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What a tangled web we should weave:
Teaching English, promoting critical awareness and using art in EFL classes
by Alexandre Dias Pinto
& Carlota Miranda Dias Pinto
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III. Methodology

In order to achieve the aims and goals that we defined in the previous section, we have to bring to EFL classes didactic contents (historical, cultural and social contents) and didactic material (reproductions of paintings, art photos and sculptures) that are not usually explored there. Thus, we propose an approach in which art plays an important role in the language learning process, in the expansion of the student's cultural, social and historical knowledge and in the development of his critical consciousness. At this stage, we feel that we need to repeat that learning English is, of these three aims, the one that is central in EFL classes, whereas the other two can be introduced in a natural way; still, we think that they should not be underestimated. We do not claim that the use of art in EFL classes is originally our idea. Interesting suggestions and examples may be found in several textbooks and essays - cf. Cranmer, 1995; Collie and Ladousse, 1991; McRae and Pantaleoni, 1992; Paula, Sousa and Lourinho, 1995.

We believe that task-based learning (cf. Nunan, 1989; Skehan, 1996), as a learner-centred methodology, emerges as the one that is best suited to achieve such aims. Students are expected to play an active role in the process and are encouraged to explore and to find the solutions to the problems (linguistic or social problems) that they are faced with. Furthermore, the concept of task brings the sense of purpose to the activities performed by students: producing a poster or a leaflet, writing a letter, etc. - for instance, a task may consist of writing a letter to UNICEF, reporting the existence of famine in a specific region of the planet and asking this organisation to take measures in order to solve the problem.

Thus, it is our belief that it is possible to articulate social and cultural contents and art materials with the methodology of task-based learning. This combination has been put into practice by us and by other Portuguese colleagues and the result has been successful. It has also proved to be very satisfactory in motivating students.

One of the difficulties that teachers have been trying to tackle for the past decades is motivation. Each one of us (teachers) has searched the best strategies and activities to captivate the interest of our students. Several authors of EFL textbooks think that they are able to motivate students by using certain didactic material, which in fact will not fulfil the purpose of motivating the whole class: photos of (outdated) pop singers, biographies of famous actors, artificial dialogues between teenagers, unappealing cartoons are bonfires that extinguish rather quickly, do not capture the interest of the average student and are not educative aids in the students' learning process.

On the other hand, our experience - along with the experience of several EFL teacher trainers and teachers trained at the University of Lisbon and at the (Portuguese) Open University - tells us that literary texts and reproductions of works of art may be used in EFL classes in order to achieve the pedagogical and didactic aims stated above. Art - taken in the broad sense - is a fertile land in which we may find motivating and educational teaching materials that can be integrated and explored in activities of EFL classes. In other words, it is possible and advisable to use poems, excerpts from novels or short stories, reproductions of paintings, art photos of sculptures, musical pieces (etc.) to teach English. Of course the teacher has to be very selective when he is choosing the appropriate materials, which have to be appealing, intriguing and thought-provoking in order to challenge the student to respond to them: to analyse them, say what they think about them or to establish associations between them and the world which we live in. On the other hand, such materials must be adequate to the level of the students in question. Experience has taught us that a painting such as Salvador Dalí's The Persistence of Memory (, with its mysterious, enigmatic and even bizarre features, is more challenging and thought-provoking than any photo of a mall, which we find in magazines or in advertisement. Furthermore, the former certainly has a wider educational value than the latter. It is also expected that the work of art is able to educate the aesthetic dimension of the students' personality.

At this stage, we feel that it will be useful to advance a handful of practical suggestions of the approach that we have been describing. As we stated before, literary texts, musical pieces, paintings, sculptures and art photos may (and should) be explored at different moments of English classes and may serve various purposes. Carefully selected poems and excerpts from fiction and drama could be more often used in reading-comprehension activities, for they explore a wider range of language usages and meanings. Musical pieces could be used in lead-in activities in order to introduce the theme of the learning sequence or as a prompt to a writing activity. Finally, reproductions of paintings, of sculptures and photos may play a central role in a pre-reading activity, in the less-controlled practice of a grammar structure, in a problem-solving activity, or as a prompt to write a narrative or a descriptive text.
Let us be more specific about our suggestions. At the beginning of a class, as a lead-in or as a pre-reading activity, a painting may be used to introduce the theme (or topic area) of the learning sequence as well as some of the vocabulary related to it. Picasso's Guernica or Goya's The Shootings of the Third of May, 1808 ( are appealing starting points to introduce vocabulary related to war and to reflect on the suffering caused by war. Likewise, Van Gogh's The Potato-Eaters ( provides a good trigger for a brainstorm activity about poverty and its causes. Finally, Henri Rousseau's paintings, The Dream (, portraying places with lavish, colourful vegetation, together with Adrian Henri's short poem "Salad Poem (about H. Rousseau's Le Douanier)", might lead to an interesting class discussion about the environmental problems of the present days.

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