Craig, D. & Paraiso, J. (2008). Dual Diaspora and barrio art: Art as an avenue for learning English. Journal for Learning through the Arts, 4(1).


This qualitative study, guided by an action research framework, explores how urban middle school students, who are primarily Spanish-speaking English language learners, are able to utilize artwork as a means of free expression while learning a second language. The teacher-researcher, with guidance from a university professor, collected and analyzed data from student artwork and journals and classroom observations to understand if and how unstructured art affects ELL students’ acquisition of a second language. Findings reveal that unstructured art periods lowered the affective filter of language acquisition and led to greater ease in language acquisition for ELL students.

Key Findings:

  • If students are given the opportunity to create drawings and illustrations they will begin to interact and discuss their artwork.
  • ELL middle school students’ vocabulary increased as they shared information about their artwork.
  • Through discussion and dialogue of artwork, ELL students’ communication skills—comfort and proficiency speaking English—became stronger. These communication skills helped them progress in all areas of school.
  • Students written English skills increased as they began to write or dictate the stories behind their artwork.
  • ELL learners experienced an increased sense of accomplishment and self-confidence, which translated to success in other content areas.
  • Providing opportunities for free expression enables students to share freely and develop a sense of voice.

Significance of the Findings:

In an era of high stakes testing, English language learners do not have many opportunities to acquire language skills in a setting where they can freely express themselves. In fact, students are often placed in rigid learning environments where they feel pressured to learn English as quickly as possible. Some research asserts that certain emotions, such as anxiety, self-doubt, and even boredom may interfere with the processes of second language acquisition. The hypothesis further states that the blockage can be reduced by sparking interest, providing low anxiety environments, and bolstering the learner’s self-esteem. This article points to artistic expression as a simple and inexpensive means for English language learners to informally acquire language skills by discussing their artwork. Students are also able to develop greater confidence as well as express a connection to their culture through their artwork.


This qualitative study is based on an action research framework, generally meant to improve practice. The teacher served as a teacher-researcher, with input and guidance from a university professor who helped design the study, analyze the data, and synthesize the findings. The researchers collected and analyzed data from student artwork and journals and classroom observations from a sample of 34 ELL students. Data analysis comprised analyzing and coding student artwork, recoding themes, and the eventual creation of larger categories and accompanying attributes of the students’ artwork.

Limitations of the Research:

As the study is a qualitative action research project, the authors could have strengthened the validity of the study by including a description of the teacher-researcher’s potential bias.

The study does not include a control group for comparison, and does not control for other factors that could affect the students’ language acquisition, such as the teacher-researcher’s pedagogical practice. In other words, art making cannot be isolated as an independent factor affecting student language acquisition. Findings would be stronger if the research design included pre-and posttest surveys or assessments compared to those of a control group.

Questions to Guide New Research:

This study is a limited case study and the findings cannot easily be scaled up. Studies with a more rigorous methodology and design that attempt to establish a causal or strong correlational relationship between visual art and improved English language arts (ELA) skills should be completed. The affect should also be investigated for non-ELL students.