Carger, C. (2004). Art and literacy with bilingual children. Language Arts, 81(4), 283-292.


The teacher-researcher designed the action research study to ascertain how the inclusion of visual arts in reading circles can enhance language and literacy learning for young bilingual students. The teacher-researcher worked with small groups of six to seven kindergarten through fifth grade elementary school students in a pull-out group format for 30-40 minute periods twice per week from mid-January to mid-May. The teacher-researcher introduced visual art as a way for students to react to multicultural stories and demonstrate their knowledge about the stories. The teacher-researcher found through qualitative analysis of recorded class discussions that English language learning (ELL) students seemed to grasp literature at a deeper level when art was integrated into to the reading block. The findings suggest that the inclusion of visual arts in reading aids ELL students in the development of English language Arts skills.

Key Findings:

  • Visual arts activities linked to reading encouraged connections to prior experiences and other content areas, and promoted the use of problem-solving strategies in art-making with real-world application (e.g. making bowls large enough to hold food for a child).
  • The researcher found the children consistently engaged, focused, and stayed on task when given the opportunity to use art to respond to a story. The students were engaged in authentic and on-task conversations during the art making activities.
  • Incorporating media and arts and crafts traditions such as papel picado (a Mexican folk art of paper cutting), or mural projects established a connection between literature and students’ home cultures.
  • Lastly, encouraging discussion about the illustrations in books prompted genuine conversation critical to ELL students’ developing literacy skills. When engaged in these types of discussions about the book illustrations or the art-making project, students began to develop an arts-related vocabulary and learned to critique and make observations about art.

Significance of the Findings:

There is an achievement gap between English learners and native English speakers particularly in language arts. The visual arts are a means for teachers to scaffold instruction in literacy, and can also promote English learners’ language production.


The teacher-researcher conducted this four-month action research study in a K-5 public elementary school in Chicago. Most of the students (95%) involved in the reading group were of Latino descent. The sample (n=20) consisted of small groups of six to seven bilingual second and third graders, most of whom were English language learners (ELL). The teacher-researcher facilitated literacy circles and encouraged aesthetic responses to picture books. The teacher-researcher collected data comprised of students’ responses during oral discussions, dialogue journals, and students’ drawings, paintings, and clay sculptures. The teacher-researcher audio-taped and analyzed transcriptions of the students’ book discussions for 17 read-aloud sessions during the literature circles and coded the data and categorized salient themes.

Limitations of the Research:

The teacher-researcher did not provide alternative hypotheses to her findings and based on the action-research design of the study and lack of a control group for comparison, visual arts participation cannot be identified as the only independent variable affecting the results. The students selected were mostly students who had scored at or above proficient on the Illinois State Achievement Test. Student’s history for high academic achievement could be an alternative explanation for why they were more likely to make perceptive observations and demonstrated the use of higher order thinking skills.

Questions to Guide New Research:

Do the visual arts increase literacy skills for other groups of English language learners (e.g. Korean, Hmong, Russian, etc.)?

How can these findings be applied at the middle school and high school levels? Would students be as willing to convey their points of view, or would they be more reticent?

How might these findings be tested using quantitative measures, such as test scores?

Could the visual arts promote increased literacy skills in English language learners who demonstrate a record of low academic performance?