Arts integration can help lower kids' affective filters and boost their confidence.

latino boy in the classroom

During my tenure as a teacher, I had the privilege of teaching English to non-native speakers -- both young people and adults. Those of you with English learners in your classroom (I'm guessing that's nearly everyone) are well aware of the challenges these students face. Beyond struggles with language and communication, many are grappling with their own identities as they learn to navigate two cultures.

A fantastic way to support English language learners both academically and emotionally is to integrate creativity and arts-based projects into your teaching. Art projects can help lower kids' affective filters, giving them more confidence to break out of their shells and get talking. From the classic arts such as painting and dance to newer forms like remix and digital storytelling, every classroom across the content areas should make room for creative expression. Here are three reasons why arts integration is essential for English language learners:

1. Art is a universal language. 

Because we develop receptive language more quickly than expressive language, students often understand more than we realize. Project options that require less language production give English learners opportunities to show what they know. Provide students with limited English a chance to be successful and demonstrate learning through visual media projects -- drawing, animation, video, photography, collage, and more.

2. Art expresses culture. 

Immigrant students can often feel pressured to assimilate into the dominant culture. Whether it's food, clothing, music, or language, kids sometimes get the message that their family's traditions are something to be ashamed of. Celebrate the diversity of your students' backgrounds, and give them opportunities to share their family's culture through arts-based projects.

3. Art experiments with identity. 

Music, acting, visual arts, dance, and other art forms are terrific avenues for reflection and experimentation. Tweens and teens are hungry to try on different personas and often step in and out of various communities. Remember that your English language learners are figuring out how to become both bilingual and bicultural. Create a safe space for students to figure out who they are by encouraging creative expression in your classroom.

The Top Picks lists below can help you find the right tools for integrating the arts into your classroom today.

Erin Wilkey Oh

Erin’s work focused on supporting students, teachers, and families for over a decade. As content director for family and community engagement at Common Sense, she provided parents and caregivers with practical tips and strategies for managing media and tech at home, and supports teachers in strengthening partnerships with families. Prior to her work with Common Sense, Erin taught public high school students and adult English learners in Kansas City. Her time as a National Writing Project teacher consultant nurtured her passion for student digital creation and media literacy. She has bachelor's degrees in English and secondary education and a master's degree in instructional design and technology. Erin loves to knit, read, hike, and bake. But who has time for hobbies with two young kids? In her free time these days, you'll find her hanging out at playgrounds, the zoo, and the beach with her family.