The Visual Arts and Visual Literacy in Language Education: An Interactive Project

By Dr. Monica Mulholland, Ph.D. and Dr. Andrea Todd

The Visual Arts have unlimited advantages to offer the field of language education. They are a source of inspiration; they motivate learners to express themselves in writing and orally on a variety of topics; they promote critical thinking; and they connect cultures that might otherwise seem distant. In real life, art is often a catalyst for oral communication; therefore, it lends itself seamlessly to the communicative second language classroom. Visual Literacy denotes “[t]he ability to interpret, use, appreciate, and create images and video using both conventional and 21st century media in ways that advance understanding, thinking, decision making, communication, and learning” (Hattwig et al., 2011) An effective and engaging way in which these parallel areas, visual literacy and language education, can enrich each other is by the creation of VoiceThread projects using the FTC Palette approach (Sandell, 2010).

Visual Literacy in the language classroom allows students to transcend language differences: art “speaks” to everyone without words. It allows students to highlight their cultures and their individual personalities via their artistic perspectives. Visual Literacy provides fodder for discussion by making a piece of art “your own” or by finding your own meaning in the details. “Like French or Spanish, Art is a language that can be learned and understood. Like English, Art has an established vocabulary and grammar: the elements and principles of design” (Goldonowicz, 1985, p. 17).

The concept of the FTC Palette was created by Dr. Renee Sandell to serve as a framework for Visual Literacy. As a starting point for Visual Literacy, “FTC is a balanced approach to exploring the form + theme + context of an artwork” (Sandell, n.d.) that reveals layers of meaning. The formal component consists of the composition, elements, and design principles of the piece of art. The thematic component refers to the broad subject, subject matter, and perspective (of the artist and, later, of the observer). The contextual component explores when, where, and by or for whom the piece of art was created. Understanding the FTC elements of a piece of art serves as a jumping-off point for the student as art aficionado.

The FTC approach was used in a speaking project carried out by advanced ESL students at the Virginia Tech Language and Culture Institute in the National Capital Region. This project is the culminating activity of a series of tasks created with the “backward design” approach in mind. Backward design is a method of designing educational curriculum by setting goals before choosing instructional strategies and forms of assessment (Wiggins & McTighe). In this unit, the overarching goal is an oral presentation on Art, which was recorded by the students using VoiceThread.

VoiceThread ( is a web-based learning tool that can be used effectively to enhance student participation and collaboration in an asynchronous mode, and it is very easy to use. VoiceThread allows participants to have online conversations and to make comments using any mix of text, a microphone, a web cam, a telephone, or an uploaded audio file.

Project Title: The Powerful Language of Art

Goals: Through this project, the students will

  • reflect on their own thoughts and emotions about art,
  • use the target language orally in real-life contexts,
  • display instances of creative expression and critical thinking,
  • gain confidence in speaking in front of a camera, and
  • share their thoughts and emotions with listeners/viewers beyond the classroom walls.

 Level: High Intermediate/Advanced

Materials: the digital image of a work of art that is meaningful to the student (it does not need to be by a well-known artist); a computer lab or students’ laptop computers; internet connection; VoiceThread user name and password.

Time: 50 minutes


  1. Instructor shares a grading rubric with the class to raise awareness on how the project will be graded.
  2. Instructor offers students a VoiceThread tutorial by accessing this link:
  3. Students search online in the computer lab or on their own for a picture (painting or photograph) they would like to talk about during an oral activity which they will record on VoiceThread.
  4. Students upload their picture on VoiceThread following the steps in the tutorial.
  5. Students write six or seven sentences about their picture.
  6. Students read the sentences several times, and then put them out of sight to encourage spontaneous speech as opposed to reading when recording themselves.
  7. Students record their VoiceThread message on their laptops, their cell phones or in the lab.

The VTLCI project is available at:


Following the FTC Palette, students were asked to explore:


  • All types of images: Oil paintings by well-known artists, finger painting, charcoal, murals, and photographs
  • Portraits, landscapes, family scenes, and urban subjects


  • Identity/Character/Personality
  • Feelings/Emotions/Psychology/Blindness/ Optimism
  • Reflections on creativity and the creative process
  • Family
  • Compassion
  • Nature
  • Racism through conceptual art


  • Europe, The United States, Latin America, The Middle East
  • 1800’s-1900’s
  • Contemporary

Student Feedback

Throughout this project, the feedback from students was consistently positive. Students were enthusiastic about viewing each other’s choices of artwork and listening about the stories behind the pictures. They were excited to provide commentary on VoiceThread, and to listen to their classmates’ responses.

These statements depict the participants’ feelings towards the project:

  • This project was useful because we should know about art, and it also helped us learn new vocabulary.
  • There was a lot of participation on VoiceThread!
  • There was an opportunity to repeat the recording. Intonation was a challenge for me.
  • I feel more comfortable on presentations online than face-to-face.
  • You are alone when you record, so you don’t feel nervous.
  • It gave me the opportunity to understand what art is.
  • I completely liked the project. I like all forms of art, and the project made me think what to share with the class.
  • I enjoyed the project because it was different from our usual topics, and change is nice.
  • This activity is unique. I loved it!
  • I like both face-to-face and online presentations, but the online one was new to me, so I really enjoyed it.
  • The advantage is that we save time in class that we can use for other things.
  • It was exciting to share a work of art I chose!


Integrating the visual arts and visual literacy with language education is an effective approach to second language teaching and learning that allows both teachers and students to go beyond language to reach the human being as represented by the artist, the subject, and the audience. Furthermore, students use language with a real communicative purpose, to explore both the interpersonal and intrapersonal aspects of their intelligence. Through projects like the one presented here, students learn that art is a language, too, and, as such, it helps them reflect and grow not only as learners but also as creative and compassionate individuals. The educator and the student can thus share their culture or cultures in a meaningful and engaging context, and interact with each other at a deeper level.


Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

Goldonowicz, J. (1985). Art and other subjects. Art Education, 38(6), 17.

Hattwig, Denise, Kaila Bussert, Ann Medaille, and Joanna Burgess. “Visual Literacy Standards in Higher Education: New Opportunities for Libraries and Student Learning.” Association of College & Research Libraries (2011): n. pag. Web. 19 Feb. 2017.

Sandell, R. (2009). Using Form+Theme+Context (FTC) for rebalancing 21st-century art education. Studies in Art Education, 50(3), 287-299.

Sandell, R. (n.d.) Form+Theme+Context (FTC)TM. Retrieved from

Texas A&M (n.d.) Visual definitions. Retrieved from techtools/valgebra/resources/definitions.html

Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (1998; 2005). Understanding by design (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

 Sample images used on this project

pic-1  New Yorker by Lucian Freud, 2006

Pic 2.png Science and Charity by Pablo Picasso, 1897

Pic 3.png  Artist: Student’s sister (undisclosed name)

pic-4 King Abdullah Mural by Ahmad Zuhair, 2015

About the authors:


Dr. Monica Mulholland received her B.A. in TESOL from the Instituto Superior del Profesorado Joaquín V. González, Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1988. She holds a Ph.D. in Spanish Literature from the Catholic University of America (2013). She also earned a Master’s degree in Foreign Languages and a Graduate Certificate in TESOL from George Mason University in Virginia (2006 & 2016). Currently, she serves as an ESL instructor at the Virginia Tech Language and Culture Institute in Washington D.C.  Additionally, Dr. Mulholland is a free-lance educational consultant on topics such as Creativity, Brain-Based Education, and Educational Mindfulness both in English and in Spanish. She can be reached at


Dr. Andrea Todd holds an EdD in Higher Education from George Washington (GW) University in Washington, DC, and an Master’s degree in English Linguistics from George Mason University. She currently serves as Director of Northern Virginia Operations for Virginia Tech Language and Culture Institute (VTLCI). In prior positions, she served as Director of Graduate Affairs and as Program Manager of GW’s Higher Education Administration Doctoral Program. You can reach Dr. Todd at More information:

Note: This article was previously published in the VATESOL (Volume 19, Issue 1, March 2016), and the WATESOL (Winter 2017 Edition) Newsletters.