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  • Writer's pictureCamila Vasconcelos

5 Ways To Best Support ELL Students In The Art Room

Updated: Jul 27, 2023

As teachers, we are aware that how we communicate from day one of school can set the pace for the rapport we want to create with our students. But what happens if the language spoken in your classroom is not the native language of your entire class? How to build a strong communication channel with your ELL students in a way that they will feel heard, seen, and appreciated?

The art room gives students more freedom than any other class in core subjects. We teach them how to think and express themselves creatively and build a set of skills that will be embedded in their knowledge in many other fields of their lives. That is why is so crucial to give this phenomenal experience to all students, regardless of the language that they spoke at home, or the difficulty that they might face in other situations. By instructing students in creative projects and practices, art teachers can aid them in cultivating original ideas, leading to a more well-rounded and capable skillset.

It All Starts With Your Classroom Setup

It is essential to assure that your classroom is a welcoming environment for those who are not fluent in English. Take a look at your current seat mapping and reflect about what are the strategies that you are currently taking to help your ELL students to actively participate in the learning process. As a Choice-Based Art Teacher, I have my classroom set up in stations, with materials organized on top of each table for that class period. Each table has 6-8 stools, and students rotate through the stations, depending on what project they are developing. Having a strong and explicit routine and procedures can help you along the way as well. Make sure that you communicate your daily expectations, and how to use and take care of the art materials, either with posters, videos, or printed copies.

Another good way to increase participation is to pair students with a friend that is able to understand and help with the language. You can use icebreakers where students share their cultures, preferences, and home country and recognize in their responses what are they interested in and how to connect with each other.

Helpful tool to use:

Classroomscreen - if your art room is equipped with a tv connected to the internet or smartboard, you can easily use the free version of Classroom Screen to show your routine and procedures for the day. Keep it simple, with step-by-step points to obtain a better response from your class.

Give your ELL students support by giving them a voice to share their personal preferences

Last year, my school received two foreign students, one from Vietnam and another one from Spain. And considering that I was a teacher from Brazil teaching in the South of the US, we had many things in common to share with each other. Our cultural shock and differences between our home country and America were always the start of good conversations!

A boy holding a camera, taking a picture of a tree in a park
O., from Spain, during a Photography class outdoor. He concern to the environment and connection with nature brought awareness to the entire class about preserving our community beauties.

But I did not want the focus on the differences all the time. My idea was to encourage them to share what they already knew about the theme of the class, and how they could incorporate their unique ideas into that specific project. I was trying to make them see that, despite being in a whole different country they were able to experience the same activities that all the American students were experiencing.

The differentiation with the accent, ways to manage certain materials, and applying certain concepts were always used as teachable moments for those who were not familiar with that technique, language, or idea.

a boy holdinng his chin, in front of a landscape projection, while two other take a picture with a cellphone
T., from Vietnam, always shared with the class his technology skills, and we engaged in many conversations about how people assume those pre-conceived ideas about Asians in general.

Use Visuals to help your ELL Students With Vocabulary

A Word-Wall is a must-have for any art room. When I first got to the USA (remember, I am from Brazil and my native language is Portuguese!), they were many techniques, art supplies, and concepts that were way different from what I have learned before in College.

Having that wall within my reach was crucial, as a navigate to a whole new set of acronyms and vocabulary. Keep the visuals simple, and use as many pictures as possible to feature the art materials. And when I say pictures, I recommend you to use real pictures of what material is stored in which drawer or shelf, and what types of glues, markers, paints, and pencils you have. The reason why I say that is because despite having pretty clipart all over TPT, maybe that cute glue bottle smiling, and winking will not help your student to find the glue stick that they are looking for. Believe me!

Keep your instructions simple and direct

Now we reached the point where students are setting in, with art materials at hand, ready to start. It is time to teach them how to create art, of course! But if you do overcomplicate what instructions you have for the task, project, assignment, or any other activities for the day, you will lose their attention, and all the effort that you put to set up the space will be worthless.

So now is the time to break down your lessons into small chunks, and use call-for-action strategies. It can be with verbal cues, hand-clapping strategies, or any other classroom management technique that you already use. But your focus should be on ensuring that your message is not being lost due to translation.

A great way to help your ELL students to follow along with your planning is to create roles inside your artroom, in a way that they will feel empowered and helpful. Giving your students autonomy to work on tasks not only increases participation numbers but also provides a sense of belonging. All your students can take action and execute the role, and once you created a setting where they can have easy access to materials and resources, is going to facilitate the entire art-making process.

a teacher pointing to the tv while a student stand in front of it
Make sure to give to your ELL students clear instructions and assure they are following your guidelines

Do not assume anything

Not all ELL students are homogeneous, immigrants or have parents that do not speak English. The proficiency of a child in English does not necessarily reflect the language capabilities of their family. Some parents intentionally preserve their home language and culture, leading them to avoid exposing their children to English before school. Additionally, certain students grow up in bilingual homes with one American parent and one immigrant parent, creating a bicultural environment.

When in doubt, ask. Do not leave any room for other students to be biased or even mean, just because they ignore facts about that culture and the background of your ELL students. Teachers can provide interesting activities to promote multicultural ideas and arts-integrated projects where everybody can share pieces of their experiences to broaden the student’s horizons.


It is a blessing to have a multicultural classroom and the things that you can learn from your ELL students are priceless. But as art teachers, we have to be aware of some limitations that might arrive when students are learning a second language, and in many cases, this can be their third or fourth. Again, asking questions is the best way to learn more about them. Keep in touch with parents and other teachers to see what are the student’s strengths and challenges and learn in what ways art can become an asset to overcome those challenges and help them to reach their full potential. It is a journey to learn a second language, a being part of this process along with your students is a privilege!

In what ways do you incorporate multicultural education in your art room?

What are the different strategies that you use to support your ELL Students?

Camila Vasconcelos

Camila is a Brazilian Arts & Photography Teacher, Illustrator, and Advocate for Multicultural Education. She created The Multicultural Education Project, which mission is to connect teachers and students all around the globe to learn about Arts & Culture, as well as share their personal experiences, aiming for a more respectful and equal world.


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