The Reading Matrix
Vol. 4, No. 3, November 2004

Teaching English Language Learners through the Arts - A SUAVE Experience
Merryl Goldberg, Editor
Pearson Education, Inc
Boston , USA
149 pages

Reviewed by Barbara Scott
Independent Scholar


Children who enter school with incomplete or nascent English language skills - English language learners, or ELLs - bring with them a complex of latent abilities, cultural filters, and emotional needs. They represent a challenge for teachers, especially in the integrated classroom environment, where deficits can be compounded with time and increasing socio-educational pressures, as shyness, failure and the fear of failure lock up the student’s expressive language capacity even as comprehension may be perceptibly on the rise.

SUAVE (Socios Unidos para Artes via Educacion, or United Community for Arts in Education) is an initiative designed to address, through artistic exploration, the problems confronted by teachers in their attempts to stimulate communication skills in second language learners. Developed as a collaborative endeavor among California State University San Marcos, California Center for the Arts-Escondido, and local school districts, SUAVE is an award winning program now involving twenty schools over five districts. It focuses on language learning needs among ELLs in a primarily Latino-based immigrant population. The principles on which SUAVE is based on the idea that whereas all second language learners struggle with social fears and culturally defined hindrances, all children “speak” the universal language of color, music, and dramatic imaginative play.

SUAVE methodology defines the roles of teacher-as-learner, artist-as-coach, and requires an equal partnership of artist and teacher as risk-takers in the classroom. There is no set of regulated steps in each relationship between teacher/learner and artist/coach. Allowed to encounter one another and the classroom environment as an open set of challenges, SUAVE can give maximum stress to the role of art as a teaching medium through encounters dictated by the individual situation. This leads to risk taking, wherein the teacher, perhaps not schooled in art, lets the artist have input with the students, and can observe changes taking place in the ELL population. The teacher then offers feedback to the artist/coach, and learning situations can be changed to dovetail with student needs as they arise through the process.

Experientially, the teacher realizes that through music and painting, puppetry and other expressive output, the locked up language learner may begin to communicate verbally through free creative play. The experience of one teacher named Rita is described in some detail. Rita began her encounter with SUAVE with a belief that artists are a rare breed, that only a few of her students were artists, and that she herself was certainly not one. As she worked through the SUAVE program, which is designed for longevity with a minimum of two-years’ coaching/teaching/classroom interaction, she began to see herself as part of the artistic community, and to appreciate the ability to communicate as an artistic as well as a linguistic capacity. Recognizing that there is always a tension between the teacher and an interloper in the classroom, SUAVE strives to include the teacher as participant rather than novice, and the artist as professional but not superior, since it is the teacher who has classroom specific knowledge and rapport with the learners. Together, in weekly one-hour sessions, they customize lessons geared to the needs and abilities of the ELLs. This practice gradually blends into the teacher’s overall curriculum planning, as s/he begins to devise ways to incorporate art into other areas of study.

Teachers report that music, drama and visual arts encourage language learners in a myriad of useful ways, overcoming barriers to communication by offering a broader means of expression. A child who may not want to answer questions directly in typical teaching dialogues may open up linguistically when describing what s/he has painted. A puppet may “talk” when a child is too shy to do so. Each of these situations builds confidence, and over time, leads to expressive language production in other forums. Each also increases self esteem which has a deep impact on a student’s ability to interact and aids in unlocking other cognitive abilities. One teacher expressed the belief that arts-based assessments of progress are more accurate than conventional assessments, revealing not only a broader spectrum of abilities but also giving insight into how a student approaches learning.

Merryl Goldberg, Associate Professor of Visual and Performing Arts at California State University, San Marcos, is herself a professional musician who has published other works on the importance of arts education, and has been a participant in the development of SUAVE. In organizing materials for this book, she has included an interview with a principal impacted by the program, and sections by both artists and teachers associated with SUAVE.

The book is not merely an explication of the SUAVE method. It goes farther by offering sample lesson plans, stories from ground level of SUAVE interactions among artists, teachers and students, and a brief history of program highlights from 1994 to the present. A useful section for educators is a list of suggestions and revelations from brainstorming sessions with SUAVE teachers asked how they incorporate the arts into their educational efforts with second language learners. A typical SUAVE arts lesson can be as simple as looking at and talking about an action-rich painting, reminiscent of Paulo Friere’s “culture circles” evoking “generative themes.” Rhythm and drama are natural activities for children at play and, like visual arts, can be used in stimulating and indeed teaching math, history, natural sciences and the like. The success stories in the book from educational professionals and their arts counterparts are compelling. That the SUAVE program could be replicated elsewhere, and could serve other kinds of language learners (adults, native speakers of languages other than Spanish) is undeniable, answering a challenge always on the mind of the reader/educator. This book is not precisely a template for that replication, but it points the way to establishing similar programs.

BARBARA BAMBERGER SCOTT is author of Golden Thread and editor for A Woman’s Write. She has lived overseas for 15 years and currently assists in research projects with pregnant Latina women.