Connecting Art and Literacies for Emergent Bilingual Learners 

JUNE 12, 2023

By Lea Rackley, Ph.D. 

Art provides many different modes of expression that are not oral language dependent. This means it can act as a threshold for the unsayable; things we are not yet sure how to express.

For language learners, having a variety of ways of sharing thinking beyond oral language–such as textual, gestural, visual, spatial, audio, and digital expressions– is very important for thresholding thoughts, ideas, and knowledge into a new language (see, i.e., Franks, 2008).

In their book Art as a Way of Speaking (2019), Berriz, Wager, & Poey point out that even native English speakers are, and will always be, English Language Learners (ELLs), and the work of continuous language development benefits all students. They use the term Emergent Bilingual Learners to acknowledge the assets that multilingual learners bring to our classrooms (i.e., García, 2009).

Especially for students who are learning English in a new land at the same time as holding all the relationships they have with their other languages and the other places they’ve called home, art can scaffold language learning and provide multiple entry points to sharing thoughts that are on the way to becoming languageable across a new language. Berriz, Wager, & Poey teach us that art can also “provide the rich relationships necessary for the learning process”, “create fertile ground for inspiring a sense of belonging in school”, and “call on students to draw from and contribute their cultural knowledge and linguistic background as they enhance their communication skills” (2019, p.11). 

Consider something as simple as drawing. This can be a way for us to show each other what’s on our minds, providing a shared artifact to connect our words to. And then, imagine collaging as a way we can bring a variety of ideas together and make connections, showing each other visually how our ideas converge or overlap as an entry point for discussion or writing. From there, we might construct stories through digital art or photography, or make comics and graphic novels. These are already the vibrant expressions of multiliteracies that all of our students need. For emergent bilingual youth, they are also important ways of entering new language practices and sharing their multilingual literacies with others.

As discussed in the book, Wager also has an extensive background in using drama and theatre to make multilingual conversations possible. From role-play and improvisational activities in class to larger scale projects, theatre, video, and dramatic play can open our movements and gestures towards our shared meaning making between languages. 

There is also an opportunity through art to create assessments that draw more deeply upon the knowledges of emergent bilingual youth. Arts-based assessments that make use of a variety of modes of expression can give us more insight into all of our students’ thinking, but especially into knowledges and connections on the edge of languagability for multilingual learners. For example, Lawrence and Mathis (in Berriz, Wager, & Poey, 2019) use collages accompanied by short museum summaries and/or expository essays to provide emergent bilingual learners with multiple ways of exploring and sharing meaning, and communicating their ideas.

To meet between art and literacies is perhaps to meet each other more fully. The relationships necessary for learning and, as Berriz, Wager, & Poey put it, the sense of belonging in school that make it possible for our students to share their meaning making in the classroom, grows from that which is languageable and that which is not yet languageable. This is true for all of us. Emergent bilingual learners can teach us new ways of thresholding the intimate textures of our lives into language. Art can teach us that, too.

Lea Rackley studies radical pedagogies, literacies, relation, desire, and practices of care within learning communities. Her pedagogical work has included secondary schools, youth centres, museums, farms, and kitchens across Canada, the U.S., Australia, and Brazil.

For more information:

Art as a Way of Talking for Emergent Bilingual Youth: A Foundation for Literacy in PreK-12 Schools Edited by Berta Rosa Berriz, Amanda Wager, and Vivian Maria Poey.


Berriz, B., Wager, A., & Poey, V. (2019). Art as a way of talking for emergent bilingual youth. Routledge.

Franks, A. (2008). Palmers’ kiss: Shakespeare, school drama and semiotics. In C. Jewitt & G.

García, O. (2009). "Emergent bilinguals and TESOL: What’s in a name?" TESOL Quarterly, 43(2), 322–326.


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