Learning English through the Arts




A former English Learner’s Experience

Abe Flores blogs about drama as a tool to learn English.








My first English teachers were Big Bird, Bert and Ernie. As a child of recently arrived Mexican immigrants, PBS programs were my first exposure to English. They taught me well. The muppets, songs, and animation made learning accessible – blurring the line between fun and learning (if such a line should ever exist).  To someone who did not understand the dialogue, the lessons were still clear and engaging: I counted along with The Count, recited the alphabet with the muppets and learned phonics from an animated James Brown.                                                                                                                           

As the eldest son, I was principal translator for my family, a role I despised because of pressures of accuracy and my own shyness.  When out with my mom, I dreaded being put in the middle, between her and a non-Spanish-speaking adult. “Pues dile hesto...” and “Que dijo” (tell them this; what did they say), my mom would constantly refrain.  I would not really mind when it was transactional – “how much is this” – but haggling at the swap meet or dealing with a bureaucrat was a nightmare.

Schooled in a Boyle Heights elementary, I was placed in bilingual classes and was initially taught in my native Spanish. I was eased into English through bilingual instruction and, starting at the third grade, through drama. Drama allowed me to develop my language skills by bringing to life words and syntax that were elusive and stale when emanating from textbooks and dittos. Drama required me to start thinking in English and practice new words out loud. My first play was set in Santa’s Workshop and I played the unfortunately named Tinkle the Elf (a constant reminder of a worst case scenerio for the play).  I had to learn a page of lines and was utterly terrified of forgetting my lines, living up to my character's name and falling off the stage (someone planted in my head that it was a common occurance - hence the expression "break a leg").  The play went off without a major glitch (only that my toddler brother decided to make an impromptu cameo onstage).  I was hooked: I was in every school play after that.  I became more empowered, more confident and more engaged. English became easier and that year I was recognized as a gifted student – I had conquered English! By the fifth grade I was placed in English-only classes and played my biggest part -- Scrooge in The Christmas Carol.  Drama had made learning English into an experience I will never forget.

Using drama as a tool for language arts is based on the principle that drama directly involves students, and an involved student is more interested in learning, a simple idea that seems to be lost in the debates around school accountability and high-stakes testing. Elementary students are children and fully engaging them is paramount if they are to excel. I know this firsthand.

After high school, I returned to my elementary school as a para-educator (a fancy way of saying teacher’s aide).  The student population remained the same – mainly Hispanic and socio-economically disadvantaged -- but the school day was completely altered to the detriment to English Learners (EL); the culprits - Proposition 227 and Open Court (which just this week has been scrapped by the LAUSD board - see the LA Times story).

Proposition 227, passed in 1998 by 61% of California voters, effectively ended bilingual education by mandating that English Learners be placed in structured English immersion for a period "not normally to exceed one year," then be transferred to mainstream classrooms taught "overwhelmingly in English” (see the State of California's website).

With the Open Court Reading Program, language arts was taught in an extremely mechanical manner – as I remember, it was basically the teacher at the head of the class asking students to repeat after him. I despised the new format for a very simple reason: about a fifth of the students had no idea what was being asked of them – they only spoke Spanish. Seeing these smart kids struggle was extremely frustrating.  There was little we could do, as Proposition 227 prohibited the teacher from Spanish instruction. There was no “English immersion” and, unfortunately, there was no time for drama. English Learners were left to sink or swim.

As a former English Learner, I understand the power of drama to get you out of your shell, to make the texts relevant and-- dare I say-- fun.  Studies have found that drama is an effective medium for literacy development:

  • New vocabularies presented in the drama context provide students opportunities to acquire the meanings visually, aurally, and kinesthetically.
  • Drama helps students acquire knowledge of word order, phrasing, and punctuation that contribute to the meaning of a written sentence.
  • Dramatic activities provide students a meaningful environment where they can practice oral reading repeatedly to develop fluency. 2 

Without a strong PTA or Parent Booster organized to raise funds for arts programs, access to the arts in elementary schools is spotty at best.  In the “Arts for All School Arts Survey: Measuring Quality, Access and Equity in Arts Education," five LA County school districts were surveyed "to measure access to and quality of arts instruction at the school site level." 3   Within the five districts surveyed, “students attending high poverty, Title I designated schools have fewer options in accessing a high-quality education in the arts than other students. Secondary Title I schools were found to be less likely to have an articulated plan for arts education or have attained supplemental support from the surrounding business and/or arts community." 3  The poorest schools and those with high levels of English Learners are the least likely to have high-quality arts education for every student. 

The decline in equitable access to arts education is a national trend:

A new analysis of survey data compiled by the National Endowment for the Arts since 1982 shows that blacks and Latinos have suffered from a collapse in arts education. In 2008, 58% of whites ages 18 to 24 reported having taken at least one arts class during their life, a 2% drop from 1982. The drop was much bigger for the nation's two largest minorities — from 51% to 26% for blacks, and from 47% to 28% for Latinos. (LA Times)

The study suggests that schools are the primary source of arts education for minority youth, and that access to arts education is declining for students of color.  Minority families are more likely to be socioeconomically disadvantaged, and therefore have greater difficulty paying for arts classes.

As luck would have it, a former EL student that benefited so much from the arts is now in a position to help reverse this alarming trend. As the Advocacy Field Manager for Arts for LA, I am tasked with getting more people to advocate for the arts in schools and civic life. I do this by conducting advocacy workshops that train people how to best advocate for the arts (workshops have been held in Pasadena, L.A. & currently in Long Beach).

Effective messaging is key to successful advocacy.  As arts advocates, we must tell the story of the power of the arts and have the research to back it up. As I read in a recent American for the Arts blog: Story + Data = Truth. The only way to convey the benefits and power of the arts is to combine the human element with the research that makes the case.

If enough people understand the value of the arts and ask for it to be a part of every aspect of civic life, threats of total elimination for arts education will be a thing of the past, and young English Learners will have access to instruction that reaches and engages them.

What is your story? What research do you think should be more widely known? I want to know: please share your story and thoughts in the Comments section below and submit a video to the Friends of the Arts in LAUSD Video Activism Campaign.


For more information on the Video Activism Campaign dowload the flyer and visit their website.

(Good advocacy messaging always closes with an ask = a call to action)


1Smith, E. C. (1972). Drama and schools: A symposium. In N. H. Brizendine & J. L. Thomas (Eds.), Learning through dramatics: Ideas for teachers end librarians (pp. 4-14). Phoenix, AZ: Oryx.

 2McMaster, J. C. (1998). "Doing" literature: Using drama to build literacy. Reading Teacher, 51(7), 574-584.

 3Waldorf, L. & Atwill, K. (2011). Arts for All School Arts Survey Measuring Quality, Access and Equity in Arts Education. Commissioned by Arts for All with support from The Wallace Foundation. Last Accessed March 28, 2011 <http://www.lacountyarts.org/UserFiles/File/artsed/Resources/ SummaryQAE_SurveyResults_2011.pdf>.

Additional Resources:

Boehm, M. (2011, March 9). Fewer young blacks and Latinos attend arts events: NEA study. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved March 28, 2011, from http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/la-et-nea-study-20110309,0,327...

Lin, Chia-hui. (2005) Literacy Instruction through Communicative and Visual Arts. Teacher librarian 32.5  25-27

That was a beautiful post

That was a beautiful post that eloquently captured the experience of so many of the kids that P.S. ARTS serves. 



What a blog!

Here's what I wrote to Danielle: 

How awesome was Abe Flores' blog?? MAN O MAN! Beautiful read and to feel the progression of his life. Now you're going to turn him into a full time radical jihadist, or whatever they call it when you join the holy war for arts education. Just tell him how much I loved reading it, please.And she said, Tell him yourself. Which is what I'm doing. It's like hearing a great song the first time. You know it before it's finished and you won't forget it. A wonderful testimony to your journey and to the power of the arts. I look forward to meeting the author one of these days. Till then, my deep bow of admiration...Joe LandonPolicy DirectorCalifornia Alliance for Arts Education

story + data = truth

Thank you Abe for sharing your powerful story. How many "Abes" are there in LA who will not live up to their full potential when denied a rich, multi-faceted education? That's what we are fighting for.


Michael Blasi

Arts Education Committee Co-Chair, United Teacher Los Angeles

Thank You


We all have our stories, we all have witnessed the power of the arts to transform and uplift.That's why we do what we do.


Thank you for being a great partner!


I just updated the blog - the LAUSD board this week scrapped Open Court.


Thanks for sharing this powerful true testimony to the raw power that the visual and performing arts provide!


Lorien Eck

Thank you

Thank you for being one of those teachers who transform lives.

Great piece Abe! I think even

Great piece Abe!

I think even as a native english speaker the dramatic arts helped me find a voice growing up. 


-Ann Gordon