Using art as a mnemonic tool for language acquisition in the EFL class

Graduate student in the Applied Linguistics and English Language Teaching M.A. programme at ”Alexandru Ioan Cuza” University of Iași (Faculty of Letters);


         The purpose of this paper is to present a new dimension of an art-based approach to be used within the EFL context of language acquisition. Seeing art as a mnemonic tool to facilitate long term consolidation of linguistic content would be the main purpose of employing these techniques in this respect. Moreover, this kind of approach would definitely enrich any educational environment by allowing teachers to contextualize grammatical, functional and vocabulary items and concepts while creating a favourable learning environment that would provide opportunities to lower the affective barriers and maximize the learning potential of the students. Consequently, the learning resources and materials would be much more diversified and delivered in a very appealing way to the students, offering them the chance to become more autonomous in choosing the most suitable ones for their learning styles and preferences.



            Picasso said that “every child is an artist”. Well, who dares to contradict him? But then, is Picasso really right? How many of us have stopped a second to really think about the intrinsic meaning of this quote? If you find yourself in the position of being concerned with child welfare and education, you definitely should care. Taking all this into account, let us place this idea in a daily-based framework of discussion. Perhaps a drop of imagination would consequently be of great help in the process. To begin with, we are all reminded of our school days and perhaps we could all still remember our foreign language classes as well. Maybe the emphasis is not very well placed in this respect, perhaps the simple of fact of remembering or not the school days does not make any clear-cut difference in our case. What counts more instead would be the mood you re-experience while looking back at that period of time. On one hand, if frustration and disappointment are the first feelings that come to mind, then probably the roots of the problem are buried deep in your subconscious and even the slightest attempts to recall that period of time might stir up unpleasant thoughts and emotions. On the other hand, if only positive thought are triggered in this respect, well, that is something that you should always take as a point of reference and relate to it in your future pedagogical experience of any kind. Irrespective of the situation in which you find yourself, do not hesitate to turn that more or less fulfilling experience into a prolific pedagogical experience that you can reconsider each time you are involved in the educational process of either yourselves or other individuals. Considering that in every school in the public system of education English is the first foreign language to be studied, an attempt to sketch the way in which Picasso‟s quote finds an echo or not in what concerns the practice of foreign language teaching in Romania would be our main goal in this paper. To be honest, school has unfortunately gone off track in what concerns fulfilling its true mission in our country. And contrary to what some may claim about an “unidentified body” that tries to manipulate the public opinion and discredit this profession, I myself can testify that this phenomenon has started growing bigger and bigger every day. The main reason for which I am invoking this issue here is that I have been confronted with it both as a student and as a person who prepares to become a teacher. Each time I got to school I felt a thrive for knowledge, which of course is something natural for every human being in the process of growing up and maturing, but at the same time each school day gradually ended with a heavy heart- both as a student and a student teacher since I felt that I had not had enough opportunities to maximize my potential and resources in either situation. Of course, this was not always the case as there were also instances in which I as a learner wished school would mean studying only certain subjects and only with some particular teachers. And these were in the end the memories that made me understand that, for myself, being an educator is in the end not only a job but a vocation and a miracle that teachers are “allowed” to witness every day. Besides, those moments contributed to the consolidation of a strong desire to become one of these role model teachers for my future students by taking after the positive teaching examples that I have enjoyed from both a learner‟s perspective and as an observer of my mentors‟ classes. Coming back to the less positive side of this issue, I would personally say that the main problem then and now in regards to some teaching practices, especially in foreign language teaching, is the lack of passion. Following this course of action, lack of passion develops into lack of interest and lack of initiative. So, that is why I think that as a teacher you no longer pay attention to your students‟ needs but only to your own needs, which would be your monthly payment and ticking off all the aims in your agenda so that you could go home and completely forget your teaching performance from that particular work day. What could be the answer to this problem? Well, I‟m sorry to disappoint but there‟s no universal “medicine” to help a teacher cure the lack of creativity. Still, as there‟s light in the darkness, there are always alternatives to critical moments when you feel like giving up.

What do we mean by art in the context of EFL?

            First and foremost, you should always be aware of and truthfully appreciate the power of surprise. Let your learners surprise you and never stop surprising your own self when it comes to teaching. Taking this into account we might want to know that experts seemed to have discovered the best way in which we can overcome such problems. Their answer might be found in art. And because some want facts, not just words with no substance, just do a Google search and you‟ll be overwhelmed by the benefits that arts can have for learners, no matter their age or the target subject they wish to acquire or study more in-depth. In this respect, a good idea would be to start by defining what we really mean by art in the context of ELT. Even if taking our students to a visit to museum galleries and exhibitions of different kinds would be a very pleasant and enriching experience for them, we must all be aware of the fact that this would be almost impossible from both an administrative and a subject-related perspective. Furthermore, doing this would be far away from providing our students with the linguistic input that they would need to improve their skills. To put it another way, we would not consider anymore the linguistic goals that we are supposed to achieve during a language class, which would finally result into useless efforts and wasted time invested in such an initiative.

Furthermore, after some continuous years of research and study cases on different learning groups, specialists have discovered that visual arts in particular can have a major impact on the language learning process. And the most obvious example in this direction is the way in which young children can memorize large amounts of linguistic information just by being exposed to visual input that is delivered unmediated in the target language to be acquired (e.g. picture cards, different sorts of realia, short animated movies etc.). And since the issue of memory has been raised, the simplest explanation to support the benefits of visual arts within the EFL context is the mechanism involved in the so-called „photographic memory‟. Speaking about this, we should not omit the fact that scientists have also proved that most of the processes involved in the photographic memory are primarily based on the discovery of the „Picture Superiority Effect‟.

How does this work? When we read a text or listen to an audio version of it, we are likely to remember only 10% of the information three days later. If the information, however, is presented as text combined with relevant images, we are likely to remember 65% of the information even three days later! That basically happens because it seems that the brain has the ability to process images more quickly than verbal or written information (approx. 60,000 times). That is why, when a teacher explains a complex concept, students are more likely to remember it a day or two later if the teacher also shows diagrams on the board ( I mean, just think about the impact that visuals have on social media nowadays! They do make a difference depending on how we choose them!

The main benefits of an art-based approach in the context of EFL

            Now, coming back to the most important benefits that arts can bring to the EFL class but not only, we should first specify the fact that they can contribute to the overall development process of children and teenagers from both a cognitive and an emotional perspective. Even if most of us tend to associate arts with the emotional side of our brain and to the functions which are primarily embedded and accomplished within the right hemisphere, researchers have proved quite the contrary.

Resorting to art in learning processes of any kind surprisingly involves a wide range of processes that employ both hemispheres of the brain. Just to mention some of the many cognitive skills for the EFL class: first, the possibility it gives students to foster critical thinking, problem solving and developing multiple intelligences and a mixture of various learning styles. In addition, we should not forget how useful art can be in lowering the affective filter that some students might raise up during our classes based on several causes such as lack of selfconfidence, lack of motivation, conflictive or deficient relationships with peers or teachers, and so on and so forth. Coming to think about this, arts do not only help students consolidate their self-esteem but also teach them how to work cooperatively and be autonomous in their learning attempts without needing permanent interference from the teacher side anymore. Students are then encouraged to take initiative in discovering their own potential of interacting with others 1 Graduate student in the Applied Linguistics and English Language Teaching M.A. programme at ”Alexandru Ioan Cuza” University of Iași (Faculty of Letters); 6 and communicating ideas without asking anymore for constant support and directives from the teacher. Moreover, learners start to create boundaries between prior knowledge and new information while analysing and reflecting about art-based tasks that involve all sorts of linguistic devices and communicative tools.

Using art as a mnemonic tool for boosting language acquisition in the context of EFL

            Taking a step further, we can very well ask ourselves how we are supposed to organise art-based activities in the EFL class. The best solution to this dilemma is to present materials in the most synthetic, structured, and also appealing way possible. Just let us think about the language acquisition process as a kind of “sorcery” act. It is not like we can ever be able to pour out the linguistic input into our students‟ brains and make it last there for as long as possible. The most efficient way to “plant” knowledge into our students‟ memory is resorting to the natural inborn capacity of the brain to filter information and store it in an associative and logically structured way. How can we do this? Well, we neither need to search for it too far, nor need to invent new methods in this respect. The most efficient memorization techniques do exist since ancient times. Since the Greek philosophers‟ age, to be more precise. Perhaps most of us still wonder how they were able to memorize such large amounts of information and deliver flawless discourses in public agoras. Do not ask yourself anymore. The secret was revealed a long time ago even if not everybody is aware of it. The key was in the art of mnemonics.

            And what can mnemonics possibly be? Simply think about the way in which you managed to learn the colours of the rainbow while using the acronym ROGVAIV in Romanian or ROY G BIV in English. Not yet convinced? Then perhaps almost most of us have laid hands at least once on one of Lewis Carroll‟s books. He is probably the most famous author of acrostic poems from in the entire world literature! Just give it a try and definitely you and your students will never regret reading them!

            Alongside this, spidergrams or vocabulary maps are some other techniques which are more or less familiar to both learners and teachers. Therefore, do not hesitate to use them as often as necessary and as often as requested by the linguistic content you are supposed to deliver in your classes.

            Last but not least, perhaps the most famous classical mnemonic technique is known as the “Loci et Res Method”. As explained in detail in the story of Simonides from Cicero‟s de Oratore, we find that this method combines a familiar structure (locus) and the item or thing to be remembered (res). To be more exact, the learner who would like to resort to this technique is supposed to visualize a room or a familiar path through a building and then he/she should mentally associate facts or information with specific locations or objects within that particular building or along the path that he/she chooses.

            Finally, we should not forget about visualization as a technique that allows students and teachers to trespass linguistic barriers and complement the classroom context with a simulating environment to better picture the realities of daily life in a very illustrative and impactful way for the students. The most important thing however in this case is not to evaluate students‟ creativity potential and establish standards of comparison and labeling. Similarly, do not try to restrain the imagination of the learners by very rigid, adult-like standards. Hence, give your students enough space to get out of their comfort zone of thinking and reflection, but at the same time fix some guiding points for them to follow so that the course of the lesson would not be taken to an unwanted or useless direction.


            To conclude, art can definitely make a big difference in the EFL context as a boosting tool for language acquisition as it offers more than temporary solutions to the understanding of learning dynamics and classroom management issues. That is basically possible because it provides learners with essential tools and skills which are necessary to develop long term competencies – both as language students and further adults – that are required in a multi-tasking and demanding society.

            To end up with, there are two more key aspects to bear in mind if we wish to maximize art‟s benefits. On one hand, we should set very clear objectives to the tasks that we initiate in this kind of approach and, on the other hand, perhaps as important as the previous condition would be to never attempt to judge students‟ artistic products and artistic expressions based on professional standards or compare their results with peers. Other than that, if you respect these two simple criteria, there‟s nothing to be afraid of in experimenting and introducing this method in your daily teaching routine since we should be primarily aware that what matters most for students is to perceive learning as a pleasant experience and to benefit from a wide range of tools that help them store the knowledge they acquire for as long as possible. Therefore, if you are prepared to experience this approach be ready to forget about quantity and rather focus on the quality of the content you deliver in your classes. Let the power of art work do some magic in your teaching practice as well!


1. Ivana Žemberová, Art in Foreign Language Education.
2. Jamie Keddie, Using art in the classroom.

1. Merryl Goldberg, Teaching English Language Learners Through the Arts, 2004, Pearson Education, California State University, San Marcos.


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