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Why Drawing Belongs in the Adult ESOL Classroom

Using drawing to relax students, create community, and stimulate writing and conversation has transformed Hillary Gardner's adult ESOL classes. See Bill Zimmerman's Out of the Box article, "Developing Language Fluency and Personal Voice through Memory Quilts," Essential Teacher, June 2006, pp. 26-29.

What happens when adult students draw? For one thing, research into multiple intelligences suggests that some students are visual learners rather than linguistic ones. Simply put, some adult learners express themselves more easily in images than in words.

The adult ESOL/civics students I teach are transformed when they draw. Like writing, drawing brings silence and relaxation into a community of people that is usually active and caught up in numerous responsibilities. Drawing also creates an opportunity for artists to emerge. Individual students who draw well are seen in a new light by the class, and their skill at drawing can transform the group as well.

Often when I assign drawing in class, I hand out a sheet of paper especially designed for the task: in the top half is a blank box, and underneath the box, lines for text. The worksheet focuses students' attention, relieves them of the anxiety of filling up a whole page, and sometimes inspires them to write about what they've drawn.


The Happiest Day of My Life                A Hope or Wish for the Future

*Memory quilt panels by Chang Ho Kim. Used with permission.

A Chain of Inspiration

Because each class tends to have its own personality, I don't always know if an assignment will work. I often give options for homework assignments, and I am often surprised to find that the options I think are the least likely to be popular provide the most inspiring results.

A recent class was transformed after creating drawings as part of an assignment on values. As a class project, we looked at the challenging vocabulary needed to express personal values: nouns such as love, respect, loyalty, and spirituality, and related adjectives such as loving, respectful, loyal, and spiritual. We took turns describing ourselves in five words, and for homework I assigned this task as an option: "Create an illustration of one of your values to share with your classmates."

On Monday, Javier returned with a drawing of himself and his classmates talking about values over the phone. Javier's classmates were excited to see his sketches and to learn that he had worked as an artist in his home country. Over the next few days, Liss drew two hands holding a heart, and Mariluz drew a diagram showing her values branching off of a tree. The more students saw each other's drawings, the more inspired they became to try their own. And thus, a conversation about values that could have stopped after only one day carried over several days as the students' knowledge and appreciation of the class community grew.

I have also seen drawings used to stimulate reflection and a sense of community among teachers. In a workshop for teachers, "Using Memories to Encourage Language Fluency" (Zimmerman 2005), the participants each chose a square cardstock panel labeled with a title. Mine was "A Favorite Pet." The facilitator passed out crayons and markers and turned on some classical music. The group of dynamically opinionated teachers became unforgettably quiet and reflective. At the end of the designated drawing period, we hung our drawings at the front of the room and took turns explaining what we had attempted to illustrate.

Preparing to Speak, Preparing to Listen

For ESOL learners, creating a drawing or memory quilt prepares students as much to listen as to speak. For the presenters, drawing the quilt allows them to gather their thoughts and the vocabulary they will need to explain the scene. For the listeners, the drawing is something to focus on as they listen. They can see what the speaker is trying to say, and sometimes what the speaker doesn't say, which leads to fruitful questions and discussion.

Since attending a workshop on "Multiple Intelligences in Adult Education" (Kallenbach 2005), I have included drawing more and more as an option in class. As a project for the last class before Thanksgiving, for example, I passed out a menu of activities for students to choose from called "Celebrate Thanksgiving Your Way." Students could read the news, work on homework, create a dialogue, make a list, write a poem, or draw something related to the holiday. One group of students drew a large poster representing Pilgrims and Native Americans at the first Thanksgiving meal. After class, it hung on our center's front door. All they did was draw, but their community was changed by it.

Drawing in the Classrooom: Resources

Gardner, H. 2003. Drawing to write: A look at our childhood houses. The Change Agent: Adult Education for Social Justice: News, Issues & Ideas 17 (September): 2.

Kallenbach, S., and J. Viens, eds. 2001. Multiple intelligences in practice: Teacher research reports from the adult multiple intelligences study. NCSALL Occasional Paper. Cambridge, MA: National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy. 2002. Open to interpretation: Multiple intelligences theory in adult literacy education. NCSALL Report no. 21. Cambridge, MA: National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy.

TV411. n.d. Learning styles survey.

Viens, J., and S. Kallenbach. 2004. Multiple intelligences and adult literacy: A sourcebook for practioners. New York: Teachers College Press. Zimmerman, B. n.d. Making a paper memory quilt.


Kallenbach, S. 2005. Multiple intelligences in adult education. Workshop, Literacy Assistance Center, New York.

Zimmerman, B. 2005. Using memories to encourage language fluency. Literacy Review workshop in teaching writing to adult basic education, GED, and ESOL students,New York University, New York.

Hillary Gardner ( teaches ESOL and civics for the Center for Immigrant Education and Training at the City University of New York, in the United States.

More Resources: