Why the Digital Arts with English Language Learners (ELLs): Viewing, Voice, and Vision

Have we thrown out the baby with the bathwater in the education of English language learners?

There have been two recent trends in ELL education that have led to curricula that are highly or exclusively focused on written literacy with little explicit attention to the acquisition and practice of oral/aural literacies: the NCLB requirement that ELLs participate in academic assessment designed for native English speakers, and secondly an erroneous belief that effective instruction for ELLs is synonymous with "good teaching" with native English speakers. While important, exclusive focus on written literacies does not represent best practice based on language and literacy acquisition research.

What we are coming to know about ELLs is that the synergy from the interaction of multiple literacies (speaking, reading, writing, listening and viewing) is crucial—more powerful than adding each literacy sequentially. Recent research has found that the act of speaking -- of giving voice to ideas -- leads to an improvement in reading comprehension. The same cognitive skills required in the organization and expression of academic conversation (the analysis of text structure, understanding of idea hierarchy, and integration of multiple sources, etc.) are involved in the processes of reading and writing. The search for classroom activities that integrate all language skills and engage the English language learner in repeated language practice has long been the goal of educators. In digital storytelling, we have found one solution.

Viewing and the English Language Learner

Visuals are essential in the teaching of English language learners. From the perspective of effective instruction, we know that showing visuals along with the teaching of words and concepts helps the learner to acquire language more rapidly and deeply. We know also that visuals help our English learners to understand concepts when limitations of their English language knowledge would impede understanding.

The use of visuals also plays a role in class assignments. An English learner is sometimes not able to express competence in a subject because of language limitations; however, the student can draw, chart, or visually represent his or her understanding of content material. Overall, best practice for ELL instruction demands that the instructional environment for ELLs be visually rich – not just print-rich, but rich in pictures, objects (realia), graphs, etc. – to help ELLs in their comprehension of information and their expression of that information. The visuals inherent in digital stories have great potential to support effective instruction.

Beyond the Writing: The Power of the Voice for ELLs

As you watch a class of English language learners engaged in producing the voiceover, you wait for the first moment they hear the telling of their own stories in their own voices. One by one you see the flash of bright eyes, the big smiles, and the intense faces as they listen to their own voices speaking the language that they had doubted they could speak. In a flash, English language learners transform from learners of English to fully invested users of English.

English learners are enmeshed in the process of creating their identities as users of the English language. They are engaged in crucial choice-making: to boldly assert a strong and powerful voice in their English second language – or to assume a quieter, less power-full voice, a voice that is unlikely to take risks, unlikely to take control over situations, and unlikely to view the self as a worthy contributor to the conversation. The development of a powerful voice is crucial to their overall development as users of English. Thus, the voice must become entwined with the writing process from the very earliest states of digital art composition.

Visions Embedded in Many Cultures

One of my students from Korea ended her digital story about a culture clash with an image of a cartoon figure waving goodbye and voicing, "Oh la, la." Later, I asked her to explain why she had ended that way. She said that she felt she needed to say "goodbye" to her audience as an appropriate ending to her story. No lingering question; no unfinished business. As one expecting an American ending to the digital story, it was both unexpected and interesting.

The digital media genre celebrates the different and the unexpected, allowing broader parameters than written genres but also expanding the visual canon to include images from international popular culture and youth culture and script choices that may not be commonplace. For example, my students included anime to illustrate key points and Matrix-style fashion models to represent themselves and friends. While I may not have made those choices, it was clearly in response to a sense of ownership of the digital media and a sense of freedom that my English learners do not often have in written text.