Arts and Academic Achievement in Reading: Functions and Implications
Richards, Allan G., Art Education
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.
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. On the classroom walls hang framed prints of Monet, van Gogh, Rembrandt, O'Keeffe, Lawrence, Rockwell, and other masters. The shelves are filled with various sculptures such as Rodin's Thinker; the Samurai Warrior by Hannya Junuchin; ceramic and sculptural pieces from India, Indonesia, Jamaica, Mexico, Peru; CDs by master composers Bach, Debussy, Tchaikovsky, Majors, Monk; books about musicians and artists for young people; and numerous picture books of works by Europeans, African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, Latin Americans, and other artists.
The emergent kindergartner and first-grade readers who study the elements of art, the principles of design, and then study composition in art remove the guessing game from decoding a word or a sentence. The knowledge gained from listening to different types of music and the sounds associated with them make it easier for students to blend and segment letters by sound. Kindergartners and first graders learning to read have the tendency to look at the first letter of a word and call out any word that begins with that letter. But the young arts students would look at the entire word the same as they look at art pieces and quickly try to put meaning to it. They do the same with sentences and soon become fluent readers with sound comprehension skills.
Throughout the year, students explore the arts of great artists and cultures of the world. They develop an understanding and an appreciation for art and classical music that spill over into a passion for reading literature. The creative arts activities are not only hands-on practice but they build artistic skills and give students an avenue for self-expression that builds their self-esteem. These applications strengthen the children's expression in writing as well. They do not struggle with what to put down on paper. Although they still haven't mastered the spelling and other mechanics of writing, their thought process is strong, the vocabulary is extensive and appropriate for their age level, and they enjoy creating and critiquing their compositions just as they do in art production.
The arts feed the souls of students. The arts provide a context for empathy, understanding, meaning, and a genuine interest for the human drama they read in selected literature. One of the books on the reading list is The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles. Before they are introduced to this story, students analyze the painting by artist Norman Rockwell, The Problem We All Live With. This image is about school desegregation. It provokes many questions from students, but they are most concerned with why people did not want the little girl to go to school. In reading the story and watching the movie, the art image becomes the standard against which authenticity and details were established. In the final analysis, it is the arts that drive enthusiasm for exploration and learning.
An excellent testimony for this is the writing of Phillip, a fifth-grade student. Fifth-grade students visited the campus of the University of Kentucky, and the Director of the Singletary Art Museum gave them a lesson in art appreciation. Upon returning to the classroom, students had to write their responses to one of the paintings discussed. Phillip chose The Knight of Santiago and His Lady. Here is an excerpt from his paper.
"Who'd of thought that one picture could tell a whole story?! It seemed as if everything in the painting told me something, and everything had a meaning."
He went on to analyze the painting and asked many substantive questions. This is not surprising because Richards (1988) has already told us about the essence of training in the arts. But from this, I am reminded that the arts are the heart and soul of high quality learning experiences, particularly in reading.
Understanding the Functions of the Arts in Reading
Learning to read is a complex process. It involves students' knowing how to manipulate symbols (letters) of the alphabet in concert with the fundamental concepts and principles of the language of the teacher, the classroom, and that which is used in their textbooks (Engelmann & Osborn, 1999; Adam et al., 2000). This knowing is what Eisner (1998b) refers to as literacy, and he continues to say that there are multiple forms of literacy that tend to amplify knowledge and understanding through a broad spectrum of literacy skills. Many of these skills are developed through the arts. Being literate in the arts affords students a greater advantage in learning to read. From my observation, I suspect that the experiences gained from studying lines, shapes, colors, unity/space, and emphasis heighten print awareness and facilitate the comprehension of words and the development of other reading skills (Adams et al., 2000).
Lines enhance the writing of letters and the training of the eyes to be accustomed to the unique rhythm in reading. First, let's look at how lines enhance the writing of letters. Children learn about different lines and their functions in a picture, but there are four special lines that are stressed because of their characteristics, especially at the outset of the study of lines in this art program. The lines are horizontal, diagonal, vertical, and curved. These lines are important in the creation of symbols, especially those that are associated with the letters of the alphabet. For example, the uppercase "Z" is written using two horizontal and a diagonal line; "E" is written using one vertical and three horizontal lines; "R" is written using one vertical line, a curved line going clock wise, and a diagonal line; and "O" is written using enclosed curved lines. Through practice using these four lines, children learn to write each letter and learn to associate the appropriate name to the right letter.
Secondly, some of these lines help to train the eyes in movements that are associated with reading. In Western societies, reading is done by moving the eyes from word to word across the page from left to right, and when the eyes reach the end of the line they move diagonally to the next line. This zigzag movement of the eyes is repeated until the reader reaches the bottom of the page. In art this movement is associated with rhythm where the eyes move from one motif to the next. Horizontal lines tend to focus attention either from left to right or vice versa, and diagonal lines direct our attention along the slant of the line. The study of horizontal and diagonal lines trains the eyes to be cognizant of the zigzag rhythms that are associated with reading.
The identification of letters and words are associated with positive and negative shapes. When we speak of positive shapes in art, we refer to a shape or shapes that are the focus of attention in an artwork, and negative shapes are the areas that surround the positive shapes (Lauer & Pentak, 2000). Letters of the alphabet and the words they make create positive and negative shapes. The actual written letter represents the positive shape and the space around it the negative shape; the same is true for words. No two different letters or words have the same positive and negative shapes. For example, "B" forms different positive and negative shapes from the letters "C," "D," "E," and the rest of the letters in the alphabet. Consequently, letters of the alphabet and the words they create can be identified from specific positive and negative shapes. Studying positive and negative shapes in art makes students aware of these associations, and this awareness leads to the formation of a more concrete mental image of the characteristics of letters and words.
Comprehension is enhanced when children know their colors. Colors have a natural tendency to attract our attention and are associated with specific objects, i.e. the tree is green, the sky is blue, and fire is red. When colors are incorporated into pictures, they become more specific in identifying different things in that picture, i.e. Carmela is the girl wearing the red outfit, Mika is kicking the yellow soccer ball, and Rosalind is the girl with the blue tennis racket. One of the stories in the Open Court Reading series for first graders further illustrates. At first glance, the picture reveals a bright sun illuminating the ground on which a prominent purple cow stands. On the foreground, to the bottom of the page, there is a boy sitting on a couch reading a purple book. The text reads: "I never saw a Purple Cow, I never hope to see one; But I can tell you, anyhow, I'd rather see than be one!" (Adams et al., 2000). By knowing their colors, children are able to identify and link objects to words in the text, i.e. the purple cow. This connection is important because it helps students to better understand what is being said in the written text. Understanding is at the heart of comprehension.
Unity and Space
Unity and space give children a sense of how words, sentences, and paragraphs appear spatially on a page. To understand this connection is to know the role of unity and space in a picture. To illustrate, I describe two compositions (A & B). Composition A has four geometric shapes, and each of them is placed in a corner of the rectangular picture plane. A picture plane is another phrase used for an area on which a drawing can be made. For composition B, the placement of similar shapes is different; they overlap and touch each other activating the center of the picture plane. The first composition shows shapes that have no relationship with one another, and the second composition gives a feeling that there is a relationship between the shapes because of their proximity. In other words, the closer symbols are placed to one another, the greater the relationship appears to be. Composition B demonstrates unity through spacing. While letters in words might not touch one another, their closeness establishes a relationship whose outcome is commonly recognized as a "word" as opposed to a grouping of letters. Lauer and Pentak (2000) suggest that reading would be impossible without this relationship. By studying unity and space in art, students recognize that the spaces between letters are different from those between words and paragraphs. This orients them to distinguish among words, sentences, and paragraphs, as opposed to a series of just letters.
Emphasis focuses on devices that help to interpret an author's intended expression in a particular piece of work. In art, one device that is used for emphasis is contrast-contrast in the size of shapes, contrast in the tones of shapes, contrast in the lines used to construct shapes, and contrast in the spacing of shapes demonstrate emphasis (Lauer & Pentak, 2000). This emphasis focuses our attention on what the artist wants us to view; it may be a religious message (Rembrandt), it may be a story about the horrors of war (Picasso), or it may be anything. As in art, there are devices that can be used in literature to create emphasis. Capitalization of certain letters in a word, the total word, or a letter by itself, along with various punctuation marks are also devices that are used to focus attention on what is being said in a written text. In this case, they are necessary for the interpretation of the author's intent. The study of emphasis in art makes students cognizant of what they must do to communicate effectively. This expectation carries over into literature once the connections are made to the written text. Furthermore, it makes more sense to students why capitalized letters and punctuation marks are important.
The arts have cognitive implications for reading because they assist in learning. Sousa (1995) suggests that the brain receives information through the senses from the surroundings, and when this information becomes a part of memory, learning has taken place. Connections between art elements, design principles, print awareness, and word comprehension are observed. Students recognize positive and negative shapes of letters and words, the types of lines used to write particular letters, the necessity for emphasis in writing, and the importance of unity/space in the written text. These are all part of the learning process for children learning to read, and, ultimately, their reading performance indicates that print awareness and the comprehension of words have become part of their memory.
Rehearsal is an important function of learning (Sousa, 1995). Lines, shapes, colors, unity/space, emphasis, and other elements are studied through making art (production), discussing the works of masters (history), and discussing the works of students (criticism and appreciation). As children explore the arts through these avenues, their understanding of the art elements and design principles is reinforced. By being involved with the arts, this constant reinforcement of the various cognitive competencies in print awareness and comprehension takes place. In other words, the arts are a rehearsal process that facilitates changing abstract concepts to concrete ones in reading.
Comprehension shows that children are able to change abstract concepts to concrete ones when learning through the arts. Lowenfeld and Brittain (1975) say, "To really know a rabbit a child must actually touch him, feel his fur, watch his nose twitch, feed him, and learn his habits" (p. 5). The arts afford children hands-on experiences through different art forms, media, subject matter, and motifs so that they can explore their environment. Not everyone learns in the same way, and in our society some children are left behind because their logical/mathematical and verbal/linguistic intelligences are not developed. The arts help students to learn in their own ways and at their own paces developing their intelligences (Gardner, 1993). Activating the different intelligences makes children more aware. This awareness indicates the learning of the various competencies that are required to recognize printed letters and comprehend words that are essential for students to learn to read.
This article shares my experiences as an art educator working with a classroom teacher to help students learn to read. I strongly believe that the values and the integrity of the arts must be protected. However, I also believe that if experiences gained from studying the arts can help students learning to read, it should be encouraged. Teaching reading within the arts is another possibility that should be embraced. Removing the boundaries around some disciplines may not be popular with those who like neat little categories, but recognizing the rigidity of the boundaries around disciplines reminds me of the increasing compartmentalization of curricula even at the elementary school level. The arts are multifaceted and can break down these boundaries and help students to learn to read. This important work should not be ignored.
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Allan G. Richards is Associate Professor of Art Education at the University of Kentucky. E-mail: email@example.com…
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Publication information: Article title: Arts and Academic Achievement in Reading: Functions and Implications. Contributors: Richards, Allan G. - Author. Magazine title: Art Education. Volume: 56. Issue: 6 Publication date: November 2003. Page number: 19. © National Art Education Association Mar 2009. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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