Art Works Blog

Looking at the Intersection of Arts Education and Bilingual Students

At the next NEA Task Force webinar on Tuesday, November 18, Carol Morgan, deputy director for Education at ArtsConnection, and Jennifer Stengel-Mohr of New York’s Queens College will share their research on the relationship between arts education and English language learners. You can register for the free webinar here.

We’ve asked Morgan and Stengel-Mohr to set the stage for Tuesday’s conversation. Here’s what they each had to say. 


My father used to tell the story of how I started correcting his English when I was four years old. He grew up in the northern Appalachian mountains and spoke with all the colloquialisms of his hometown; my mother was a city girl who taught me to speak “properly.” The seeds for my future interests in language and communication were sown early.

I started my career teaching foreign languages but, like many new teachers, I wasn’t very effective and I didn’t stick it out long enough to learn: life and my passion for the arts led me in other directions. Even so, that early curiosity about how we all learn and what helps us communicate with each other across language and cultural divides--both big and small--never left me.

Beginning more than a decade ago, a series of grants to ArtsConnection from the newly formed Arts in Education Program at the U.S. Department of Education provided the opportunity to address my curiosity in earnest. What began with a more general exploration about the arts and literacy connection in 2001, honed in on English Language Learners (ELLs) beginning in 2005, and has remained a central focus.

What these projects have enabled us to do is to ask big questions, examine them from various perspectives, and engage in practitioner research. From 2005 to 2010, we worked with over 50 New York City public school teachers, a dozen dance and theater artists, and half a dozen ArtsConnection staff members. Together we asked, What is the nature of teaching and learning in dance and theater, and in what ways do they influence second language acquisition in ELLs?

It took us a while to articulate that question and to understand that each of us held a piece of the puzzle that, when assembled, would help us all build deeper knowledge and better skills to do our jobs well. We met regularly for five years--teachers, artists, and ArtsConnection staff--to share our observations and what we were learning through the process, each from our own point of view. We all wanted to be able to help the thousands of children who come to NYC from all over the world learn to work and think like artists, find their artistic voice, and communicate across language and cultural divides.

Our colleagues Jessica Nicoll and Barry Oreck describe behaving like artists as, “…learning to pose meaningful questions, discover interests and pursue provocative problems, and work collaboratively in the unknown territory of artistic creation.” Our collaborative inquiry process among the adults mirrors the learning process our students experience in the arts. This is what we try to practice at every level of our programs.  

At the same time as we have been conducting our practitioner research, we have worked with an independent evaluation and research team headed by Dr. Rob Horowitz. They have observed our work, conducted surveys, and analyzed test scores to quantify the learning and report on our work. Their work has provided us with a fresh view of what and how ELL students learn in the arts, and identified areas we are exploring as possible “mechanisms of transfer” to help connect the dots between teaching and learning in the arts and second language acquisition.

We look forward to sharing with you both the independent evaluator’s findings and our own practitioner research during the webinar on November 18.. We also look forward to your comments and to a meaningful conversation. 

Headshot of Jennifer Stengel-Mohr  


Participation in the Developing English Language Literacy through the Arts (DELLTA) program has shown me that art making experiences can be transformative on a number of levels. First and foremost, participation in the arts transforms students from viewers to doers. This is particularly important when the students are language learners.

Language is a complex system. Successfully acquiring a new language requires a combination of social, academic, and personal tools. Aside from possessing these tools, students must take a risk to use them to communicate in new situations.

Similarly in the arts, artists take risks with their artistic choices to communicate meaning to their audience. A language learner and an artist cannot be passive in either process. It is for this reason that the arts and language share a common thread: both are built on procedural knowledge, the "doing" type of knowledge.

Another level of transformation occurred among the teachers involved in this process. Being part of a professional interdisciplinary team strengthened my capacity as a teacher. This collaborative opportunity provided a space where I was able to contribute ideas, receive feedback, and reflect on effective strategies useful in both artistic experiences and the classroom. Each member of the team provided a unique perspective that helped shape the inquiry.  

One additional transformative effect that occurred was at the school level. During the third year of my participation with the development of the DELLTA Residency Model, I had been planning to teach the water cycle as part of the science curriculum. Mei Yin, the teaching artist who worked with my class, and I brainstormed about how to connect that to dance. We wondered if that could even be done, but with the skill set each of us brought to the table, we made it possible. 

At the end of this residency my class participated in a school-wide performance where they used traditional Chinese dance techniques in combination with creative movement to express their understanding of the stages of the water cycle set to the poem Water Dance by Thomas Locker. The audience was mesmerized by the seamless flow from one students' movement to another. So much so, that my class received numerous thank-you cards and personal sentiments from other students and teachers for a job well done.

At that moment I knew what we had accomplished was big: these often underserved and under-estimated students had finally found their voice. When you can change an entire school's perspective about the capabilities of a language learner, you have made a difference. True collaboration at all levels broke barriers and defied doubt to create something that far exceeded our expectations.  

Don't forget to register for the free NEA Task Force webinar with Carol Morgan and Jennifer Stengel-Mohr on Tuesday, November 18 at 3pm ET.



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