecdotes in American English. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lightbown, P. & Spada, N. (1999). How languages are learned. New York: Oxford University Press.

Mizoguchi, J. (2006, November). Korajuho (geijutu ryoho) wo manabo. [Let's learn how to do collages (as art therapy)]. Saitama: With You Saitama.

Parsons, M. (2004). Art and integrated curriculum. In E. Eisner and M. Day (Eds.), Handbook of research and policy in art education (pp. 775-794). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Richards, J. & Rodgers, T. (2002). Multiple intelligences. Approaches and methods in language teaching. (2nd ed.). 115-124. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Shimada, M. (2007), More community and motivation through coloring. In K. Bradford-Watts (Ed.), 2006 JALT Conference Proceedings. 332-340. Tokyo: JALT.

Snyder, S., & Snyder T. (2002). Geijutsu ryoho nyumon. [Introduction to art therapy]. Tokyo: Kadokawa Shoten.

Main Article Appendix A Appendix B Appendix C Appendix D

2008 Pan SIG-Proceedings: Topic Index Author Index Page Index Title Index Main Index
Complete Pan SIG-Proceedings: Topic Index Author Index Page Index Title Index Main Index

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