Friday, 14 July 2017

Houses and paintings: an approach to descriptive writing

 Houses are fascinating places to look at. To my mind,  every house has its own character, which is of course the result of the owner’s choices in terms of decoration and style but also depends on the location, the weather conditions, the changes brought about by the community and the local authorities.
Normally in teaching language, we limit ourselves to asking students to describe their house mainly focusing on room and furniture vocabulary and in terms of structures on “there is/are”. This is all very well at lower levels of English, but I feel that we need some extra challenge for more advanced students if we want to develop and enrich their vocabulary and descriptive ability further.

I find long lists of topic-related words only useful as reference. However, in order to impress specific words or phrases on students’ minds, you need different strategies depending on the topic and who you are.

Personally, I am very keen on paintings in a totally amateurish way, and I find that showing for example images of houses in paintings where usually there is a degree of abstraction helps excite students’ imagination and allows the teacher to focus on specific items.

Let me illustrate with some examples:
Here is a painting by Childe Hassam called The Brush House:

Two-storey, wooden railings, run-down, porch, thatched roof, wooden shutters, obscured by vegetation  are some of the items the teacher could supply for the students before they are asked to describe the house and its environs. The vocabulary becomes more memorable as it is linked with the various aspects of the image.

An entirely different setting now with a lot of grey area so that the students can speculate:
Moonlight by John Atkinson Grimshaw:

Stairway, solid, brick, chimney, imposing, isolated, dimly lit, bare trees casting their shadows, ominous, spooky, silver disc are some items the teacher can supply to get the students started. In this particular example, the students could try to imagine what is going on inside the house, who the occupants are and whether there is a crisis in their life right now.

Going one notch up in abstraction, here is a painting by Constantin Piliuta called Parental House, Birthplace:

Here one might want to start with the atmosphere so dreamlike is a suggestion. Despite the abstraction, the house looks quite real with its arched windows, elevated balcony, timber roof and whitewashed exterior walls. The boundary with the street is marked by what looks like almond trees in blossom possibly at the close of winter.

All in all, images are out there to use and your imagination is the limit.

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