Using Art to Teach and Analyze Literature

Using art to teach literary analysis
“But what does any of this have to do with English?”
“So, I guess this is an art class now”
“I’m not doing it.”

These were some of the reactions I received from my (reluctant) sophomores when I told them we would be looking at art to learn how to improve our literary analysis skills. By the end of our art analysis stations day, they were hooked, and I was thoroughly enjoying walking around and listening to their conversations and interpretations of each piece.

You see, there are actually many similarities within all of the arts. Visual arts and compositions all have tone, create mood, and tell a story. What’s even better is that the arts contain rich symbolism, foreshadowing, and other literary elements. This is a good activity before reading a short story, novel, or poem.

This fun activity contained several different elements. Before we began, I told my students that we would be looking at how a single story can be told from many perspectives and in many different formats.

First, I introduced students to the story of Icarus and Daedalus. We read a version from the text, watched the Lego version (which is truly awesome), and then completed the art exercise.

Before setting the students free to complete the task, I gave them each a chart and explained to them the various elements they were to look for in each piece of art. I wanted them to analyze the artwork first before I gave them any input.
Using art to teach literary analysis

Then I organized the students into six even groups and gave them five minutes per station to complete the chart for each piece of art as best as they could. Only five minutes isn’t enough time for the students to complete a thorough analysis, but it is enough time to introduce them to the art so that they are more comfortable talking about it in a whole class setting.
Using art to teach literary analysis

I had six stations throughout the room. Each station had one painting. I used the Google timer to display how much time was remaining for each station, and the students worked.

As the students discussed the art, I went casually around the room pointing out various things about the art. I would ask them about the colors, light, focal point, etc. After about the third station, students were more confident in analyzing the art, and they were even talking about symbolism and foreshadowing.
Using art to teach literary analysis

All-in-all, it was a great activity and a perfect introduction. After this lesson, I plan to review the  art more in-depth in a whole class setting, and then show students how we apply the same skills to analyze poetry and literature.


  1. What a great way to incorporate visual texts into English Language Arts. I am always looking for more ways to help students navigate the overwhelming amount of information they are interacting with on a daily basis, whether purposeful visuals in the classroom, or whatever they might encounter online in their daily "tech" lives. Visual texts are a powerful tool and, as you pointed out, can help improve skills such as literary analysis. I can imagine finding several art pieces to go with different texts my students are reading in American Lit, but also art or visual texts to go with informational texts too. Your post has inspired me to search out some visual texts to help my students analyze tone, mood, and theme (claim) around articles we are reading in twelfth grade for our senior project about the topic of human trafficking and perhaps reversing the analysis, asking them to produce a visual expository text to create their own claims and support them with the visuals. Asking students to use visuals to support their claims, rather than elaborating only in writing can help all of my students with their analysis process and reach students who might struggle with the concept using words alone. I think using art and other visuals as text and for analysis is impactful- thanks for the reminder!

    1. You are welcome. I love this idea about incorporating art for nonfiction as well. It's important for students to see the content we teach in multiple mediums.