Can you teach literacy through art? Are visual literacy and English language skills linked? The people at CALTA21 think the answer to both these questions are a resounding “Yes!”
CALTA21 was founded in 2011 as an initiative by the Queensborough Community College (CUNY). It was funded by an IMLS National Leadership Grant and the program is intended to run between 2011-2014. The initiative has three main goals.
- Build the capacity of museum-community college partnerships
- Empower adult immigrant English language learners (ELL) while strengthening their literacy and critical thinking skills through visual literacy
- Assisting English language learners in enriching their social and cultural capital 
CALTA21 seeks to accomplish these goals through a curriculum that is then used during programs at various museums. CALTA21 currently has partnerships with museums such as El Museo del Barrio, the Rubin Museum of Art, the Godwin-Terbach Museum, and the Katonah Museum.
The curriculum begins with a solid foundation in Visual Thinking Strategy (VTS) questioning. For those unfamiliar with VTS, it is a questioning and engagement technique used to create dialogue and foster deep observation of art and artifacts. The three main questions of VTS are
- What’s going on in this picture?
- What do you see that makes you say that?
- What more can we find?
During the observation and questioning phase, the VTS facilitator encourages dialogue by paraphrasing and repeating viewer comments in a neutral manner, pointing at the area of the art work or artifact being discussed, and linking and framing students comments. 
CALTA21 grounds its curriculum in VTS because this method allows anyone to participate and make connections to the artwork, regardless of background knowledge. This is useful for ESL learners and recent immigrants, who may feel uncomfortable discussing cultural artifacts that they are unfamiliar with. VTS is also incredibly helpful because it encourages discussion and conversation. Anytime an ESL learner has the ability to use their English skills in a more casual, conversational manner during class will be beneficial towards fluency. Furthermore, the paraphrasing aspect of VTS helps build vocabulary, while gently correcting any grammatical mistakes.
Another component of the CALTA21 curriculum are activities that encourage the link between art and the students’ home and personal life. For example, one additional activity involves the viewing of Frida Kahlo’s The Two Fridas. Students observe the painting using the VTS method, and then are encouraged to take digital photographs that show different aspects of their own lives. After the portraits are completed, the students are led through a discussion of what it means to be a person of many cultures.
The CALTA21 initiative is still in its earliest stages. A thorough evaluation of its success at assisting ESL learners is still many years down the line, but on the ground, it seems the program is thriving. A CALTA21 student, Hortencia Mortenmillo was asked what she thought of her CALTA21 curriculum, which she studied during a summer CUNY Language Immersion Program. Mortenmillo stated:
“CALTA21 helped me to learn more vocabulary, it taught me to ask questions, to talk about what the artist was trying to say…it helped me to improve my English, my pronunciation.”
Sounds like a glowing review to me. It will be interesting to see how the CALTA21 program grows in the future. They aspire to become a national model, and use their methods in different museums across the nation.  I believe that their methods are adaptable enough to achieve that goal, and I see no reason why the shouldn’t be able to achieve their vision.
 IMLS Project Profile, 2009, http://www.imls.gov/october_2012_where_to_learn_english_a_museum_of_course.aspx
 VTS Facilitation 101, http://www.vtshome.org/what-is-vts/vts-in-action–2