Blending Art & Storytelling in The Teaching of English

Learning a language is a long term process and this is fine, provided the lesson offers rich content. Teaching language for the sake of language, simply leaves a lot to be desired, because the curiosity, creativity and expressive needs of teachers and students are not met. We can enrich our teaching content with the help of CLIL, Story, Project or Inquiry based learning approaches. It is as simple as that. In her book “English through Art”, Hania Bociek writes: “Art provides a wonderful springboard for language learners to express their ideas, reactions and emotions in the foreign language classroom”.

This four-part series of articles showcases how to integrate the telling of stories of paintings in our language teaching.  Article 1 was on reading the language and the telltale signs of a painting while article 2 told the story of an artist through one of his paintings.  This article tells the story of a baroque painting with a historical edge attached to it. Article 4 will compare and contrast paintings which speak different languages and the focus will be on how artists express aesthetics differently.


By Zafi Mandali*

Storytelling during lockdown

Exposing our students to art through English is certainly not a new idea.  Bringing art, history and storytelling in our class improves students’ linguistic, cultural, historical and social awareness. A painting speaks to our senses, mind and emotions through the imaginary narrative it arouses in our brains.  With this in mind, and the fact that nowadays technology opens the virtual doors of museums and galleries at the click of a button, it is advisable to enrich our teaching content with art stimuli.  And this is what we did when the lock down forced us to practice story telling from a distance. We adjusted our methods and implemented the “Out of Art and Into Storytelling” project.  This project brought together Art, English, History, Geography, Culture and Politics. Our project incorporated many of the Visual Thinking Strategies advocated by Abigail Housen and Philip Yenawine and our students were helped to develop their visual literacy skills and find meaning in imagery.


How to start telling the stories of paintings at B2 level


Undoubtedly, it takes a lot of talent, skill and imagination to create a beautiful piece of art. Equally, it takes great skill to talk about a painting or art in general, when you are a student learning a second language. If, however scaffolding is provided, things get easier. When students are initiated to art, they feel that art is good for their heart, mind, mood, critical thinking and English.


I usually get students in a circular sitting arrangement to engage them in an exchange of opinions on what they perceive art to be. They agree that art is a painting, a sculpture, an artefact or construction through which an artist expresses a notion. The discussion then moves to the materials that can be used to create art. Brainstorming follows and oil, water, acrylic, ink, sand, glass, spray, graffiti, collage or even digital paintings are mentioned. 


Once the teacher has drawn students’ attention to the different materials or media that an artist can use, the focus goes to “the Subject’ (characters, scenes, buildings, objects, feelings or the topic the painting explores) and the “the art language” it uses.  Students need serious help with art vocabulary and terms to help them describe, interpret, and decipher what they see in the painting they are describing. In my school, we produced the “Art Glossary” and adapted it to different levels. This leaflet helped language learning and facilitated the next phase which was to model talking on pre-selected paintings.


 The next question thrown in the discussion was “What does it take to talk about art”? We agreed that one needs to do some guesswork, experimentation and reasoning to grasp the theme. It is easier to devise one’s own story of a painting, if one notices details, uses interpretation skills and understands the artist’s ways of explaining the world. Students had worked with the “what”, ‘who”, “when”, “where”, “why”, and “how” questions in their storytelling preparation in the previous years. Now we needed to teach them to observe pieces of art, recurrent motifs and patterns, to notice colors and aspects of the art language used. For the production phase, students had to do their own research, pinpoint the historical elements of paintings and use ambitious English to pass their findings on to the rest of the class. 

Step 1. Introducing the project

The painting used was “Queen Zenobia, addressing her soldiers”.  The teacher gives the name of the Venetian artist, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, and the title of the artwork. Of course, the students knew nothing of the artist or queen Zenobia.  In class, the painting was presented in a power point or in a print-out reproduction or through a virtual museum tour in the National Gallery of Art, West building, Main Floor, gallery 32 where the painting is kept. Personally, I used a print-out reproduction of the painting, I divided the class in 6 groups of 3 and assigned research on different aspects of the painting to each group.


Step 2. Probing the piece of art- Applying theory to practice

Naturally, the teacher’s job is to first help students silently observe the painting. They scan their piece of art, and then answer open-ended questions  like “What’s going on in this picture and what are the main things you notice?”. Students mention ‘spears’, ‘crowded’, ‘soldiers’, ‘a woman speaking’, ‘ancient Greek or Roman time’. The teacher then asks for more details: “What catches your eyes and where are the figures in the painting”?What does the foreground, middle ground, and background show? Students look more carefully, observe, move their eyes from the top to bottom, from the left to the middle and to the right and reflect on what they see and support their ideas with evidence.  More questions invite comments on the colors, lines, shapes and textures students see. Students develop the skills of analyzing and evaluating visual texts. The more they talk about what they see, the more they listen and respond. The more they discuss possible interpretations trying to construct the meaning, the more effective viewers they become. The teacher listens, and encourages students to use art terms.


Step 3.  Reporting back after extensive web research


Group 1 reported back on the artist. “He is Giovanni Battista Tiepolo 1969-1770, son of a prosperous merchant. He studied art, belonged to the Venetian painter’s guild and did fresco painting. This eighteenth century celebrated artist, father of nine children, was the last of the practitioners of the baroque tradition. His repertoire included literary, historical, mythological, allegorical and religious works. He got commissions from the kings of France, England, and the Czarina of Russia. Some of his masterpieces are the enormous ceiling fresco “Olympus and the Four Continents”, “The story of Antony and Cleopatra” in the Palazzo Labia in Venice, “Bacchus and Ariadne”, and “Apollo Pursuing Daphne”.

Group 2 reported back on painting details by saying. “The painting measures 261.4 X 365.8 cm., it’s oil on canvas, the period of completion was 1732, the place was Venice and it now hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The painting was commissioned by the Zenobio family, a well-known family who lived in Venice. According to historical facts surrounding this painting, The Zenobio family commissioned three paintings to depict Queen Zenobia’s story because, they probably wanted to claim that Queen Zenobia was a distant ancestor. The other two narrative paintings in this series depict Zenobia in chains and Zenobia before the Emperor Aurelian.”


Group 3 reported on the language of Baroque and used the Art Glossary we had given out and of course their online research. “This painting speaks the language of Baroque which is very different from that of Realism, Surrealism, Impressionism, Cubism, Modernism or Expressionism. Baroque has the characteristics of grandeur, richness, drama, vitality and tension. Baroque uses light in a dramatic way, shows passionate theatricality and expression of emotion. But this art language became outdated when monarchic power fell and the influence of religious institutions diminished. After Tiepolo's death, paintings had more realistic styles.”    

 Group 4 researched the history of the time and place. They produced the map of the period and gave the historical background.  “Palmyra had long been an oasis for caravans travelling between the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean Sea. After her husband Odenathus was assassinated in 267 AC, Zenobia ruled in the place of her infant son. She was a skilled diplomat and military strategist. Her realm extended from Ancyra, central Anatolia to southern Egypt. She challenged the authority of the Roman Empire in the East.”  


Group 5 reported back on the crux of the painting, on the characters and the subject of the painting.  They informed the class that: “Zinovia, like Cleopatra, was a famous queen. Septimia Zenobia was queen of the Palmyrene Empire in Syria in the third Century 240 – c. 274 AD.  After her husband Odenathus was assassinated, she declared her son emperor and assumed the title of empress and ruled. During her reign, she led her troops to victories in Egypt and Asia Minor, winning the respect and admiration of her soldiers. In just five years, Queen Zenobia became a threat to Rome. She elevated Palmyra to a supreme power in the Near East. She declared Palmyra’s secession from Rome. The Roman emperor Aurelian was offended. He reacted by attaching her. After heavy fighting, the Romans were victorious; the queen was besieged in her capital and captured by Aurelian, who exiled her to Rome. She spent the remainder of her life in Rome and her rise and fall have inspired historians, artists and novelists. She is a patriotic symbol in Syria”.


Group 6 researched the role of women in the painting and expanded on the idea of female leaders in our time. They said that Zenobia took an unusual role for a woman in the ancient world. They talked of the issues of female empowerment that this painting touches and connected the topic to today’s society where we see more and more women in power. Through their research they found the women who now lead countries like Germany’s Angela Merkel, Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen, New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, Iceland’s Eliza Jean Reid, Finland’s Sanna Marin, Norway’s Erna Solberg and Denmark’s Mette Frederiksen.



Final phase - Presenting the descriptive narrative of the painting


When all the information was gathered, the class moved to phase 4 of the project; the telling of the story of the painting. Each student produced his/her own story of the painting and the stories shared similarities and differences concerning the details given, the language of description and the aspects developed. A sample of their work follows.

“In this painting, Zenobia is addressing her soldiers just before the final battle. She is a warrior queen who is wearing armor and her shield rests at her feet.  A servant keeps her robes from touching the ground. Zenobia’s soldiers are carrying the flag of Palmyra with its crossed palms and look at her as she speaks to them from a raised platform. Her pose reminds us of how Roman emperors were depicted in ancient sculptures and coins.  She has an outstretched arm, making a circle with her thumb and index finger as if she is calling everyone to order. Sadly, Zenobia was defeated by the Emperor Aurelian, and this was the beginning of the end of Palmyra. Zenobia herself was taken prisoner and brought to Rome, where she was paraded through the streets in golden chains.”




The “Out of art and into Storytelling” project helps students improve their descriptive language. Paintings are thresholds to topics related to aesthetics, values, human rights and societal trends.  When students dive into artful thinking to describe a painting, their communication and critical thinking skills are fostered; their observation skills are enhanced and their emotions find a getaway.  Students use their English, learn how to observe, to express assumptions and emotions, to link cultures and to develop empathy and global communication.



  • “English through Art”, the resourceful teacher series, Helbing Languages, by Peter Grundy, Hania Bociek, Kevin Parker.
  • Art in the classroom. Teaching English, British Council, BBC https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk

*Zafi Mandali. Director of the Department of English, Ellinogermaniki Agogi. She holds a BA in English Language and Literature, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, and an MA in Applied Linguistics, University of Essex. Her soft point is Storytelling in education. Work samples uploaded at  www.eltstorytelling.com  and   page eltstorytelling