Academic journal article Literacy Learning: The Middle Years

Literacy in the Arts

Academic journal article Literacy Learning: The Middle Years

Literacy in the Arts

Article excerpt


The notion of what it means to be literate has changed radically in recent decades. Literacy is no longer viewed simply as the act of comprehending the written word on a page; rather, it is considered a social practice and requires the acknowledgement of numerous types of literacies (Freebody & Luke, 1990). Research into multiliteracies and multimodal approaches to the reading and creation of texts has reshaped the literacy landscape and has also served to shift the focus from literacy as the sole domain of subject English to other key learning areas as well.

The Arts has long been revered as an area of imaginative and investigative inquiry that facilitates deep and considered aesthetic understanding of an art form in order to create new artistic products. A vast majority of the literature regarding the Arts and literacy speaks to how engagement in the Arts makes students more literate, or how literacy skills (specifically reading and writing) can be further developed in Arts classrooms (Barton, 2013; Handerhan, 1993). However, Barton (2013) argues that teachers of the Arts tend to view literacy in two interconnecting ways: reading and writing in their respective subject areas, such as music, drama and art, and a deeper disciplinary approach whereby students use their learnt skills to practise artistically themselves. This poses the question: what does it mean to be literate in the Arts?

Aesthetic experience in the Arts

The study of the Arts and artistic inquiry is dominated by the philosophical discussion of aesthetics, which Abbs (1987) describes as 'a mode of sensuous knowing' (p. 53). Historically, aesthetics has been used to validate a range of values concerned with the formalist judgements about artistic beauty, but it is also concerned with the social, cultural and political values behind artistic practice (Nicholson, 1999, p. 83). By experiencing art, one is able to effectively read and understand the world and context from which an art piece was borne. Aesthetic experiences can be potent, cathartic and all consuming.

Schools are often the sites where these kinds of experiences first occur for students, where the intersection of artistic expression and personal meaning is first created and explored. Furthermore, it has been widely documented that students whose learning is embedded in the Arts experience a number of positive outcomes. In addition to better grades and overall test scores, students are less likely to leave school early, rarely report boredom, are more likely to be involved in community service and have a more positive self-concept than those students who are deprived of the Arts (Ewing, 2011, p. 13). This points to the fact that complex and profound learning experiences are occurring in aesthetically charged Arts education.

The fusion of aesthetics and Arts education 'can create domains where there are new possibilities of vision and awareness ... educators can help awareness feed into an expanding life of meaning' and 'can make increasingly available moments of clarity' and 'moments of joy' (Greene, 1977, p. 18). The plasticity and malleability of the forms comprising the Arts positions students to embody a range of literate practices to:

* use their minds in verbal and nonverbal ways;

* communicate complex ideas in a variety of forms;

* understand what someone else is trying to tell them in words, sounds, or images;

* imagine new possibilities;

* do the hard work of making them happen. (Adapted from Longley, 1999, p. 71).

It is through the Arts that students can experience and create a myriad of new texts. The Arts 'give shape to formless ideas--they are a vehicle by which we can express our growing awareness of ourselves and the worlds in which we live' (Wright, 2012, cited in Barton, 2013, p. 4). However, a solid understanding of form is essential before the creation of art can be properly achieved. …

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