On Teaching Speaking: EL Autonomous Learning With Art

This TESOL Blog series focuses on teaching speaking to English learners.
In this TESOL Blog series, Julie Vorholt, editor of New Ways in Teaching Speaking, Second Edition, interviews contributors to the volume and gets some tips from them on teaching speaking to ELs. See Part 1 here, and Part 2 here, and Part 3 here.

Today’s blog focuses on a fun, easy, and effective classroom activity that stimulates discussion for students at all levels of English proficiency. Preparation takes less than 5 minutes and, with some modification, the activity can be repeated throughout a course. Students’ active engagement in the discussion inspired Hisako Yamashita to contribute her lesson plan activity to the recently released New Ways in Teaching Speaking, Second Edition.

“Reflecting With Art Cards: Expressing Thoughts and Feelings,” found in Part I: Developing Fluency, in the Conversation section, leads students to reflect on their thoughts, feelings, and learning paths. According to Hisako, this activity gives students “authentic speaking opportunities [and] also facilitates their development of self-reflective skills, one of the key characteristics of autonomous learners” (p. 13). So here I would like to share with you an overview of Hisako’s activity to try in your classroom.

Reflecting With Art Cards: Classroom Activity

Before class, purchase large art cards, about postcard-sized. Then set up the room so that students can sit in small groups.

Students Describe the Present
Give each group one stack of cards to arrange so they can see all of the cards simultaneously. Each student selects a card that best depicts something current. For example, you may tell the class to focus on a current situation or feeling. Each student describes the art on the card and explains their reasons for choosing it.

Students Describe the Future
After focusing on the present time, ask each student to select another card that best depicts something in the future. For example, you may tell the class to choose a card illustrating their ideal future selves. Each student describes the art on the card and explains how the card describes their ideal future.

Modifications and Alternatives
This activity provides teachers with many opportunities for modification and reuse. For example, the art cards may be used with different questions or the current/future prompts may be used with different media. This speaking activity may also be used in a variety of classes, such as a grammar lesson. I’m currently teaching low-intermediate students about the correct word order of adjectives and will use this activity in my classroom. Describing the art cards using adjectives in an authentic context while sharing their situations and feelings will be engaging for my students.

About Hisako Yamashita, our Featured Contributor

Hisako Yamashita

Hisako works in Kobe, Japan, as a lecturer at Konan Women’s University. She is the president of Japan Association for Self-Access Learning (JASAL) and is the reviews editor of SiSAL Journal, Studies in Self-Access Learning. I interviewed Hisako online to learn more about her, her work as an English language teaching professional, and her experience in writing for New Ways in Teaching Speaking, Second Edition.

Inspiration: Writing “Reflecting With Art Cards: Expressing Thoughts and Feelings”

Language learning always involves fluctuations in learners’ feelings—there are times when things are fun and motivating and there are times when one feels like nothing is moving forward. I always want to remind my students that motivational fluctuation is a normal thing and is part of their process in improving their English. Oftentimes, students lose sight of the big picture, so I set up an activity that helps my students see their learning from a bird’s-eye view. They start asking, “Why am I here? Where am I now? Where do I want to go?” Art cards become the tool to help them self-reflect and to share their voice with peers.

My students really get excited seeing artwork, in locating an art card that best represents themselves, and in finding the language to express their thoughts and feelings. Dialogues emerge from their individual stories and students naturally take part in the newly emerging supportive learning community. The vibrant atmosphere and engagement towards this activity inspired me to share this.

Current Professional Work and/or Projects

I specialize in fostering learner autonomy. I do this with individual learners through one-to-one reflective dialogues in advising sessions, with my students in classes through activities and curriculum, and through learning space designs in self-access learning centers. The common goal is to help learners become autonomous learners, develop lifelong learning habits, and achieve their learning goals in self-fulfilling ways. I’m currently looking into the roles of peers in developing lifelong learning habits. I hold workshops and teacher training programs to share the techniques to carry out such reflective dialogues with their learners. I have been taking leadership roles in JASAL (the Japan Association for Self-Access Learning) for the past 14 years, since its inauguration. Now as its president, I continue to support and provide opportunities for our members to share ideas and develop this growing new field in Japan.

Hisako in class.

Teaching Speaking Tip: For New Teachers

Some students are more shy than others. I find that creating an open and safe classroom community is a very important factor to maximize students’ speaking performance. In my first class, I ask each student to make a promise to oneself that s/he wants to keep for the semester, then declare it to their peers. For example, “I will try to use the words I know rather than immediately looking up words in the dictionary.” By sharing their promises, learners feel committed to enacting them, and it also creates a communal atmosphere.

Teaching Speaking Tip: For Veteran Teachers

I noticed that feeling even a small sense of achievement in their learning process helps students keep motivated. I use the last 5 minutes of class to have my students write down one thing that they want to compliment themselves on for their effort/performance in class that day, and one thing that they want to compliment about their speaking partner, tell their partner, and give them the memo. My tip is to set aside a time, even a little bit of time, for students to engage in self-reflection and let students feel a sense of achievement.

Favorite Blog, Book, App, or Other Resource

I enjoy reading and learning from books/resources on facilitation skills, life coaching, and communication workshops.

Perspective on Teaching Speaking: Changes Over the Years

I started my career as a teacher and then spent 10 years focusing on one-to-one sessions with learners as a full-time learning advisor. The numerous dialogues (now over 4,000 sessions) that I engaged in with learners as a learning advisor taught me the importance of language and dialogues as tools to self-reflect and for them to take more ownership towards their learning. Now I’m back in classrooms (I still do individual sessions) and I noticed that when it comes to sharing their experiences and ideas, even very shy learners engage in speaking activities without worrying about their mistakes or pronunciation. I became more aware and attentive to providing learners with tools and opportunities to express their feelings, thoughts, experiences, and ideas in English.

Free Time

I enjoy jogging and taking a walk in the nature. Visiting my colleagues and friends abroad and my schools in the U.S. always gives me great energy, too!

If you have any comments and/or questions, please share! How do you encourage self-directed learning in your classroom? Have you used art to stimulate discussions?

You can connect with Julie via LinkedIn
You can reach Hisako via LinkedIn or hisakoadvising@gmail.com

Hisako Yamashita is a lecturer at Konan Women’s University in Kobe, Japan. She is the president of Japan Association for Self-Access Learning (JASAL) and is the reviews editor of SiSAL Journal. She specializes in developing autonomous learners and has extensive experience working with language learners in various contexts. She holds workshops and teacher training programs, and has been invited to do workshops and talk in conferences. Her research interests include affordances and reflective dialogues, peer interactions and learner autonomy.

About the Next Blog in This Series

In my next “On Teaching Speaking” blog post, meet contributor Dr. John Schmidt! He works in Austin, Texas, USA as an administrator and instructor at the Texas Intensive English Program (TIEP) of the Texas International Education Consortium (TIEC). Much of his professional service has involved TESOL International Association and TESOL affiliates. He has served on the TESOL Board of Directors and as Convention Program Chair (2014) and Associate Convention Program Chair (2012, 2013, and 2015).

For New Ways in Teaching Speaking, Second Edition, John wrote three activities that are published in three different sections of the book. They are

  • “Presenting Poetry and Prose” in the Suprasegmental Phonemes section
  • “On Your Feet” in the Interviews and Questioning section
  • “Lights, Camera, Action in Autos” in the Developing Fluency and Accuracy Using Technology section

About Julie Vorholt

Julie Vorholt
Julie Vorholt is the editor for New Ways in Teaching Speaking (2nd edition). She has taught ESL and English to learners of all ages and trained language teachers in the USA and internationally for more than 20 years. She has edited and written a variety of pedagogical materials in both print and online formats to support teaching and learning in speaking, listening, and writing. Julie is active in TESOL International Association as a presenter, a past chair of the Materials Writers Interest Section, and a past member of the Awards Committee. She currently teaches ESL in the intensive English program at Lewis & Clark College.
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One Response to
On Teaching Speaking: EL Autonomous Learning With Art

  1. Traci says:

    Where, oh, where does one get such large art cards? I have checked with recent book publishers for sets of pictures to use in my ESL classes to NO avail. I think they are invaluable tools that can be used for so many purposes but I just can’t find any good picture cards.

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