Increasing the school engagement and oral language skills of ELLs through arts integration in the primary grades

Brouillette, L., Childress-Evans, K., Hinga, B. & Farkas, G. (2014). Increasing the school engagement and oral language skills of ELLs through arts integration in the primary grades. Journal of Learning through the Arts, 10(1).

Abstract:

Building on previous research on the relationship between the arts and student engagement and achievement, researchers studied the impact of San Diego’s Teaching Artist Project (TAP) on the attendance and speaking and listening skills of children in kindergarten through second grade, with a focus on English Language Learners (ELLs). TAP is an arts integration program led by teaching artists and classroom teachers that provides lessons in visual arts, theatre, and dance to students in high-poverty schools. Researchers found that art lessons led to higher attendance rates and teachers reported many benefits of the program for their students. Researchers also found that theatre and dance lessons led to increased speaking and listening skills for ELLs as measured by state standardized tests. Teachers reported improvements in their students’ verbal interactions.

Key Findings:

Researchers found that attendance rates were significantly higher on days with scheduled art lessons than on days without. Speaking and listening skills for ELL students, as measured by scores on the California English Language Development Test (CELDT), improved significantly after weekly hour-long theater and dance lessons were integrated into the kindergarten curriculum; scores also improved, although not significantly, for first graders receiving the same intervention. Teachers reported that their students were more engaged in school as a result of participating in art lessons and felt that the program was beneficial.

Significance of the Findings:

Student engagement has been shown through previous research to be positively correlated with academic achievement, and the findings seen here establish a strong link between art lessons and student engagement. Cutting art programs in low-performing schools so that more resources can be devoted to raising test scores in math and language arts is a common phenomenon; however, these findings indicate that art programs themselves can positively influence academic engagement and performance on standardized tests. That just one hour per week of theater and dance lessons led to higher achievement for ELL students is a strong indicator of the importance of keeping opportunities for art making in low-performing schools.

Methodology:

Researchers selected five San Diego schools participating in the TAP program that offered all arts lessons on the same day of the week for a given grade level. Lessons were given in visual art, theater, and dance. The school district provided daily attendance data in order to compare the percentage of students attending school on days with and without art. Attendance rates were compared separately for each grade level, school, and month of the year. A regression analysis was performed to determine the statistical significance of the effect of art lessons on student attendance. Researchers also interviewed 15 teachers, 19 mentor teachers, and eight principals at participating schools to learn their perceptions of students in the art program. Interview subjects were self-selected. A coding system was developed from interview transcripts to identify and analyze recurring themes. In the next part of the study, focusing more closely on the impact of TAP on language skills for ELLs, an outside evaluator randomly selected 15 high poverty schools participating in TAP; five of these schools were matched with a group of control schools not receiving an arts integration treatment. The visual arts component of TAP was eliminated for this portion of the study, because teachers reported it did not lead to much verbal interaction. After one year of one hour of dance or theater instruction per class per week for 28 weeks, researchers compared Speaking and Listening subtests and overall scores on the CELDT for kindergarteners and first graders.

Limitations of the Research:

Teachers and schools were not randomly selected for participation in the TAP program for the purposes of this study, and pre-existing motivations or attitudes regarding art education could have influenced results. The first part of this study, which measured student attendance and teacher reports on student engagement, consisted only of a treatment group with no control group for comparison. Teacher perceptions of their students’ attitudes might have been high across the district, even at schools without an art program. The second part, which measured the influence of the arts integration program on ELL test scores, does not include a sufficiently detailed description of data collection or analysis.

Questions to Guide New Research:

Future research might seek to further examine the effects of art lessons on demographic subgroups not specifically isolated here, perhaps according to race or gender. Would art lessons influence engagement and academic achievement in similar ways for older students? The researchers mention that the San Diego school district is known for its strong arts programs; are the findings seen there generalizable to other schools districts that do not have a pre-existing culture of art appreciation?