Suggestions for Connecting Art and Literacy with English Language Learners

Using art to communicate is an ancient, international, and powerful practice. Visual art experiences offer opportunities for students who are learning English to express their knowledge in symbolic ways, which builds their personal and academic confidence and their ability to make connections between concepts, images, and texts. For example, if a teacher who is leading a unit on the life cycle of trees and wants to support English Language Learners (ELLS) through art, the teacher can give them the option to illustrate their understanding. A child who may be unable to write a paragraph explaining what happens to trees in the fall or may be unprepared or not confident enough to explain it verbally might be able to draw a picture of a red tree losing its leaves. Once this expression is created and validated by the teacher, the student might be lead to label the parts of the tree with pre-printed vocabulary stickers or work with a peer to describe her drawing verbally. Or, perhaps the entire class could create a large tree artwork together which they label with terms in all the languages of the students in the class. The class could then create a story about the tree and make puppets to act the story out–the options for overlapping creative visual expression with language understanding are truly numerous.

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Another powerful and simple way that an art project can support an English Learner’s language development is through asking children to draw themselves and their family. These symbols of self and belonging can be honored and displayed in the classroom. Children can also learn while working on these drawings to write their own and their family members’ names and can create an illustrated and decorated version of their names and/or their first initial.

Helping children to see that written languages are made up of a series of symbols which can be drawn and incorporated into art projects helps them to own their personal ability to draw, write, and communicate. Children can also be asked to illustrate vocabulary words and to then match images they and their classmates have drawn with their written meaning as they begin to build their wealth of sight words and their understanding of letter-sound correspondences.

The North Carolina Public Schools Arts Education site does an excellent job of pointing out the common elements of reading, writing, and the arts:
• “Interpreting symbol systems- sound/symbol correspondence in sequence
• Gaining competency through practice and repetition
• Studying a variety of genres
• Reflecting on societies and cultures
• Composing/writing/creating for different purposes
• Supporting various levels of meaning- personal interpretation, connections to own experience, connections to past events
• Expressing or evoking feelings/emotions.”

Arts for Learning points out that another benefit of art for the young mind learning to read and write is that the artistic process calls for concentration, reflection, and revision; “because artistic creation intrinsically involves extensive revision, arts integration can help students learn how to change and manipulate their thinking about texts.” Because art is a universal language, its ability to act as a bridge and tool for English Language Learner students is diverse. Arts Edge shares one teacher’s feedback on integrating arts into language acquisition projects: “teaching through the arts…opens the floodgates of second language.”

The Latino Family Literacy Project understands the connection between art and literacy and has developed an English literacy program that contains this combination. The program contains an exercise where students create an art project at home that incorporates the new English vocabulary they have learned. If you are interested in being trained to implement this program at your school check out their online webinar training and in person workshops.

Another tool that aids English Language Learners in this program is the vivid illustrations used in the books. You can preview a few of the books used in the program on Lectura Books Youtube page.