Amanda Koonlaba | February 2018

Using Illustration to Teach Academic Vocabulary

They Need More, and We Know It

I’ve been working with seven students who are learning English as a second language. Every afternoon, I use a district-adopted program called Language Power with them. This program is quasi-scripted, but does include some great non-fiction books. The goal for working with these students is to build their academic vocabulary.

Students who are learning English as a second language tend to pick up conversational English naturally through interaction. It is not as easy to acquire academic vocabulary. Therefore, we must explicitly teach it.

As I’ve been working with these students, I’ve noticed that just plowing through the texts and worksheets hasn’t been enough. Luckily, following the script hasn’t been required. The students have a real thirst for a creative connection. So, I’ve been able to integrate some art into this program.

Don’t Have to Just Take My Word For It

Recently, I had a conversation with my principal about using the arts in the regular classroom. Sharing about when she was a teacher integrating the arts, she told me how engaged her students would be when they were able to create something before writing about it. She explained, “If I just gave them a writing assignment, it would take them forever to get five sentences on the paper. There’d be no voice in their writing. When I had them engaged in a creative process connected to an art form before they had to write, their writing would be incredible. They’d write something you’d actually want to read.”

I write all of this to solidify the concept that our students need more than worksheets. Worksheets have a place, and I often use them in connection with artwork. By themselves, though, worksheets aren’t enough. Students need more, and we know it. We know they need to engage in creative, problem-solving processes. All students need this. However, as we strive to explicitly teach academic vocabulary to our English Language Learners, we have to be intentional about making sure they get it.

Draw What They Know

Teachers can’t just say their students will draw a picture  and call that arts integration. There needs to be a problem-solving element to it. Here are some tips on having students draw when learning academic vocabulary that will make it challenging and meaningful in an arts-integrated way:

  • Landscapes or Scenes- If the student is to illustrate a word or concept that requires them to draw an entire scene, have them focus on space as an element of art. Things that are close to the viewer will be larger. Things that are far away from the viewer will be smaller. They will probably need to include a horizon line. For instance, if the student is trying to show the concept of a grassland as a biome, they would need a horizon line and plants that would be close to the viewer. There might be mountains (very small) in the background.
  • Nouns- Students will often need to illustrate nouns. Have them focus on proportion. For instance, if the student needs to illustrate the concept of a graph as a text feature, they’ll need to make sure the data on the graph is shown in a proportional way. If it is a bar graph, the bar representing ten cannot be the same size as the bar representing three, and so on. Other nouns, like those of an organ system require proportion as well. If the student is trying to show the relationship between the brain and spinal cord, they need to consider the size relationship as they draw.
  • Verbs- If the concept a student needs to visually represent is a verb, have them think about emphasis or  repetition as they draw. Let’s say a student is illustrating the term “analyze.” They might draw a person with a magnifying glass. They might draw a dark, heavy line around the circle of the magnifying glass to emphasize it. This would help one understand the magnifying glass is important to the message of the image.
  • Abstract Concepts- Abstract concepts can be illustrated abstractly. The student might choose to illustrate the concept of democracy with a large circle containing many smaller circles. It might not be immediately obvious how that relates to democracy. However, if the student can tell you that the large circle represents the government and the smaller circles represent the people, they’ve done a great job with this illustration. So, have them use abstract drawing to illustrate abstract concepts.

academic vocabulary

This illustration shows a kitchen. This was drawn by a first grader who was learning vocabulary related to familiar places. Notice the horizon line. The cat is closer to the viewer and is larger. The kitchen equipment is bit smaller because it is farther away. The wall behind the kitchen equipment has a pattern on it and appears even farther away.

The Benefits

These strategies really benefit all students, but work particularly well with students learning English as a second language. A simple internet search of how to teach academic vocabulary  would turn up a plethora of information about the benefits of using images. By adding the arts pieces described above, you can get the students more engaged. Additionally, this will make it more meaningful and memorable. Plus, it will give them an outlet for creativity. That’s just good teaching.


Remember that it is powerful for students to display their learning in the hallways. You can easily display these illustrations with photos of the students working and explanations of the process. The hallway displays can be used as a teaching tool as well. Check out this article that I wrote for how to accomplish this for the benefit of your students.

Finally, here’s an article called Hear It, Speak It, Notate It, Spell It that uses music to work on some language skills. This would combine well with the strategies written here.

About the Author

Amanda Koonlaba, Ed. S. is an educator and educational consultant with over 12 years of experience teaching both visual art and regular education. Her career has been driven by the power of the arts to reach all learners. She is a published author and frequent speaker/presenter at education conferences. Amanda was named the Elementary Art Teacher of the Year for the state of Mississippi in 2016 and received the Arts Integration Service Award from the Mississippi Whole Schools Initiative (Mississippi Arts Commission) in 2015. She holds an Elementary and Middle Childhood Art certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. As a coach for The Institute for Arts Integration and STEAM, Amanda is on a mission to ensure every student in America has access to a high-quality arts-based education. She blogs at