“The whole answer is there on the canvas.” Edward Hopper in the ELT classroom.

If there is one thing that English teachers agree on (apart from their poor pay!) it’s that they all need ways to stimulate meaningful spoken English in their classes. Creating that need and desire to communicate can be a challenge – yes, the language can be an issue, but the content also needs to be carefully considered.

I agree with the consensus that familiarity of topic and relevance to the day-to-day existence of the students are good benchmarks for selecting content or adapting what the course book offers. We are all egocentric to varying degrees and prior knowledge of the topic must be some sort of facilitator.

I do have a real sense, however, that both adults and teenagers like and need to be stretched out of their comfort zones and this stretching can provoke them into using the language. I love seeing teachers creating curiosity, a challenge or a mystery. I love seeing students discussing expectations, agreeing and disagreeing and reacting with their emotions.

Pictures are one of the most effective items in a teacher’s armoury to generate the kind of reactions I mention above. I am a course book liker, an appreciator of what they do for us in the classroom. The pictures are often their weakness though, as they can sometimes be rather anodyne and suited to simple descriptive work, but not to stimulate curiosity or the kind of emotional reaction that makes students want to talk.

But course books are not carved in stone and teachers can now choose pictures from so many online sources to use in class.

All of this brings me to Edward Hopper. Wikipedia will tell you that:

“Edward Hopper (July 22, 1882 – May 15, 1967) was a prominent American realist painter and printmaker. While he was most popularly known for his oil paintings, he was equally proficient as a watercolourist and printmaker in etching. Both in his urban and rural scenes, his spare and finely calculated renderings reflected his personal vision of modern American life.”  The full story is here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Hopper.

So why Edward? I think his work is ideal for generating the kind of reactions that will encourage people to speak. The paintings are essentially simple, clear and usually with no action. They also nearly all possess a degree of uncertainty that makes all who see them begin to construct questions in their mind and develop assumptions and curiosity for what others might think. Yes, there is often a degree of sexual tension in some of the pictures that is not lost on many students, but that makes reactions and language even more emotive.

And another yes; they are very culture-specific, but it’s a genre that can work in many settings.

Let’s take a look at some examples aimed at intermediate and above classes for adults or teenagers. I’m not ashamed to say these are some of my favourite Hopper paintings.

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‘Nighthawks’ from 1942 is Hopper’s best known work and Tom Waits aficionados will see something they recognise in the title.

For me, this picture provides great input for a ‘Think Pair Share’ type of activity with lots of chances to practise language areas around speculating and assuming, and agreeing and disagreeing. Who are they? Why can’t they sleep? Money worries, guilt or are they just late home from work?  These are real issues that generate real emotions and allow the real voices of our students to be heard.

Here’s another one:

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‘Conference at Night’ 1949

This scene is particularly enigmatic I think. Interpretations I have heard of it include a couple hiring a hit man, lovers who have been caught by the husband or an estate agent with two clients. It lends itself to a small group activity where three students decide what is happening in the scene and then write a collaborative summary of what they think is going on and what happened next. They then swap summaries with other groups and defend their own interpretations of the scene. This task can be an effective open practice for a range of present and future tenses as well as encouraging that always beneficial activity, collaborative writing. This picture never fails to create engagement and debate.

The final painting:

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‘Four Lane Road’ 1956

It seems clear that something bad has happened to this couple.  Once students look further and consider the name, they will likely spot that the couple runs a petrol station that appears to have been bypassed by a new road and is thus going bankrupt. All-in-all an emotional picture. A possible student activity here is for half the students to assume the role of the people in the picture and decide what they think the couple’s story is. The other half of the class are journalists who need to agree some questions to ask the couple.  The students then pair up and role play an interview.  The language focus would be ‘used to’ and third conditional for expressing regret.  Students should be encouraged to speak as if they were these desperate people and the emotions that the students feel often push them towards using more challenging language.

So there you have it. Pictures that stir emotions, curiosity and creativity being used – with a little teacher imagination and varying degrees of guidance – to generate language. It doesn’t have to be Edward Hopper of course but as he once said to a journalist, “the whole answer is there on the canvas.”. We just need our students to seek it.

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