The Arts and English Language Learners

Posted March 2004: Merryl Goldberg believes that the arts can level the playing field for English language learners. See Sheryl Slocum's In-Service column, "We Should Have Stayed in Kansas, Toto," Essential Teacher, Spring 2004 (pp. 15-16).

"If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children," writes Carson (1965/1998), "I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life" (pp. 42-43).

Carson was talking to her readers (especially parents) as a naturalist. Halpern (2001), another naturalist, addresses wonder in children by asking, "How do people know what they know?" Relating wonder to passion, she writes,

All these years later, I hardly remembered the difference between an igneous and a metamorphic rock. What I did remember was the single-mindedness with which I had picked through the woods behind my house, and the pure joy of finding something valuable enough to hold on to. It seemed reasonable to call this passion, and to think of myself—and everyone else—as a collection of passions. What this suggests is that it is not simply our ability to think, to be rational, that distinguishes humans from other species, but our ability to be irrational—to put stones in our pockets because we think they are beautiful. (pp. 8-9)

Uncover Students' Passions

Thinking of humans as "a collection of passions," as Halpern does, is an exceptional way to approach children in classrooms. Each child holds his or her own collection of passions. If teachers can find out what those passions are and tap into them, they will have a better chance of reaching each child.

Tapping into the passions of English language learners is a bit of a challenge: They might not be able use words to tell about their passions. In this case, art can be an important tool for teachers (in uncovering passions) and students (in expressing passions) (see Goldberg, 2001, 2004).

Who Am I?

As you read the following poem by a fifth-grade English language learner, form an idea of who this child is: a boy, a girl, a dreamer, a bully, an adventurer, a nature lover?

Meteors fly like a fly

Maybe it's a butterfly

With its wings spread high in the sky

Butterfly fly like a fly

With its wings spread high in the sky

I don't know why

But it can fly

If I could fly where would I go?

I would go across the sea and desert

I'd fly with the hawks, the falcons

I'd like to fly

Believe it or not (neither the teacher in charge nor I could), this poem was written by the class bully. After reading this poem, I never thought of this child in the same way again. He was different from the way I had envisioned him, and I could see that difference as a result of the poetry-writing exercise.

Skirt Language Barriers Creatively

The arts give English language learners a viable and creative way to communicate without always having to rely on verbal language. For example, a child who understands the life cycle of a butterfly very well but doesn't feel comfortable describing it, or cannot quite describe it, may be able to draw it or act it out. The arts can serve as a way around language barriers and give students nonverbal ways to communicate about content.

Some art forms promote the use of language explicitly. For example, writing poetry on the subject of science or mathematics or creating scripts for a puppet show depicting a period of history can be a path for language development and support language growth. Teachers might also use the arts to assess students' understandings or motivate students to engage with subject matter.

Level the Playing Field

Dale Murphy, who teaches fifth graders in southern California, says that learning can take time—and that the arts can level the playing field for all students. An observer came to her room to watch a lesson on comparing and contrasting. After the lesson, Murphy said to the observer,

Maybe you don't know that in this class I have two RSP [Resource Specialist Program] kids, I have a GATE [Gifted and Talented Education] student, I have 23 second language learners, and I have two non-English-proficient learners. But you didn't know that. When you look at an art lesson then you think they are all on an equal playing field. Art does take time, but doesn't learning? … If you really want the students to know what you are trying to teach them and truly understand the concepts, then you need to let them get into it. To me this is worth the time.

In this visual arts-based lesson, it was virtually impossible for a visitor to know who among the students was or was not proficient in English language skills. The activity allowed all the students to be successful.

Human beings have always expressed themselves through the arts. All cultures have historical records steeped in arts traditions, and all cultures express traditions and education through arts-based means. For those of us who have the privilege of teaching English language learners, the arts remain an important tool for tapping into their particular collection of passions.


Carson, R. (1998). The sense of wonder. New York: HarperCollins. (Original work published 1965)

Goldberg, M. (2001).Arts and learning: An integrated approach to teaching and learning in multicultural and multilingual settings (2nd ed.). New York: Addison Wesley Longman.

Goldberg, M. (Ed.). (2004). Teaching English language learners through the arts: A SUAVE experience. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Halpern, S. (2001). Four wings and a prayer: Caught in the mystery of the monarch butterfly. New York: Pantheon Books.

Merryl Goldberg ( is a professor of visual and performing arts at California State University San Marcos, in the United States.