Arts and Academic Achievement in Reading: Functions and Implications

Article excerpt

Academic achievement, particularly in reading, for some students in Fayette County Public Schools in Kentucky has been a concern (Honeycutt, 2000). Over the past 6 years, I have been working with an excellent classroom teacher, from the above school district, who has a passion for the arts and who has a deep respect for their power to enhance learning in different areas and disciplines. Along with parents and this classroom teacher, I have been assisting in the efforts to make students literate in the arts, which puts them in a good position to make connections to reading and writing concepts. At the end of the 1998-99 academic school year, test results show that approximately 90% of the kindergartners who were involved with the arts literacy strategy read on or above grade level. The following year, students in the Title One program showed remarkable improvement. Title One is a federally funded program that provides services to help socio-economically disadvantaged students, including teaching them how to read. Associating the arts with improving students' academic achievement is not a new phenomenon.

Arts and Students' Academic Achievement

Various studies have shown that the arts are successful in improving students' academic achievement in many areas, including reading. Catterall (1998), after analyzing data from the United States Department of Education, indicates that students who are involved in the arts score in the top 2 quartiles on standardized tests and have lower dropout rates than students who are not involved. Further, 10th graders who are involved in the arts score in the top 2 quartiles in reading, history, citizenship, and geography. A later study by Catterall, Chapleau, and Iwanaga (1999) suggests that the gains made by grades 8-10 students from arts involvement persist to 12th grade. Cooper-Solomon's (1995) research suggests that if the curriculum of a school would devote 25% or more of its school day to teaching the arts, students would have superior academic abilities. With no equivocation, April (2001) says, "...the arts do indeed increase students' achievement when achievement is conceived in rich and complex ways-authentic connections between the arts and the rest of learning..." (p. 26).

Other studies find that the arts do not improve students' academic achievement, but even in some of these studies there is indication that they do. Eisner (1998a) selects and analyzes several studies. He suggests that improving students' scores through the arts is inconclusive. Hetland and Winner (2001) analyze 188 reports and find some areas where arts involvement improve academic achievement and some areas where they do not have significant influences on academic achievement. In many of the areas where the results are not significant, there is evidence that the arts boost academic achievement, but the samples are too small to be reliable.

The Goal

Improving the academic achievement of students in reading is the goal for the arts literacy strategy. To achieve this, students are exposed to the different skills and values that the arts so naturally provide. During this process, the experiences gained are valuable in helping students establish connections to reading and writing concepts. The key to the success of the arts literacy strategy in helping students to make these critical connections to reading and writing concepts lies with the application of the arts.

Applying the Arts

When teaching kindergartners and first graders, the classroom teacher with whom I have collaborated uses one of the top research-based reading curricula that emphasizes phonemic awareness, decoding, comprehension, fluency, and writing skills (Adams, et al., 2000). To prepare the very young students to be observant, distinguish sounds, look for details, expand vocabulary and comprehension, recognize colors and shades, and enrich critical thinking skills, they begin the school year with the arts. …