Oral Language within a UOI on the Arts


Recently ESL consultant Virginia Rojas came to our school. Her presentation reminded me of the importance of identifying language objectives.

My class has been doing a UOI on how people express themselves through the arts. The objectives for this learning experience were:

  • To expose the students to performance arts
  • For students not just to know what performance art is but understand how people express themselves through performance art
  • For students to acquire language that will help them retell an event, either from a story or from their own lives.


What we did:

I thought The Ugly Duckling would be a perfect story for our class to act out since language learners could easily get frontloading on the story at home with their families, and also because the number of characters can easily be manipulated (i.e. use as many ducks and swans as we need to in our performance).


In my weekly update to parents I mentioned that English learners would benefit from hearing, reading or watching the Ugly Duckling story in advance at home and discussing it in their mother tongue.


This learning experience took place over the course of about 2 weeks.


Part 1: Tuning in to the language objectives


We happened to start the lessons on the same day that the students were returning from winter break.  My class started the first day back with a “Find someone who” activity that I simplified by calling it “Did you…”  Also, instead of having students write names in the boxes when someone said “yes” to a question, I simply had them make check marks.


I distributed a paper with 8 easy-to-understand clip art images representing things I thought some of the students did during the break (i.e. go to the doctor, get on a plane, go swimming, play in the snow, get new shoes, etc.).  I modeled how to circulate the room and ask, “Did you go to the doctor?” and so on.


My class excitedly asked each other the “Did you…” questions.  They did not quite understand how to circulate the room, but there was lots of talking and I noticed that the pictures made it easy for the English learners to participate.


After that the class put the papers in their cubbies to bring home to show their families.  (Some kids asked to bring the papers to recess, though, to ask their friends from other classes the questions.  Of course I said yes!)  The students then formed a circle and each child told the class about 1 thing he or she did during their break.  This was a good tuning in activity for talking about events that have already happened & was also a quick pre-assessment of the language objectives.


Photo: “Did you…” warm-up activity


Part 2: Introducing the Language Structures

The next day, during read aloud time, I read The Ugly Duckling.  After that, I introduced some phrases we use when telling a story: “In the beginning…” “Then…” and “At the end…” I then paired the students, one more verbal child with one quieter child. I asked the partnerships to decide who would be the speaker and who would be the listener. The speaker retold the story using the phrases I had introduced.  I circulated the room making sure students were on task and complimenting as I went.  I did not “get stuck” helping any of the partnerships since this was just the beginning of many lessons on retelling events.  I didn’t want to beat a dead horse by nitpicking at this point.

Part 3: Connecting movement and music with feelings

This series of learning engagements sometimes focuses more on language objectives and sometimes on performance arts objectives.  This lesson was a lesson on performance arts.


I created a PowerPoint with pictures that convey an emotion—loneliness (a picture of a teddy bear alone on a bench), beauty and pride (a picture of a beautiful swan), peace (a picture of a sunrise), and playfulness (a pictures of kittens with yarn).  For each, I played a clip of classical music that I felt conveyed the feeling.  The students created movements to the music to show the emotion they saw on the Smart Board.  They were really into this and asked to do it again once we had finished.


After that the students sat on the carpet and watched a couple of clips of ballet from The Nutcracker and Swan Lake.  Having made up their own dance moves before watching the clips helped them (I think) to understand that ballet is a form of communication, not just a physical activity.


Part 4: Reinforcing the language objectives

The students watched a short video of The Ugly Duckling.  (There are plenty to choose from on Youtube.)


After that students sat in pairs (chosen by me). They cut out and sequenced pictures from the story. (To differentiate, one partnership received just 4 pictures from the story to sequence.)


Once the students had glued the pictures to a long strip of paper, they told their partners the story, using the pictures to help them remember each part.


(You can download the sequencing cards using the link at the end of this post.)


Part 5: Getting ready to retell The Ugly Duckling through movement

I told the students we could make up our own dance to retell The Ugly Duckling.  The ballet would be 3 songs long.  We needed to choose a song for each of the 3 parts–the beginning (when the ducks hatch), the middle (when the duckling is asking other animals to be its friend) and the end (when the duckling realizes it’s a swan).


To choose the songs, I played 2 short clips of classical music and the children voted on which one they felt captured that part of the story.  We did this for the 3 main parts of the story.


Then the students made masks.  To prepare, I cut eye masks from foam and then put feathers, pipe cleaners (for whiskers), scraps of foam (for beaks, ears, and noses) and glue on the tables. The students created masks for a cow, cat, rabbit, ducks, swans, and duckling.  The masks were rather abstract, much like you would see in a real ballet… not full face masks.


Photo: Swan mask


Part 6: Planning and Performing a Ballet

While the class was busy at the tables doing something independently, I pulled 1 group at a time (the ducklings, the cat/rabbit/cow, and the swans) and the students created a short, simple dance to their piece of music. I took video. (We used just about 30 seconds for each dance.)


I merged the 3 videos into one file on iMovie and our class watched the ballet.  It was surprisingly similar to going to a ballet!  However, the whole file was about 90 seconds, which was perfect for this age group.


To tie in the oral language objectives, I asked students to tell the story once again to a partner.  The students were so confident in doing this!


Part 7: Applying the language objectives to new situations

When we had a few minutes of “sponge time” I put the students into groups of 2 or 3 and asked them to retell events from their lives. I reminded them of the language structures we used.


I also asked the students to draw in their journals about an event that really happened in their lives and then tell me about it.  This was an opportunity for me to assess whether their storytelling skills had improved through the unit.



I was really jazzed (so to speak) about how excited students became about using movement to express themselves. When given a choice about what to do during play time many chose “music and movement.” I liked how the students did not just learn that ballet is an art form but rather explored how ballet can be used to express emotions or a story and how an audience can view a ballet and try to follow the story behind it.


An example is the masks that students made. We did not create full-face masks, but instead made just eye masks so that viewers would have to be rather imaginative when seeing our ballet, just as one has to do in real life when going to a ballet.


Creating this mini production could have been drawn out over weeks and could have been much more elaborate, with scenery, child-made costumes, etc. I did not offer this to the students for pragmatic purposes but hypothetically, if the students were keen to do this it would have been great.


The language aspect of this lesson was great. Two parents told me their children retold the story to them at home. The kids were also begging to bring home their story sequencing papers right away!


When students shared stories from their lives I noticed that some proudly pointed to the phrases we had displayed on sentence strips (“In the beginning,” “then…” and “at the end…”) as they spoke. I noticed that language learners shared stories confidently as well.


Here are the ugly duckling sequencing cards I made: Ugly_Duckling_Scan



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