Volume V- 2000

Talking about the Arts in the Writing Class
by Gabriel Yardley

         Gabriel A.J. Yardley is an English instructor at Nanzan University in Nagoya, Japan and likes to use art, music and poetry to motivate learners in his composition classes.

         Integrating writing with oral tasks related to poetry, art and music constitutes an approach that is challenging, but one that can result in a marked improvement in writing. The particular activity I describe in this article usually takes up to two 60-minute periods. It requires students to compare and contrast works in different media that share a similar theme or aspect. I illustrate this general approach by comparing Robert Frost's poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" with Peter Bruegel's painting "The Return of the Hunters." Suggestions are also given regarding additional poems, graphics and music that may be used with different kinds of writing, such as descriptive and cause-and-effect essays.

Discourse Markers

         I focus on discourse markers--words and phrases that play a specific and important role in writing as well as conversation. For example, "however," "in the same way," and "to conclude" are discourse markers of transition from one idea to another. I maintain that such transitions need to be actively used as part of everyday speech. Why? Because what learners don't speak, they won't write. The incorporating of these markers in the student's conversational lexicon can, I have found, greatly improve elegance and fluency in writing. Many college-level students of English as a Foreign Language (EFL) are acquainted with a large variety of transitions: most of my intermediate Japanese students can recall their syntactic features in detail. Yet they hesitate to use much more than "and," "also," and "but" in either conversation or writing. A number of textbooks present such transitions in lists or boxes and "fill-in-the-blank" exercises; however, the learner is not encouraged to internalize them. This neglect is unfortunate. Hedge (1989) suggests that the instructor's task is to design activities that will support the learner through the process of producing a particular piece of writing. Exercises and materials that go beyond the usual offerings can generate the curiosity and motivation that are essential to language learning.

The Painting and the Poem

         To provide basic orientation quickly in the classroom, the color master copy of the painting is placed where everyone has a good view of it. Copies of both painting and poem are distributed to pairs of learners who are asked to consider both works and to make notes on the similarities and differences between them for 15 minutes.

         Relevant adjectives are listed in the "Summary Box of First Impressions" (Figure 3). This gives specific guidance as to what to look for. Instructors do not need to be experts, although some background reading will enable us to nonchalantly give the impression of knowing a lot about a particular artist or poet and thus making the works more alive and interesting. Art-related vocabulary may also be introduced at this stage as for example, that provided by Thomas in Advanced Vocabulary and Idiom; Rooks, Paragraph Power; and Wiener, Creating Compositions.

Figure 1.
The painting: "The Return of the Hunters" by Peter Bruegel

Figure 2.
The poem: "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" by Robert Frost

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Figure 3.
Summary Box of First Impressions

First Impressions Bruegel Frost
Nature Snow, ice, winter

Snow, ice, winter

Activity Skating, chopping firewood Gazing into woods
Landscape Village and mountains Forest
Color Blue, brown, white

Black and white

Time Late afternoon Evening
Atmosphere Lively, noisy Quiet

         After the filling in of the table in Figure 3, learners are asked to orally compare the painting to the poem. What makes it more than just a "spot-the-difference" exercise is the stipulation that each time an item of comparison or contrast is mentioned, a transition from the list in Figure 4 has to be used. Many of the students vied with each other--jokingly at first--to follow my seemingly ridiculous demand that every time they said anything about the painting or poem, the comment was to be preceded by a transition from the list. This activity was successful in generating discourse markers of transition. The high quality art reproductions were essential to the exercise.

Figure 4.
Sentence/Clause-Initial Transitions


In the same way
Compared to
Compared with

In contrast
Even so
On the one hand
On the other hand
In addition
As a result
All in all
In brief
In short
To conclude

Written Work

Following the conversation work, there was a 20 minute free-writing session in which they were to:

(1) write a 100-word summary comparing the painting and poem, and
(2) incorporate and underline at least 10 markers of transition. When the 20 minutes were up, the learners were asked during a further five minutes to
(3) exchange their summaries with a partner, and
(4) provide appropriate alternatives for all underlined transitions. For homework, the students were asked to do the following:
(5) write a 350-word comparison of the painting and poem,
(6) observe the usual conventions of essay writing: e.g. appropriate thesis sentence, topic sentence and paragraph structure,
(7) use a point-by-point or a block method style for the essay,
(8) include at least 40 underlined transitions from Writer's Handbook (McKernan 1991, pp. 142-3),
(9) bring two additional photocopies of their essays to the next class (a total of three), and
(10) blank out 20 transitions from Copy 2 of their essay.

         As Rooks (1988) points out, the following transition markers often accompany the development of a contrast and comparison paragraph as it emphasizes the similarities and differences between the two subjects under discussion (p. 26). The instructor may wish to use the summary exercise and homework assignment to ask learners to produce sentence structure patterns similar to those in Figures 5-7.

Figure 5.
Pattern Showing Similarity

Bruegel describes a snow-filled landscape;
in the same way,
Frost also dwells on a snowy scene.

Figure 6.
Pattern Showing Contrast

Bruegel fills his scene with people;
in contrast,
on the other hand,

Frost depicts a man and his horse.


Bruegel is
different from
Frost in his description of a winter's eve.

Figure 7.
Pattern Showing Concession

Despite the fact
In spite of the fact that
Even though
the dogs emphasize companionship, the horse reflects solitude.


         In the following class, before handing in their assignments, students were asked to summarize orally--not read--the contents of their essay, and to incorporate transitions referring to addition and summary from the discourse marker list in Figure 4. Copy 2--the one with deletions--was given to a partner who had 10 minutes to suggest a transition for every blank space and an alternative transition for the remaining 20 transitions. On Copy 3, the writer was given five minutes to superimpose (in pencil) "and," "but," "also" or "as well" wherever possible in place of the original transitions. Partners were then asked to compare the transitional changes they had made to Copy 2, and then to read their Copy 3. They were to reflect on the changes and decide which version they liked better. Copy 1 of the essay was collected for marking, and Copy 3 was given to the partner for peer-editing. On being marked, the essays were returned from both instructor and peer editor with comments on a grade sheet.

Surprisingly Apt Usage

         Apart from the usual organizational, spelling and grammar errors, it was surprising just how many transitional items were aptly used. A few learners were, however, not aware of semantic nuances and usage of the related expressions "on the contrary" and "on the other hand,"and "finally" and "at the end." Still others were confused by the differences between the point-by-point method and the block method of structuring comparative essays. As a final conversation activity, suggested improvements were summarized by the partners using transitions from Figure 4. The essays were re-written and a final version with no underlining turned in for my records.

Sample Essay

         Where possible, the instructor should provide learners with an sample essay which they can use for reference. My students received the following short essay as an example for comparison.

A Brief Comparison of Works by Bruegel and Frost
(by Gabriel Yardley)

         Bruegel's "The Return of the Hunters" and Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" both describe a winter's scene. Snow, and the coldness of winter, feature in both painting and poem; nature is also a central element. In addition, both depict a winter's evening which awaits the onset of night. Nevertheless, while both may have these elements in common, these similarities appear to serve only as a point of departure for poet and artist as they focus on differing aspects of winter, and a number of contrasts which represent this approach may briefly be referred to. It is cold, yet there is the warmth of humanity and a feeling of security and companionship in the painting. There are signs of domestic comfort and basic creature comforts. Moreover at the ridge of the hill a group of people are roasting a pig; one can almost hear the fire crackling, the birds twittering on the branches and the shouts and laughter of those playing on the ice-covered pond. In contrast however, in the poem, night is falling and the rider is nowhere near home: no living thing is to be seen or heard except for the bells of the horse:

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

         It could be said that these only serve to bring the rider out of his reverie and to remind him that he has far to go. It is also interesting to note that the image of a solitary rider on horseback conveys an image of loneliness. A lone rider is often interpreted as symbolic of rugged independence, yet as the horse stops "Between woods and frozen lake," the picture is not one of independent man but man isolated. In contrast, the painting depicts a pack of hunting dogs, thus further emphasizing a sense of the companionship, with man's indispensable "best friend," his dog, in evidence. The frozen lake is forbidding and emphasizes the coldness of "The darkest evening of the year." In the painting however, a frozen river and pond are scenes of diversion and merriment, and here too,can be seen nature complementing the commotion of life, the stark inactivity of the poem contrasting with the lively and joyful recreation present in the painting.

         Although the hunters might be tired and weary, they nevertheless have warmth, food and rest to look forward to and to spur them on the last few yards. Contrastingly, in the poem, the rider has stopped, almost mesmerized by the scene stretching out before him as he watches the "Woods fill up with snow." The woods look inviting, yet he has "promises to keep," and the reader can almost feel the implied weariness and sleepless distance that the rider has to go, in the alternating rhythmic weak-strong stress, of the final two lines: "And miles to go before I sleep/ And miles to go before I sleep." In both we are in the heart of winter, with night soon to fall: in one we witness a homecoming while in the other, the undertaking of a journey.

         Frost is part of the landscape's solitude, of nature at its loneliest; in Bruegel, nature, as mentioned earlier, is an integral part of various social activities, for example, hunting, skating, and the stoking of a fire. In the poem, however, nature is central to an absence of activity: the "white" and "black" of the "Snowy Evening." Its title may be interpreted as reflecting this absence, and may be said to represent an absence of colour and to be symbolic of nothingness.

         It may thus be said that while these two differing forms of artistic expression depict a winter's scene, the differing approach of both artist and poet create landscapes which, while sharing certain elements, nevertheless contrast sharply in both mood and atmosphere.


         A number of texts, such as those by Hedge (1989) and Behrman (1990), do make some use of conversation activities to aid the composing process, yet many only use these activities as a preliminary warm-up, an exchange of ideas and impressions or brainstorming before getting down to the nitty-gritty of writing. Speaking is seen merely as facilitating the collecting of information that will form the basis of what is to be written--not as the very necessary catalyst and complement of the written word. Some learners perceive transitional devices as sets of lexical structures to be used in writing, but rarely to be used in speech. I think that speaking complements writing: if the learner has little practice in using transitional elements orally, it is unlikely that these will be used in writing in a way that approaches a native-like fluency and elegance.

         In his introduction to Morgan and Rinvolucri's Vocabulary (1986), Alan Maley notes that words are not learned mechanically as little packets of meaning, but associatively. Poetry, music and art can provide the elements that are to be associated in the writing class. They require learners to use their imagination, intuition and feelings in order to go beyond the confines of the cut-and-dried must and must not's of essay writing. In the activity outlined above, learners are being invited to express feelings or opinions in a spirit of introspective imagination and not stylistic mechanization. The comparative essay should be the means of describing a developed reaction to a stimulus, and not the end in itself.

         It may be useful to make an enlarged colour photocopy of the reproduction from a good art book for your own use. Images may also be downloaded from the internet from sites such as:


         The illustration of "The Return Of The Hunters" (on display at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna) was downloaded from:

Reprinted by permission of Henry Holt and Company, Inc.

Appendix 1:

Additional resources for enhancing rhetorical composition styles. The location of these may be found in Appendix 2.

Structure of Essay
Comparison and Contrast

The Stages of Life
-Caspar Friederich

The Arnolfini Marriage
-Jna Van Eyck

Bratsk, Siberie. 1967 (photo)
-Elliot Erwin

Crossing the Bar
-A.L. Tennyson

Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night
-Dylan Thomas

Me, Mysel, and I
-Billie Holiday

Tonight at Noon
-Adrian Henri

Directional Process
-W.H. Robinson

Deaf Donald
-Shel Silverstein

Cause and Effect

Les Amants

Bratsk, Siberie. 1967 (photo)
-Elliot Erwin

-R. McGough

Every Breath You Take(M)


Bratsk, Siberie. 1967 (photo)
-Elliot Erwin

Cristina's World
-Andrew Wyeth

The Little Convalescent
-E. Johnstone

-R. McGough

The Land of the Counterpane
-R. L. Stevenson

In the Lap of the Gods (M)
Alan Parsons' Project

Appendix 2:

Selected resources: The number following each visual or poetry resource in Sections II and IV links it to where it may be found in the " Poetry and Art Booklist which constitutes Section I below.

Section I. Poetry and Art Booklist

The Art Book. London: Phaidon Press, 1994.

Boring, Walter. Hieronymous Bosch. Cologne: Taschen. 1973.

Doff, Adrian, Chris Jones and Keith Mitchell. Meanings into Words. Cambridge: CUP, 1987.

Gardner, Helen, ed.The New Oxford Book of Verse. Oxford: OUP, 1990.

Handa, Masao. Enjoyment of English Poetry. Tokyo: The Hokuseido Press, 1969.

Henri, Adrian. The Best of Henri. London: Jonathan Cape, 1975.

Maley, Alan, Alan Duff and Francoise Grellet. The Mind's Eye.Cambridge: CUP, 1986.

McGough, Roger, ed. The Kingfisher Book of Comic Verse. London: Kingfisher Books, 1989.

Murata, Tatsuo and Norman Angus, eds. More Poetry Please!Tokyo: Nan'un-Do, 1990.

Silverstein, Shel. A Light in the Attic. New York: Harper Collins, 1981.

Sky-Peck, Kathryn, ed. Who Has Seen the Wind? New York: Rizzoli Int'l Publications, 1991.

Viazey, Marina. 100 Masterpices of Art. London: Peerage Books, 1989.

Section II: Visual Resources

Bruegel, Pieter. The Return of the Hunter.
Erwitt, Elliot. Bratsk, Siberie, 1967. In Elliot Erwitt. Paris: Photo Poche, 1988.
Friederich, Casper David. The Stages of Life
Johnson, Jonathan Eastman.The Little Convalescent.
Magritte, R. Les Amants.
Robinson, W. Heath. Inventions.
Van Eyck, Jan. The Arnolfini Marriage
Wyeth, Andrew.Christina's World.

Section III:Audio Resources

L'apres midi d' un faun. Claude Debussy.
In the Lap of the Gods. From Pyramid, by the Alan Parsons' Project.
Every Breath You Take.Sting.
Me, Myself and I. Billie Holliday.

Section IV: Poetry

Crossing the Bar. Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892).
Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night. Dylan Thomas (1914-1953).
Deaf Donald. Shel Silverstein (1952- ).
40-Love. Roger McGough (1941- ).
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. Robert Frost (1874-1963).
The Land of the Counterpane. R. L. Stevenson (1850-1894).
The Night Was Growing Cold. Anonymous. Tonight At Noon. Adrian Henri (1932- ).


Baxter, Chris. 1992. "Make your Own newspaper." Practical English Teaching 13.1: 26-7.

Behrman, Carol H. 1988. Hooked on Writing. New York: The Center for Applied Research in Education.

Ummings, Martha G. and Rhona B. Genzel. 1989.Writing Your Way.New York: Newbury House.

Hedge, Tricia. 1989. Writing Resource Books for Teachers. Oxford: OUP.

Kitao S. Kathleen and Kenji Kitao. 1993."From Paragraphs to Essays ". Tokyo: Eichosha.

Kwan-Terry, Anna. 1988. Interactive Writing. New York: Prentice-Hall.

Maley, Alan, Alan Duff, and Francoise Grellet. 1986. The Mind's Eye.Cambrige: CUP.

McKernan, John. 1991.The Writer's Handbook,2nd ed. Fort Worth: Holt, Rhinehart and Wilson

Morgan, John and Mario Rinvolucri. 1986.Vocabulary: Resource Books for Teachers. Oxford: OUP.

Rooks, George M. 1988.Paragraph Power. New York: Prentice-Hall.

Thomas, B. J.1991.Advanced Vocabulary and Idiom. Edinburgh: Nelson.

Wiener, Harvey S. 1992.Creating Compositions,6th ed. New York: McGraw Hill.

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