• by José L. Rodríguez • IDRA Newsletter • April 2000 • Jose L. Rodriguez

As I was preparing for a recent training session for teachers of English as a second language (ESL), I reviewed key instructional strategies for limited-English-proficient (LEP) students. Reading over the material, I caught myself daydreaming about my own experiences as an LEP student. When I began school, there was no such thing as bilingual education. I did not speak English, and my teacher did not speak Spanish. I immediately found refuge by entering an uncollaborative stage. Speaking Spanish was not allowed in school, so the only thing I could do was develop my listening skills and begin repeating words I was hearing.

The Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) for the Fine Arts lists four basic strands that students are expected to acquire: perception, creative expression and performance, historical and cultural heritage, and critical evaluation. The arts play an important role in the education of children, since before entering school children are constantly engaged in creative play which in turn enhances brain development (Sylwester, 1999). It is through this creative play that many children also develop a love of learning (Hernández, 1998).

I have found that the goals for fine arts can also strengthen the overall instructional program, particularly with LEP children. As teachers know, effective instruction balances both the affective domain (heart) and the cognitive domain (mind). Working with LEP children also requires attention to the linguistic domain. The arts can be used to support instruction in each domain.

 The Affective Domain

As educators, we must help children feel good about themselves and their heritage. Early instruction should be provided in the students’ home language to sustain confidence, self-assurance, and a positive identity with their cultural heritage. Let me provide some examples of how the arts can support the affective domain.

When children of Mexican American descent enter school and see the artwork of a Mexican American artist displayed in the classroom, they can immediately see themselves portrayed in the artwork. This tells all students that it is acceptable to be who they are and it is acceptable to speak their home language.

Children are often asked to draw a picture of their neighborhood or a picture of themselves engaged in a family activity. Yet some may be embarrassed or uncomfortable about others’ perceptions of their neighborhood or the activities their families engage in. But, once children see, for example, a book by Carmen Lomas Garza, they see themselves in one of her works. This validates their cultural heritage, and soon they are willing to depict their family or their neighborhoods with pride.

Singing songs that are familiar to LEP children also validates their cultural heritage. Children come to school with plenty of background knowledge, which must be enhanced – rather than suppressed – by the teacher.

 The Cognitive Domain

In the cognitive domain, instruction is provided to ensure mastery in science, health, math and social studies. Reading and writing stories from a child’s cultural background nurtures the cognitive domain along with the affective and linguistic domains. Using the arts in the content areas enhances learning as well. Creative dramatics may be used to teach math concepts; it may be a strategy students want to use while solving a problem. Dramatization of a historical event can enhance a lesson in history. There are many songs that tell stories about events that might otherwise be difficult for students to learn if they just read a textbook. Students also may choose to illustrate a concept they have learned.

As a first grade teacher I was able to teach many concepts through the use of the arts. The students enjoyed coming to class because it was fun. Learning was not just filling out worksheets; it was creating and discovering. The children’s creativity was not stifled, but rather nurtured.

 The Linguistic Domain

In the linguistic domain, students practice their comprehension, speaking, composition and reading skills. When children are encouraged to express themselves in their home language, they are not afraid to speak. Once children are allowed to express themselves orally, they can then begin to read and write, which will enhance their comprehension skills.

Nurturing this domain through the arts makes learning meaningful for LEP students. Researcher de Bóo explains:

For young children, expressing themselves and communicating meaning is an imperfect skill as yet. The child’s knowledge of vocabulary and syntax is still developing, and representing objects and events in the symbolic form of words is difficult, demanding and stimulating. Games can give an opportunity to repeat and extend language functions, and can thus be a useful aid to learning. During language games, children will use words to recall, express, explain, question and sequence their thoughts. Children get a chance to develop skills of pronunciation and to use language purposefully in an atmosphere of fun (de Bóo, 1992).

It is through these finger plays, simple songs and creative dramatics that teachers are able to prepare their students to become better readers. Music and creative dramatics allow children to move about creatively and freely. This movement later helps them learn to form letters. After they have experienced the movement of the letters, they can then transfer that movement onto a piece of paper using a paintbrush or a crayon.

Early childhood education expert and innovator Lella Gandini states, “All children have preparedness, potential, curiosity and interest in constructing their learning, in engaging in social interaction and in negotiating with everything the environment brings to them” (Gandini, 1999). When the three areas of instructional strategies for LEP students are met through a creative curriculum, the students leave an uncollaborative stage and enter an interactive stage of learning.


de Bóo, M. Action, Rhymes and Games (Warwickshire, Great Britain: Scholastic Publications Ltd., 1992) pg. 43.

Gandini, L. “Fundamentals of the Reggio Emilia Approach to Early Childhood Education,” Young Children (November 1993).

Hernández, Y.F. “Child’s Play,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, April 1998).

Sylwester, R. “Art for the Brain’s Sake,” Educational Leadership (November 1998).

José L. Rodríguez is an education associate in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be directed to him via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2000, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the April 2000 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]