How to teach English through arts and crafts

How to Teach English Through Arts and Crafts Featured image

In the preschool and primary classroom, arts and crafts are going to be involved to a greater or lesser degree. But we’re language teachers, right? What place do these activities have in our classrooms? Are they just a chance for the teacher to have a break from ‘real’ teaching? In this post, I’ll discuss why, in my view, not only do they have a place, they are also an essential tool to help kids acquire and learn English in a more effective way. We’ll also look at some practical ideas for how to teach English through craft, focusing on pre, during and post craft procedures and the different classroom dynamics we can use.

What do we mean by 'arts and crafts'?

I take quite a broad definition. I consider it to be any structured activity that involves using the hands and other tools to create an end product. This basically means that there are steps the child has to go through. They need to use their hands to follow the steps, they’ll use tools (such as crayons or glue), and they’ll have something to show for their efforts.

So, in this way, even simple colouring or cutting and pasting activities are considered to be crafts in my classroom. While many people will think of more elaborate constructions as ‘real crafts’, as an English teacher, I tend to reserve those for special occasions such as Halloween, the end of term, or as part of an extended project. It’s not that I don’t think these more elaborate crafts are valuable. I do! But in my classes, I usually plan my daily crafts to consolidate specific language points – what I call ‘English through Craft’. With more time-consuming, elaborate crafts, my language aims are based more on classroom language and opportunities to explore unplanned language that comes up in conversation with the kids – what I call ‘Craft through English’.

What are the benefits of doing arts and crafts?

General benefits of art and craft activities

Research into child development shows that children benefit in a number of ways from doing arts and crafts. Below are some of the main ones:

  • bilateral coordination – Kids need to develop the ability to use both sides of their body to coordinate movements in an organised and controlled manner.
  • fine motor coordination – Kids need to be able to use the small muscles of their body, especially their hands, in order to perform more delicate tasks. Using scissors, gripping crayons to colour, staying within the lines, and holding a piece of paper to glue in place are examples of tasks that require fine motor skills.
  • self-regulation – Kids need to develop the ability to manage their emotions and behaviour when faced with a difficult task. While doing crafts, they will have to be able to wait their turn, cope with things not going how they wanted, be willing to share, and resist impulsive behaviour.
  • social skills – While doing arts and crafts, kids will usually need to work with others, even if it’s only you they’re working with. They develop the skills they need to treat others with respect and kindness. They might need to share materials, comment on each others’ work, help each other with activities, wait their turn patiently, etc.
  • creativity and imagination – Doing arts and crafts gives children the space to use their creativity and express themselves. This may simply manifest itself in their choice of colour or where they choose to stick an object. We’re not talking about the ability to create a masterpiece!
  • motivation – Most kids enjoy doing arts and crafts and it’s often the part of the lesson they most look forward to. Being engaged in doing something they enjoy creates favourable conditions for language acquisition.

Language learning benefits of arts and craft activities

Ok, but surely they can develop those skills in the rest of their lives, right? Why should we worry about them in the language classroom?! In my experience, crafts are really useful to teach English. These are some of the benefits I believe craft provides for language teachers and their students:

  • It caters to mixed levels and ages – Every child can participate according to their own ability without having to keep up with the rest (all of our Kids Club English crafts have differentiated variations too, so it’s easy to add another level of challenge for more able kids).
  • It provides a visual representation of learning – It’s really motivating for kids to be able to physically see what they have learned. It also provides a memory hook to the topic or story.
  • It allows you to recycle language – Kids will enjoy coming back to their crafts for recycling language and games. Much more exciting than using impersonal materials! You can obviously recycle language when you make the crafts themselves and they can essentially create a portfolio of language they have learned for you to review at a later point.
  • The children can practise request, suggestion, opinion and praise language – While making the craft, they can ask for the things they need. You can also provide exposure to suggestion, opinion and praise language. They can even start to use it to talk about each others’ work.
  • You can consolidate the target language – The crafts I use often provide more opportunities for the children to hear and use the phrases and vocabulary they’ve heard in a story or classroom games.
  • Crafts provide opportunities for individual language production – Often when teaching a group, it can be difficult to have one-on-one time with each student. Craft allows you to interact with each individual and give them more opportunities to use English.
  • The learners can ‘re-live’ language they’ve been exposed to – If you build in quiet moments for kids to work on their arts and crafts, there might be moments when the kids have an ‘ear-worm’ of sorts. For example, if you’ve recently told a story or sung a song, the child might be replaying parts of what they’ve heard in their minds. Of course, you can always encourage a more conscious version of this by prompting them with a song or repeated phrases in a story or chant.
  • Crafts provide opportunities for interaction and communication with families – Children will usually be keen to show their families what they have produced. This can obviously help keep the parents informed about the kind of language their child has been working on. You can take this further by telling the families about games or activities they can do with their child and their craft. I usually send a message or email to families when the children go home with their crafts. All of this helps bring English outside the classroom and creates further opportunities for language learning.

Pre-craft activities

Here are our top tips for what to do before you start the craft itself:

  • Be prepared – Have all your materials laid out and to hand. Make sure you have enough crayons, glue, scissors etc. If you can’t find things easily, so children don’t have to wait too long, they’ll get restless and switch off.
  • Create suspense –  Reveal your model of the craft in a dramatic way. This can simply mean looking inside your folder so you see it before the children do and using facial expression to appear really excited. You can reveal the craft bit by bit, and have the children guess what it is – like you do with flashcards. You could put it in a special place, like a brightly coloured mystery box. It doesn’t have to be fancy but the more engaging you make it, the more engaged the kids will be.
  • Have a model of the craft – It’s important for the children to see what they are going to create. This provides motivation and also helps you review language before they start. You’d be surprised at how many kids are interested to know who made the craft. When I tell them it was me, they’re very impressed and they are excited to make their own.
  • Focus attention on target language using your model – If possible, use structures and phrases you want the children to acquire as you do this.
  • Play games with the craft templates before you start the construction phase – You could do this as a simple ‘Listen and point’ activity (like in many coursebooks). It helps to have cues to keep the children engaged. Try doing a simple chant like ‘I can see’ or ‘what is it?’ 3 times before revealing the item to point to. You could also cue them with ‘fingers up’ or by singing the ‘one little finger’ song.

During craft activities

This is an area that I’ve given a lot of thought to over the years. When I first started out teaching young learners, it seemed like this was the stage of the lesson where the teacher took a back seat and the kids got on with it. I used to feel really guilty and wondered if it was just a waste of time, especially if the kids only had one to two hours of English a week. So, I started to think more about the purposes of this part of the lesson. Yes, it’s true that including the arts and crafts was valuable for most of the reasons given at the beginning of this post. However, I really wasn’t taking enough advantage of opportunities to recycle and consolidate target language or to practise functional language such as making requests and expressing opinions.

Below are some of the activities and techniques I started incorporating into the craft stage of my lessons. Now I consider this part of my lessons to be one of the most effective for language learning. 

Interaction management techniques

Create a need for request language – rather than giving the kids everything they need, create a gap (a need for them to communicate). You can keep crayons and other craft elements in a different area of the room or you can keep them yourself. They have to ask you for the items they need. Incorporate the vocabulary you want them to learn into this stage. For example, if they are completing a craft that requires them to glue pictures of target language items onto a scene or into a mini-book, get them to ask you for each item as they need it. If they are still unable to produce the language, you have the chance to tell them what it is again.

Give responsibility to the students – Once they are used to the idea of requesting the things they need, you can make different students the monitors for those items. This doesn’t just have to be the scissors monitor or the glue monitor. You could give each student a different part of the craft representing the target language. For example, if they are creating our daily routines board game, one student could have ‘brush my teeth’, another ‘go to school’, another ‘play with friends’ etc. In this way, the students are empowered to teach each other the language.

Include dialogue or roleplay – If you have been working on a dialogue in class, is there a way to incorporate that into the craft stage? For example, after reading Walking Through the Jungle with a group of 4 year olds, we completed a find and stick jungle scene craft. Together we repeated the chant from the book which finishes with them asking what the animal is. After revealing the animal (again using the story language), they went to search for the animal in a pile of cut-ups I’d placed on an empty table.

Another group of learners had been working on how to order in a restaurant. The craft was to make a menu by matching and sticking cut-up pictures of the food to the written words of the dishes. In order to do this, my students worked in pairs with one student being the waiter and the other the customer. The waiter collected the ‘food’ and ‘served’ it to their customer then they changed roles.

Add in a game element – You could have students play in pairs or groups with games they are familiar with.  For example, each group could have a set of mini-cards or flashcards of the target vocabulary. They could play guessing games with mime, spelling or other flashcard games. Once the group has guessed it, everyone in the group can complete that part of their craft. This would probably be too complicated for preschool children, but primary kids can give it a go!

Dictation – We’re all familiar with this one but it doesn’t have to be boring and it can certainly provide useful exposure to a lot more language than simple vocabulary items. It doesn’t always have to be teacher centred either. The kids can take control too. You might have to do a bit of supportive whispering though!

See below for variations on different dictation techniques.

Dictation techniques

  • Giving instructions – Point to the ___; Colour the ___; Find the ___; Touch the ___
  • Asking questions – Where’s the ___? Can you find the ___? Have you got a ___? Do you have a ___?
  • Making statements – I can see a ___; I’ve got a ___; There’s a ___;
  • Describing the item – It’s got 4 legs; It’s got sharp teeth; It lives in the jungle; It eats meat; It’s a carnivore; It’s green etc.
  • Recycling story / song language – Incorporate useful phrases from the story or song the craft is based on. Even if the craft is independent of a story or song, you can take the opportunity to recycle a song you are learning. Some examples are: ‘There was an old lady who swallowed a ___. I don’t know why she swallowed a ___’; ‘Walking through the jungle, what do you see? Can you hear a noise? What could it be? I think it is a ___’; ‘Help! Help! Who can help? A ___ goes to the duck’; ‘No, no, no! That’s not my mum. That’s a ___’
  • Retell the story – If the craft is based on a story, re-tell it and pause at key points for the children to colour / stick or collect each target item.
  • Playing ‘I spy’ – e.g. ‘I spy with my little eye, something with (wings)’.

Considering dynamics

With young learners it’s important to consider and plan the dynamics of the craft too. Think about the rest of your lesson and how the craft part fits into it. Young children can’t sit still for long periods, so is it time to let them move around a bit? Do you want to incorporate more individual interaction this time? Are the children ready to practise using the language as well as understanding it, or do they need to focus more on receptive knowledge of the language at this point? Children work at different paces too. Do you want to conduct the craft so that different children can go at their own pace or do you want them to complete the craft in lock-step? What possibilities does the craft itself offer in terms of dynamics?

Having considered all the techniques above, you might, however, decide to give the children free reign to complete their craft as they wish while you circulate and ask questions and make comments. This approach has its place too! My advice would be to avoid asking too many test questions, such as, “What is this in English?” Try to be specific and descriptive in your comments, rather than offering  generic praise statements. Rather than ‘That’s good’, try ‘I like how the bird is swimming. That’s funny!’ or ‘I like the blue fish’ or ‘You’ve coloured very carefully’. The children won’t understand every word but, combined with your body language and the individual interaction with gestures, they’ll get it. If it means something to them, they might pick up on some of the language you use too.

Post craft activities

I believe every craft serves as a useful visual record of a child’s learning that can help parents bring the language outside the classroom. Apart from this, there are several extension activities you can do in the class itself. What you do with the craft after the children have completed it is very dependent on the craft itself. Below are a few ideas according to different craft types.

Spinners / board games

Play the game / spin the spinner and…

  • Say the name the item, e.g., ‘It’s a frog’.
  • Say the action it does (if appropriate), e.g, ‘It swims, hops, flies’ etc.
  • Do an action for the item (if appropriate)
  • Make a sentence with the item, e.g., ‘I don’t like snakes’; ‘A frog can hop’; ‘A duck says ‘quack’!’
  • Write the name of the item.
  • Run and touch a corresponding flashcard stuck to the walls or board.
  • Predict the item then spin/roll the dice to try and land on the item, e.g., ‘I want / I’d like the frog’, ‘Oh no! It’s a lizard’, ‘Yes! I got it!’

You could make any of the above activities competitive if you wish by having the children keep score of points for good sentences etc.

Colouring pages / Find and stick scenes / cards

  • Find the differences and similarities between their pictures, e.g., ‘My frog’s in the river and Maria’s is next to the elephant’.
  • Listen and act, e.g., ‘Stand up if you have a pink monster’; ‘Turn around if you have 4 eyes’ etc.
  • Guessing games. Children can play whole class or in pairs or groups. One child chooses an item on their picture. Their partner has to guess what the item is.

Stick puppets / Finger puppets / Masks / Headbands / Marionettes

  • Act out a story or song. Use flashcards or mini-cards to complement the activity. For example, if you had read the Monkey Puzzle story together and made monkey or butterfly puppets, you could stick up flashcards of the other animals around the room and re-enact the story together by visiting each one.
  • Adapt or invent a new story or song verse.
  • Mini-dialogues. Demonstrate a dialogue you would like the children to act out then let them play with their puppets. Practise exchanging greetings and basic information, discover the puppet’s favourite things and likes / dislikes, find out if it can jump, swim, sing etc.
  • Create a display. Make a display in the classroom and use it in future classes to revise target language.
  • Use them in classroom games. Can they make their puppets play Simon says?
  • Dance with them. Put a twist on songs you like to do in class by doing it with the puppets or wearing masks instead.

Other craft types that you could use some of the above ideas with are:

  • Dominoes
  • Jigsaws
  • Fortune Tellers
  • Vocabulary fans
  • Display murals
  • Graphing dice and sheets
  • Mini-books
  • Bingo
  • Flipbooks
  • Pop-up scenes
  • Storyboards
  • Sequencing cut and paste sheets

Final thoughts

Arts and crafts activities do require a bit of preparation but it doesn’t have to be a lot. There are lots of simple paper-based crafts out there that your kids will love doing. Not only will they enjoy the experience, they can potentially learn a lot of language from it.

From my experience, it’s all about how you conduct the activity. Hopefully the ideas in this post, have given you a bit of inspiration for how you can exploit arts and crafts to teach English.

You also might like to take a look at our Resources page or check out our Pinterest page for more inspiration.

I’d love to hear any other ideas you have too! Leave your comments below.

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