Help Your ELL Students in Art Class with These Simple Steps

I will never forget one of my sweetest 1st grade students. Picture this: It was my first year of teaching art, and my student’s fourth day in the United States. He had art on his very first day at our school. He had cried all day in his classroom because (of course) he hadn’t understood anything. Then, he came into art, and the tears stopped. It was the first day of a new lesson that started with a “follow along with me” procedure. Because art is visual, he was instantly able to connect to and participate in the lesson.

I felt so proud to provide an experience that was successful for him, at least for that day. Of course, it won’t always be ‘easy as pie’ when there are language barriers, but the visual nature of art is a tremendous asset for teaching ELL students in the art room.

Today I’d like to share a few specific strategies we discuss in our Reaching All Artists Through Differentiation class, which are helpful when teaching ELL students in the art room.

We’ll go through some things you may notice when teaching ELL students and how to help.

help ELL students

1. ELL students have a tendency to copy the teacher or another student.

One strategy to help ELL students make their own unique pieces is to keep file folders for each student with photos of things that interest them. If a student is strapped for an idea, simply pull out the folder and have him look through it. For example, let’s say you’re doing an animal portrait project.  Showing the student that other students are all working on different favorite animals, then looking through the folder for his favorite animal can be very helpful in showing that the assignment is not narrow, but that there are many solutions.

2. Students don’t always understand the verbal directions you give.

This is where visuals come in handy. Having directions “written” out in pictures is helpful. In addition, and maybe more importantly, having a word wall or labels around the classroom can help ELL students start to connect words to objects. In the elementary setting, these types of signs can be helpful for all students!

ELL students

Smart Tip – Remember: Talking slower helps. Talking louder doesn’t!

3. Students can become frustrated easily.

Be proactive to minimize frustration. The buddy system is an excellent approach. Seat ELL students with ‘helper’ students at first. The helper should be someone you can trust to not do the art for the student, but simply reiterate directions when needed. Proximity is key. Think: Does your seating chart easily help you give quick verbal and visual prompts to your ELL students?
I’ve asked ELL expert, Shelly Medlock to present on strategies for ELL students at the AOE Winter 2015 Online Conference. She’s attended a week-long intensive institute on ELL, and has come back to her room with art -specific connections she’s made. She’ll be sharing some of her favorites with you!

What do you notice when working with ELL students?

What helpful strategies do you have to share?


Jessica Balsley

Jessica Balsley is the Founder and President at AOE. She is passionate about helping art teachers enhance their lives and careers through relevant professional development.


  • Toby

    Oh my, does this bring back memories! I had a student placed in my High School art class speaking 100% French and zero English. The ELS-SPED teacher said, “just have her copy the kids next to her”! Art is a bit more involved than that! How can I explain safety to her? Using tools that may hurt her as found in stained glass?
    Then years later in an elem. Setting I had a Hmong student who spoke zero English… But we communicated via sketches. He didn’t stay long. I hope he did well!
    People not in the visual arts just don’t get it sometimes… We just play I guess in their eyes!
    Yes, I can see how kids can feel more successful in creating but some limits have to be followed too!

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