Second Language through Design[ing]
Guidebook for Studio Teachers 

Niberca (Gigi) Polo

[Coming soon: Download Digital Guidebook here!]

In my years of teaching, I have engaged in conversations with many educators who have expressed concerns about the level to which Art and Design learners can communicate ideas clearly, eloquently, and effectively both orally and in writing. This concern is not only relevant to non-native English speakers but also to native English speakers; at different levels, both groups—indistinctly—showcase shortcomings in their confidence when discussing works objectively and critically, in their knowledge of technical language (library language) of Art and Design fields, and in their ability to present projects professionally using different modalities, e.g. drafting, drawings, academic papers, oral presentations. Moreover, this is an ongoing conversation that brings to the fore the pressing need for design-studio teachers to understand the dynamics involved in second language acquisition in order to actively engage learners in improving their language skills, regardless of the discipline, specific course, and classroom setting.


 Target Teacher:
Art and Design studio teachers—native and non-native English speakers—with no experience teaching English

Target learners:
Art and Design —native and non-native English speakers—in pre-college, college, and graduate programs

Useful terms:

ENL: English as Native Language

EFL: English as Foreign Language

ELF: English as Lingua Franca

ESL: English as Second Language


ESP: English for Specific Purposes

EGP: English for General Purposes


NS: Native speakers

NNS: Non-native speakers


Learners’ General profile

I have developed a collection of exercises for young adults and adults who have chosen a path in Art and Design fields. Two other important aspects to which pay attention are 1. learners’ language background—monolinguals, bilinguals, or multilinguals—be it that they were raised in multilingual countries (ENL), have lived abroad (ESL), or because their families have encouraged language-learning (EFL), and 2. Englishes, that is, the different English varieties spoken in specific countries—beyond American and British English—such as India and South Africa. In some cases, these learners are enrolled in ESL courses related to their field of study where they take advantage of an in-depth language focus; in other cases, classes have a mix of native (NS) and non-native (NNS) English speakers, which gives learners more opportunities to practice English skills as it is their shared language. Due to this diversity of backgrounds and personal interests, learners’ competencies—language skills, creativity, and craftsmanship—are heterogeneous. For all the reasons aforementioned, learners in these classrooms build a micro-culture in which international intelligibility (as promoted by ELF advocates) rather than native-like competence is the aim of language development.


Teaching Approach:

This GuideBook encompasses, at different points of the learning process, a combination of methods and multi-modal strategies in order to serve learner’s individual needs in line with curriculum goals and outcomes; in this approach to teaching, my aim is to nurture a holistic learning experience, in which teachers engage learners emotionally, physically, and intellectually or, as English professors Michael Legutke and Howard Thomas (1991: 159) describe: “the holistic and multisensory nature of learning which involves head, heart and hands.” Research has shown that positive emotions and arousal are conducive to long lasting learning and achievement (Zimmerman, 2001) and that original texts, real-world experiences, and peer learning are paramount to learners’ self-investment, intrinsic motivation, positive affect, and long-lasting learning. For these reasons, in this GuideBook I have attempted to combine:


  1. Relevant and authentic material that allures tacit knowledge, personal experiences, and collective consciousness based on a ‘process syllabus’ (Nunan, 1989), of open-ended projects that give learners agency over their learning experience and focus attention on process rather than a final product
  2. Multimodal instruction that integrates motor-receptive skills and interaction skills (Bao, 2003), such as verbal/non-verbal tasks, visual examples, readings, oral narratives, life demonstrations, amongst others
  3. Communication Strategies as forms of assessing learners’ understanding, decoding meaning, and knowledge acquisition/production, which are fostered in collaborative projects, various forms of play, improvisations, and peer learning



Dat, Bao. “Materials for developing speaking skills.” Developing materials for language teaching (2003): 375-393.

Legutke, M. and Thomas, H. (1991) Process and Experience in the Language Classroom. London: Longman.

Pennycook, A. (1990) Critical pedagogy and second language education. System 18, 303-314.

Nunan, David. Designing tasks for the communicative classroom. Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Zimmerman, B.J. (2001). Theories of self-regulated learning and academic achievement: An overview and analysis. In B.J. Zimmerman & D.H. Schunk (Eds.), Self-regulated learning and academic achievement: Theoretical perspectives (pp. 1-39). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.



Each lesson plan contains Design[ing] Pre-task and Task activities with an integration of Language Focusat various points of the Pre-task and Task cycles—in order to introduce Lexis and practice the four skills: reading, writing, listening, speaking.


Research: learners conduct different forms of research to ground projects in solid, developed, concepts.

Brainstorming: in this step, learners analyze new knowledge—from readings, presentations, handouts, and other support material—through brainstorm, mind/word maps, and concept-map development.

Visualizations: at this point of the process learners create an array of visual and language pieces in order to represent concepts—in terms of style, tone, and form—and to expand lexis; these activities help learners transition into sketching and prototyping activities.

Sketching: learners start envisioning their final productions at this stage—while documenting process for self-reflection and self-assessment—and clarify their project’s conceptual underpinnings, challenges, and desirable individual/team outcomes.


Prototyping/Testing: learners test prototypes and engage in peer-to-peer review and group critique in order to collect feedback and insights to refine their productions.

Final project(s): learners produce a refined piece in class and complete final projects as homework assignments.


Discovery: learners conduct research, engage in readings and discussions and pay special attention to unknown words; with the help of Art and Design references (ESP) and a dictionary (EGP) they find words’ meaning and salience to create a vocabulary log.

Reflecting: learners write self-reflections and engage in group critique and peer-to-peer reviews to help each other in gathering insights.

Practice: using different strategies, learners apply acquired knowledge to a variety of language exercises.


The image below is a concept map that illustrates a framework to develop lesson plans. You can download a blank template from our Learning Portfolio to plan your own lessons.


[methodology concept map/graph here]


Niberca Polo, Project-based methodology: Learning through Design[ing] (Teaching and Learning Procedure)



I have grouped exercises in 3 categories—based on learners’ design level—as pre-college, college, and graduate learners; college level exercises are sub-divided in design beginner, intermediate, and advanced.

Each design exercise contains guided activities to foster language development, from an introduction to technical design-language (lexis)—such as Art and Design vocabulary, collocations, and semantic meaning—to grammar points in the form of sentence construction, and pragmatic meaning. Learners complete some activities individually while others are designed for peer-learning (pairs, small groups, larger groups, whole class). As framework for teachers, each exercise has a theme for skill-building that follows a sequence of activities (scaffolding) aligned to pre-determined outcomes and language activities; although it is important to follow the scaffolding structure at the pace and sequence provided, teachers have the flexibility to reframe the theme(s) and adjust support materials accordingly.

*All support material for teachers and learners—readings, handouts, worksheets, link to other resources are available on the TOOLKIT tab []


Anatomy of Exercises


integrate one poster/blind contour


Reframe themes, requirements, and constraints, based on goals and outcomes, e.g. “Sensory Observations: Blind Contour” in Metropolis, of the human body, in public spaces, etc.













Follow scaffolding (sequence of activities) including timeframes, and groupings (individual, pairs, groups, whole class)





It is important to encourage learners to integrate the following practices to their daily routines as tools to increase understanding, self-reflection, and self-assessment.


Vocabulary Log (Live Documents)
Learners create a document where they write unknown words—of both daily life and Technical Art and Design vocabulary— and their meaning using a dictionary and other Art and Design references.

When the teacher introduces vocabulary, learners use a dictionary to find the meaning of unknown words and add them (word+meaning) to the Vocabulary Log, which is an important tool for learners to expand their vocabulary.

It is important to encourage learners to keep a journal with daily entries to note ideas, illustrate learned concepts, vocabulary, and theories. Also, it is a good place to write self-reflections about their art, creative process, and final pieces.

Summer Intensive Studies session 1 (SIS I), 2016.
Parsons, Pre-college Academy
Learners would benefit from using this platform to check spelling, grammar, and overall structure of various types of academic papers before submitting final papers, and also teachers when reviewing learners’ final submissions.

Guidelines for Group Critique
When engaging in peer review, it is important to provide learners with a set of guidelines to ensure that discussions are respectful and productive, i.e “could you say more about…?” as a form of phrasing a question for clarification. These guidelines will also give learners a deeper understanding of the effects of language in communicating with others.



Art & Design Learners



Pre-College Special Programs/
High school students (NS and NNS)


ESL+ Summer Program
All ESL students at different language levels (beginners to intermediate) based on The New School Language Placement Assessment;


  1. Gateways: Design and Illustration
  2. Who am I? Technical Drawing and Materials


  1. Visual Soundscapes: Stop Animation and Sound Editing


  1. Possible-Selves: Sound Editing


  1. Aural Sound: Performance


Art & Design students enrolled in college programs (NS and NNS)

Design Beginners:
First Year/ESL low-intermediate to intermediate

  1. Sensory Observations: Blind Contour
  2. My Journey: Personal Narrative Collage
  3. Emotional Landscapes: Digital Self-portrait
  4. Sudden Turn of Events: Narrative

Design Intermediate:
Second Year/ESL intermediate to high-intermediate

  1. Down Memory Lane: Video Montage
  2. Personae: History Through Objects
  3. Embodying the Other: Awareness Campaign
  4. Spaces of Culture: Visual Culture

Design Advanced:
Second/Third Year/ESL high-intermediate to advanced

  1. Trust Me: Argument, Persuasion, Propaganda
  2. Roxanne: Typography

Grad Students

Art & Design students enrolled in graduate programs (NS and NNS)

  1. Artifacts: Capstone Proposal