Using the arts in literacy learning is an important way to boost student engagement and skill levels in reading and writing.
While it can be an uncomfortable area for English teachers, Robyn Ewing believes a quality arts program can make a big impact.
Robyn is one of Australia’s top educators and encourages teachers to embrace the use of the arts – whether it’s drama, music, digital arts or more.
She told literacy experts Phil and Sharon Callen on Episode 40 of The Teacher’s Tool Kit for Literacy that art has always been at the core of our learnings.
“It’s about the arts processes and strategies that are really important across the curriculum … they’re part of who we are as human beings. So if you think about our history, the arts are as old as we are, from those very first cave paintings … and I believe in most Indigenous cultures all over the world, story and the arts are at the centre of all they do and of their curriculum. And I think we have so much to learn from that,” Robyn said.
She said this is supported by over three decades of unequivocal research that explores the impact of the arts on student learning.
“Students who engage in quality arts experiences and processes do better socially and emotionally in terms of their wellbeing. But they also do better academically in other subjects,” Robyn said.
For teachers to better embrace the arts and deliver an effective program, Robyn said they first need to address their confidence and discover their own artistry.
“Quite a lot of teachers lack confidence and expertise in using art strategies and experiences when teaching, particularly with literacy. So I think the first thing is to rediscover their own artistry as teachers first,” she said.
“If there are areas we’re not feeling confident in, we have to make a conscious effort to develop our understanding in those areas. And not in terms of us being experts in a sense, but in terms of us coming to understand the processes that can be really effective with helping our learners become deeply literate.
“So for example, every piece of quality literature is an art form … if we think about artistry that goes into a quality literary text and we think about the incredible artistry that goes into the illustrations in picture books. We already have that really important resource in our classrooms.”
Sharon added that educators can also trust the literature to do the work itself.
“The art itself can do the work. We can let the book do the work, let the literature and the work of the illustrator do the work for us. Then the appreciation that students can have for that by being exposed to it will spill into their own artwork and their own writing,” Sharon said.
Robyn further explained that many of the strategies used in a literacy lesson to make deep connections with text can also be applied to art forms.
“All of the other art forms are different ways of making meaning, different ways of representing our understanding, different ways of challenging our understanding and helping us to look at things in a different way. And so all of the art forms can be used in that way to help us make deep meaning, and I think that’s what literacy is all about,” she said.
Robyn said there are many art forms to consider and that students should be provided a wealth of different opportunities to express themselves.
“I think too often we privilege the written over all the other ways of expressing and communicating our thoughts and ideas. And if we give our learners the opportunity to make some of those choices on how best can they respond to these texts … Is it through dance and movement or through collage or drawing or painting? Or is it through some kind of performance, or is it through music making? Or is it through some kind of use of media?” Robyn said.
“Young children today are so much more expert at those kinds of things as well. So it is about providing those opportunities and those resources and encouraging our learners to respond in different ways to what they’re thinking about, what they’re hearing, what they’re reading, what they’re listening to.
“There’s also a whole lot of research around how important learning a musical instrument is for our literacy skills and our memories. I think it’s about two years of learning, and an instrument can have a lifelong impact on those cognitive abilities.
“So we have so much evidence about the arts, and yet they are often left out or they’re often the thing that you do on a rainy windy afternoon or as a break between one thing and another, instead of thinking about how central they should be.”
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