Using the Arts to Support English Language Learners

Why and how to engage English language learners through the arts

Getting Started

You don’t have to be an artist yourself—though everyone is, whether they know it or not—to open the door to using arts as a way to support your English language learners throughout the curriculum. The capacity to learn is limitless, and students learning English have the experience of growing up with at least two languages and cultures. As teachers, we must support and encourage their learning, confidence, and application of language.

When students are learning a new language, they often have a stronger understanding of subject matter than their vocabulary or self-confidence allows them to demonstrate. Here is a great example of a middle school teacher discovering that her student understood a lot more than she expected as a result of creating a science lesson with drawing:

“The student has difficulty turning in his assignments for science class, partly for personal reasons, but mostly language reasons. The student speaks English but can barely read or write it. The magical moment occurred while integrating science and arts. The objective was to draw a cell through a microscope, label cell parts, and write a reflection [about] how the shape of a cell is related to the function of that organism. Well, it turns out this student is an extremely talented artist and was able to write a reflection piece of equal quality (of mind) because it was on his cell drawing. The student has since turned in all his labs on time. The art bridged the language content gap!”

Here are a few ideas to get you started with using the arts to enhance student understanding:

  • Have students interpret and act out aspects of science—for example the life cycle of a butterfly in kindergarten, or the food chain in third grade—can help students not only learn concepts, but also show you that they understand them. Many lessons in the curriculum can be acted out as a way to build vocabulary skills as well as teach concepts.
  • In social studies, acting out historical or significant cultural events is a method students will remember for a long time to come. You could also ask students to choose a familiar melody, write new lyrics to describe events in history, and then sing the songs together in class. The group singing aids in children’s confidence and ability to use language, and creating new song lyrics enables students to apply vocabulary they are learning.

Enhancing Literacy Skills

For reinforcing reading and English Language Arts skills, enhancing instruction with arts-centered tasks can cement key concepts:

  • Ask students to act out compound words, a great language arts lesson for lower grades. Compound words are words like beehive, backbone, fingernail, basketball, football, toothbrush, and raincoat. Working in teams, students must act out each part of the compound word. You can make it into a game to see if students trick their classmates by placing the word in its correct order or in opposite order.
  • Spelling and word comprehension can come alive while enabling kids to use visual arts. Have your students draw the meaning of vocabulary words by using the letters of the words in their drawings. In other words, the lines of the letters provide the basis for the drawing of the meaning of the words. Some teachers have labeled this activity as “picto-spelling.” It is engaging, intentional, and requires creative thinking. (The art at the top of this guide is a picto-spelling example of the word snap.) 

Another arts discipline that is full of potential is dance and movement. Nearly every student loves to move about, and movement can be a wonderful way to reach students learning English. In one college class, a professor challenged his students to dance DNA. The challenge was so successful that he said this particular class learned more about DNA than any other he had ever taught.

Movement is also wonderful for mathematics and can be done with simple movements for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. For example, ones can be hand claps, tens can be stomps, and hundreds can be twirls. Students can act out or dance equations and then write them on the board.

“Teaching through the arts,” remarks one teacher who uses the arts as a methodology for teaching, “opens the floodgates of second language, the gate that keeps them back, that keeps them limited and maybe questioning their own self worth. It opens that gate because they have been actively involved and showing you they are feeling really good.”



Merryl Goldberg
Original Writer

Editors & Producers

Katie Freeman



1 Source: From Teaching English Language Learners Through the Arts: A SUAVE Experience, edited by Merryl Goldberg (Allyn & Bacon, 2004).

2 More examples of picto-spells can be found in my book Integrating the Arts: An Approach to Teaching and Learning in Multicultural and Multilingual Settings (Allyn & Bacon, 2006).

3 Source: From Teaching English Language Learners Through the Arts: A SUAVE Experience, edited by Merryl Goldberg (Allyn & Bacon, 2004).

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