3 Reasons Why Your ELLs Need Arts Integration

February 12, 2015
Erin Wilkey Oh Executive Editor, Education Marketing
Common Sense Education

CATEGORIES Students, 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.

Photo: "Who Am I?" by Ahmad Hammoud. Used under a CC BY 2.0 license.

How do you use the arts to empower English learners in your classroom? Share your tips in the comments below!

bilingual | bicultural | esl | ell