Katherine Bilsborough: Using sketchbooks in the English classroom

As a freelance writer, usually with around a dozen projects on the go at any given time, no two days in my working life are ever the same.

But a couple of things are pretty constant. The first – spending most of my waking hours in front of a computer screen under the auspices of ‘Working: Do not disturb’ and the second – spending much of this time actively seeking distractions to take me away from the task at hand. Occasionally these distractions lead me to new discoveries and sometimes I’m able to link one of these discoveries to my profession, enabling me to justify the meandering. This blog post is about how I came across Chris Riddell and how I think his ideas for arming children with sketchbooks could work brilliantly in the ELT classroom.

I’d never heard of him until a couple of months ago when his name was splashed across the culture pages of all the UK newspapers. I’d been browsing these pages, looking for something I could use for a ‘Reading’ page I was writing for a teen’s course book. I am a little embarrassed about not knowing his name but I’m delighted to have discovered him now. Every two years a Children's Laureate is appointed in the UK. The position is awarded to an author or a writer of children’s books in recognition of their outstanding work. This year the laureateship was awarded to illustrator Chris Riddell. Besides being a prolific illustrator, Chris actively encourages others – children and adults – to believe in their own talent and to be creative too. He plans to use his laureateship to promote visual literacy. In a recent interview with the press he said, “I want to show how much fun you can have drawing” and “I want to bring drawing back to the basics, make it about the pleasure that it can afford and remove the notion that it’s some kind of precious or difficult activity. It’s another way of telling a story.”

Sketch notes at ELT conferences

Those of you who have attended more conferences than me are probably familiar with sketchnotes but the concept was new to me when I attended my first IATEFL conference in Harrogate in 2014. I gave a talk at the PCE (pre conference event) for the MaWSIG day (Materials Writers) and was delighted to see Christina Rebuffet-Broadus’s amazing sketchnotes from my session.

It made me think about what was going on in Christina’s mind while she was scribbling away, and how she was paying attention, taking in my ideas, processing them and then transferring them into a really beautiful visual representation that could later serve as a reminder of all of the key points from my talk. How cool is that? This got me thinking about sketchnotes in general. I looked them up and even bought myself a copy of ‘The Sketchnote Handbook: The Illustrated Guide to Visual Notetaking’ so that I could learn how to make my own sketchnotes at conferences or while I’m attending a webinar. It also got me thinking about how sketching could be used in the ELT classroom.

Sketchbooks in ELT

Although Chris Riddell doesn’t dwell in the ELT world, I reckon teachers can learn some valuable lessons from his dream of arming every child with a sketchbook. And I don’t see this idea as being limited to children either. As Chris says, “everybody can draw” and “Don’t just think about it, do it”.

Chris’s message is clear. He wants to encourage the use of sketchbooks as being a personal space where kids can think visually and where they enjoy the visual. He is adamant that these sketchbooks don’t need to be tested and there is no need to build a curriculum around them. The point about not testing is vital and is a big part of what attracts me to the whole idea. Knowing that this sketchbook activity will not be tested is liberating. It allows for experimentation and making mistakes – both of which are key to the learning process. How I wish I’d been given a sketchbook to record my learning when I was a school child.

I agree with Chris that everyone can draw but of course, we all know that some people are more gifted than others. The idea of these sketchbooks being personal means that nobody (apart from the artist) needs to see them. They are like diaries; helping the creator in an exercise of self-reflection and personal development, as he transfers thoughts and ideas into art.

Using sketchbooks in an English class

I’m not actually teaching at the moment but I wish I were, just so I could try this out. This is what I’d probably do and I’d love for someone to give it a go and then get in touch to tell me how it goes.

  1. Depending on the age and level of the class, give learners an introduction to sketchnotes so that everyone understands what they are. There are lots of examples on the Internet.
  2. Teach something for 5 - 10 minutes – anything! Explain a grammar point, present or practise some vocabulary, go over some common errors after a writing task, etc.
  3. Use the board to demonstrate how the information you have just shared can be represented through artwork. This can be done with help from learners but the most important thing is not to draw particularly well! This stage should be used to give your learners confidence, not to demoralise them. If your artwork is amateur or amusing, that’s great because learners will think ‘Wow! Even I can do this’.
  4. Continue with your lesson, doing whatever it is you had planned. Then pause after about ten minutes and ask learners to think about what they’ve just been doing and, in pairs or small groups to discuss how any key points they’d like to remember could be represented as artwork. Ask the pairs/groups to share their ideas with the rest of the class, either by holding up sketches, explaining or drawing on the board.
  5. Have an informal discussion about the pros and cons of using sketchbooks in this way. Then explain that you are going to do an experiment, trialling sketchbooks in class for a period of time. The time would very much depend on how often you have a lesson. I’d suggest a week for an intensive course with lessons of 2 hours a day or a month for classes held once or twice a week.
  6. Give each learner a sketchbook to use in class. If this isn’t possible, ask learners to bring their own sketchbooks to class. Explain that the sketchbooks will be private and that learners will be given time to record their ideas during class but can add any other sketches in their own time. The focus should be on images but they can also include words or phrases if they wish. Rules shouldn’t be strict. If learners wish to show you their sketchbooks, they can, otherwise they can be kept completely private.
  7. Carry out the sketchbook experiment, incorporating ‘sketchbook’ time into your lesson plans.
  8. At the end of the experiment, either have a class discussion of how effective the learners found it or get learners to write a composition about the experience, maybe using some typical experiment headings from the Scientific Method such as:
  • Question (Are sketchbooks useful in English lessons?)
  • Research (Learners describe their experience)
  • Analyze (Learners analyze their experience)
  • Results (Learners report their results)
  • Conclusion (Learners say whether they will continue to use sketchbooks in their English lessons)

If you want to see some of Chris Riddell’s sketches, you can do so on his website.


Average: 3 (2 votes)

Research and insight

Browse fascinating case studies, research papers, publications and books by researchers and ELT experts from around the world.

See our publications, research and insight