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The objective of this study is to assess whether authentic arts-based1 curricula facilitate the acquisition of English as a second language (ESL) without sacrificing proficiency in the first language (Spanish). This question is examined theoretically and empirically. First, the use of an arts-based curriculum is positioned within a Vygotskiian framework of learning as reflected in current research. This overview is organized by two themes: 1) the authenticity of the art experience and 2) the emphasis on social interaction and the cognitive mediation among sign systems. Applicable findings from related literature are reviewed and synthesized within each of these themes. Secondly, results from an exploratory study are presented and analyzed. This study compared two classes of ESL fifth graders, one of which was taught through an arts-based curriculum while the other was taught using traditional ESL methods. Students were pre-tested and post-tested to assess their first language (Spanish) skills and their English and Reading skills. While the study is preliminary, the results suggest that an arts-based curriculum provides significant cognitive advantages to ESL students by building on the cognitive strengths inherent in bilingualism. The semiotic richness of the arts echoes the semiotic abundance available to speakers of more than one language, nurturing an ability to approach symbolization in a creative, nuanced way. While traditional ESL programs treat students’ first languages almost as obstacles to learning (since the educational goal is narrowly defined as proficiency in English), an authentic arts-based curriculum allows students to embrace diverse modes of expression with the result that their expressive abilities grow in a global way.


Citation: Spina, S. U. (2006), Worlds together...Words apart: An empirical assessment of the effectiveness of arts-based curriculum for second language learners. Journal of Latinos and Education. 5 (2). 99-122.

This work was originally produced as part of the author's studies at the CUNY Graduate Center.



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