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Using Art To help Teach Reading and Writing
by H.L. Sundstrom - 1999
B.A. Elementary Education K-6
Commercial Art Training

Mental Growth:
Verbal Development/Learning Disabilities:
Picture Based Communication:
Enter the Computer and Art:
Overcoming Problems Using Art:


           Are you asking me 'WHY' is art so affective a medium for teaching written communication?

     Well I'll tell you a few reasons why...

      Art in itself is a form of communication, an extension of the person who has done the art, a way of communicating that which is within to those who are on the outside, a way of reaching inside to bring out that which is hidden to be revealed, a way to express much more in depth than with the limits of vision for written communication by using senses such as


      There are many artistic disciplines that can be incorporated into teaching written communication - from the Fine Arts to the Culinary Arts. Who would not prefer to EAT their MATH as PIZZA fraction problems rather than just doing them?

     There are a great many articles and books which discuss how to incorporate the arts into teaching this is not intended to replace nor to extend these but simply to introduce you to the concepts of using art to help the child learn written communication and to share with you a few of my own personal experiences.

           (For those who are creationists a Godly inspired definition of Evolution from my sister - in God's realm of continuing development of the spiritual soul filled human being in helping them be more ready for entrance into the higher dimensions of the soul - Heaven)...


      Language itself is a very recent development for humans. We are the only species on earth which has a highly developed vocalization ability with a diverse range of sounds and noises which we combine and recombine in order to communicate verbally. Evolution usually requires selective pressure, a great deal of energy, and must be found to be beneficial for the traits to continue to be carried on genetically. The ability to verbally communicate is so important to the human being that in the first developmental year the physiology in the mouth and breathing regions rearrange to enhance communicate with an associated increase in problems with eating and suckling. It is often during this phase of development that children experience choking problems which can be dangerous to them and often fatal. But the need to communicate is so great that evolution has continued to take this necessary but dangerous step in the young developing infant.

     The ability to verbally communicate is a very recent development in human evolution and even more recent is the development of written language. Both verbal language and written language are abstractions of reality which are meant to represent reality but in no way are reality. When one speaks of a tree it is not the same thing as having the tree in their hands to show. When one draws a tree or has a photograph of a tree it is not the same thing as the tree - it is an abstraction of the real tree. Abstractions take from the real. So in that sense all forms of communication and art are abstractions.

       So when someone says my child is having difficulty learning to talk or learning to write keep in mind these are very recent developments in human evolution and we are all working out the problems involved in communication. So it is completely comprehensible that a child who is under the age of abstract reasoning developmental age (which is about teen years) is having problems with the very abstract forms of communication we have developed.

       Mental Growth:

             Growth for the child mentally basically follows the stages we went through as humans. First there is the development of sight, touch, sound, movement, and taste as a way of finding out about our world around us. Then there is the first vocalizations such as coos, clicking the tongue and mouth, laughing, smiling, frowning, and general noise development. As the child does this eventually the child realizes it can do these things by choice voluntarily. Then the child can begin to use sound to obtain attention or things it desires such a crying to be picked up or fed, or saying small words to get MaMaís attention or DaDaís attention or to get the BaBa.

      Development of different forms of communication at this stage can be enhanced by using different art forms such as singing with the child, dancing to music while holding the child, reading picture books with the child, talking with the child, playing music with the child, and making noises with the child such as clapping or striking the keys on a childís play piano. All of these involve sound, and/or movement which will help the child begin to understand sound as a form of communication and to develop a sense of reasoning about the differences in sounds and movement.

      The child then moves on to higher forms of reasoning such as awareness of surroundings and others around them. Different patterns of reasoning develop such as concrete reasoning where things are very absolute such as the eye for an eye viewpoint (e.g. you bit me so I will bite you, etc). At this stage it is easier to teach children to sing, talk, and recognize shapes which will lead to letter recognition. Things such as environmental print can be used to help the child recognize that commercial art forms are used to help people communicate (such as the big M golden arches of McDonalds or the front of a familiar food package). Books that incorporate concrete concepts of touch/sound into learning about written or picture based language are great for children at this stage (e.g. Touchy Feely books, books that make noises/sounds, books with electronic song/word buttons).

      Verbal Development/Learning Disabilities:

           For a child to move on well to the next levels of communication, such as shape and letter recognition, the child must be fairly competent in understanding verbal communication. Early recognition and intervention programs which help children with speech, hearing, and/or verbalization problems have been shown to be highly effective in helping these children to move on to the more complex written forms of communication.

      Standards have been set as to what is considered to be an average rate and speed a child should be learning verbal communication. If a child is having problems with learning to communicate a specialist can check verbal development. If a problem is diagnosed the sooner early intervention is obtained the faster a child can progress. Most pediatricians have charts which show what most children are capable of at certain ages and at what stages.

      Most children by the age of one should be able to form a few smaller words and by the age of two make simple sentences such as "I want cookie." Most encouraged children by the age of four or five should be able to begin drawing stick figures, drawing shapes, saying the ABCís at least with the alphabet song, be able to recognize story patterns, recognize shapes, recognize letters, recognize small words, count to five, begin to write letters, and/or write small words (e.g. Once upon a time for the beginning of a story). Children with a great deal of encouragement and natural ability have been known to play violins very competently by the age of 4, but this is not the norm or the standard for all children.

      Using art to teach a child to read and write does not have to cost a small fortune. Coloring with inexpensive crayons on the backs of used computer paper helps develop the ability to hold writing implements. Children love to play with colored clay or inexpensive colored salt dough. Shapes and letters can be drawn in the sand/dirt with a stick. Coloring with crayons, playing with clay and sand allows a child to develop hand to eye coordination and comprehension needed for writing skills.

(I recommend Crayola and Berol coloring crayons which have excellent pigment coloration on most paper for home use and the cheap ones for in the car to be lost broken or melted. Watch out for this on your new upholstery. Be careful in your selection of crayons, especially when your children are still in the taste stages, as many inexpensively made foreign crayons have been shown to contain unsafe color chemicals such as lead.)

Basic Salt Clay Recipe:
1 cup of boiling water
2 cups of flour
1/2 cup of salt
3 tablespoons of vegetable oil
2 packages of unsweetened drink mix can be added for color

The water does not have to be boiling but it helps with the mixing, oil helps keep the salt dough moist, and the drink mix helps give it coloring. Keeping the salt dough in a tightly sealed package will help make it last for more than one use. Allowing it to air dry creates a somewhat permanent sculpture.

      Picture Based Communication:

           The first written forms of communication were highly picture based such as cave drawings, and Egyptian hieroglyphics. Eventually civilization created the more abstract but highly diversified forms of letters which represent the sounds of parts of words. This is also generally the way children develop an understanding of written language. First there is picture to subject recognition then word to subject recognition.

      Picture books are amongst of the greatest forms of literary and fine arts. When a book is created the art processes of assemblage and design are utilized. Picture books are a form of art ideally suitable for the facilitation of teaching communication to the young child. Reading along with talking, and singing interactively with children on a regular basis helps them to develop speech and language communication forms within the first five years (e.g. a story read with them each night before bed time).

      As a childís mind develops so does the childís comprehension of a book. At first the child may only see the pictures in the book, next the child may recognize a story pattern and begin to tell the story with you. Many children like to read and reread books for this reason. Turning the pages helps the child recognize there is a pattern to the way the story progresses and the way books are read.

      My experience is that just because a book is something I like or another group of adults have chosen as an award book does not mean that your child will like or even enjoy the book. Select books that both you and your child enjoy. Even taking your child to the book store or library to help select books will help the child become an active part in learning to read.

      When I was in Denver working I met a very nice woman who had her daughter writing and reading at age 4. I asked her what she had used. She told me she was reading all of Dr. Suess's books with her and having her watch the videos. Dr. Suess childrens' books use color theory, and word rhyming sounds for teaching children basic reading skills. I now have obtained several Dr. Suess books, the videos, and computer games. They are currently her favorite computer games.

      Enter the Computer and Art:

           I am currently using a variety of educational and art programs on the computer to help my nieceís child Kyla (who had hearing and speech problems) learn to read and write. At first when I began looking for childrenís programs I could not find any I was satisfied with. So I began using photoshop to make pictures and colored letters to catch her attention. It was quite a struggle at first. As I noticed there was nothing like this online I put a few web pages up to share what I had learned with other educators and parents of children. This last year I could not figure out why Kyla wanted a kite and a yoyo when we went to the store. I thought "What child at that age needs a kite or a yoyo?" When I realized I had used these as examples for letters I went back to the store to buy her a yoyo and a kite. I was quite amazed that a child at that age could still remember something she covered almost two years ago (usually very reluctantly - or so I thought - it was probably related to developing an interest and attention span in relation to the computer and her age).

      Still I was having problems reaching Kyla in regards to the computer as a learning tool so I went out surfing. What I found was the dancing baby online by Kinestics. Kinestics had developed a computer art modeling program package which included a baby model as an example. I downloaded several quick time movies of the dancing baby (these had been done during a competition) which were being shared online.

      When Kyla visited I brought the dancing baby videos up on the computer and he was an instant hit. I could not drag the four year old away from the computer for over 4 hours. I was exhausted but she had begun to count the bouncing baby as it jumped on a trampoline and sounded out the letters to the Frankenstein Baby Quick Time introduction title. This art program had created a competition which opened the door to having an interest in the computer for Kyla. Eventually we began to find really great programs which incorporated song, music, art, pictures, drawings and learning theories for helping teach Kyla. Her favorites today are Dr. Suessís ĎGreen Eggs and Hamí and 'The Cat in the Hatí which teach letter, color, and word recognition.

      Overcoming Problems Using Art:

           I had gone away to work out of town for awhile and when I returned Kylaís teacher and parents had given up on her ever being able to write her name at age 5. I took her and a bucket of large sidewalk chalk, which is easy for any child to hold, outside. I then wrote her name very very large several times in one color then had her trace over with a different color. We did this about 30 or more times until she got tired. So then we began drawing shapes and flowers. She had me trace her hands and feet. Then while I was drawing all of a sudden she said loudly, "I did it!" and I looked over to see her name written all by herself right next to me. Today I had her write her name and draw flowers all over a bleached white sweatshirt with many different permanent color markers. She will wear it tomorrow to school.

     A part of the reason I was able to reach Kyla is I made writing her name interesting and easier. Instead of using small pieces of paper for her to write on I used a very large surface which uses less fine motor skills (which are usually not too well developed in very young children) and uses more larger motor skills. I also used colors which attract the eye and the mind. Writing on the sidewalk with colored chalk was seen as a fun thing, an interesting thing, a beautiful thing which she could share with others in her family. Kyla is not the first child whom I have worked with who had problems responding to traditional teaching methods yet responded well to art incorporation into learning.

      I worked with a child who could not learn how to write his name. He had a great deal to overcome to be able to think about how to write his name. For children to learn they must first have all basic needs satisfied. They must feel safe, be secure, be well fed and feel cared about or loved. I took him outside and began showing him that I cared by being very very patient even though he was very very upset about his parents being overseas as active duty in the gulf war. I showed him what could be done with colored chalk during recess while all the other children in the class played. All the children were really excited so I let others show him how they could write their names in colored chalk for awhile then went back to helping him and sent them off to play.

      I showed him how to spell his name then showed him how to trace it in other colors. I showed him what everyone else had drawn and written. I had him trace over his name until it looked like a rainbow with all the different colors. From that day on he wrote his name like a rainbow with many different colors every chance he could get. The day I left student teaching I found another teacher and the principal with him in the hall very upset again. I walked up to them and began talking to him as they were trying to give him water. As a trained EMT I recognized that he could choke on the water as upset as he was.

      I took over and they left me in the hall way with him. He was sitting in a desk still crying but calmer so I began saying things to him to just reach him and calm him down. I finally asked, "Would you like to write your name?" He stopped crying and replied, "Yes." He had learned to love writing his name so much it calmed him down. I went into the front office to obtain paper and a pencil. He began writing his name and I left him in charge of the staff in the office to return to school. He had learned to enjoy writing his name so much that it was no longer something that upset him. Apparently writing his name now evoked pleasant memories of writing his name outside in the sun with colored chalk doing something that was so special and fun that all the children wanted to do it.

      Another child I could not reach who was having problems with learning shapes I spent maybe 15 minutes here and there to help him when the other children were busy. The teacher in the class had determined at the rate he was progressing he would not learn his shapes and not make it out of kindergarten. I would make little houses and have him look at them to find the shapes, or take him outside to look at the architecture of the buildings and the shapes of structures on the play ground. I pointed to doors, windows, round tables, rectangular tables and brought in art to have him help pick out shapes.

      One day the class teacher handed me a group of fine art picturesto show the class. I worked through the pictures from realism to cubism to abstraction discussing line, shape and drawing in relation to the pictures. Then I had them all draw pictures afterwards. Amazingly this child was the only one who had been able grasp the concept of abstract art and drew an incredible abstract crayon drawing (the other one was still doing rainbow everything). He was in the third grade when I was last substitute teaching and at an average or above average level from what I could determine.

      My friendís grandchild (whom I chose as a special project for a teaching reading class) was so smart she was able to fool me for a short while that she could read. I could read an entire paragraph and she could repeat it back. But she could not keep her finger in the right place and she would mix aís with anís which are interchangeable such that I knew she was repeating me almost word for word. I kept bringing the level of the book down until I realized she could not read or write at all.

      She was in the third grade and no one had been able to reach her. So I gave her art supplies. Colored markers, crayons, acrylic paints and paint brushes along with paper. I began using all of the theories of teaching reading which were not working well. So I began taking her to ballet classes. All forms of art are forms of communication and also utilize the parts of the mind which incorporate transferring thoughts to actions.

      Eventually I determined that one of her major problems was not valuing reading after we overcame her personal problems regarding her childhood and loss of her mother. I discussed this in relation to life, and her future. I asked her what she would like to do an an adult. She replied, "Dance, do my art or teach." I replied, "You will have to learn to read to be able to do any of these as an adult." So she began to put in a great deal of effort to learn to read after that.

      The use of art and dance/ballet brought her out from a very closed in quiet child to a very expressive out going child. She not only eventually excelled as the best student in her ballet class she helped improve her entire class, all of whom began to compete with her interest and natural ability. She helped bring them up to a level at which they were as competent as most of the most accomplished classes at her recital. Since that time she has created and performed her own dance routine opn stage in public. She has also written her own speech against drugs which she presented publicly. She has also won an Ebony award and owns her own computer she received from a grant from her community center. This is a child whom without art incorporated into her learning may never have learned to read.

      Art is a part of language, an extension of language which adds to and does not take away from language. Many highly successful schools are now developing programs which use all forms of arts to enhance the learning processes. These schools have the classic name of magnet schools and are very similar to the one which was shown in the movie and television show Fame.

      So when you find a child or have a child who shows the ability to learn but is not responding find another outlet, try another avenue, and try art. Donít limit youreslf by saying I cannot teach art I am not an artist. Remember anyone can do art even if it is not the quality of fine art that is world recognized, in a Fine Art museum or being performed at a Fine Arts Theater. Even tracing/copying is a form of very well known art and is used constantly in the form of art I studied (Commercial Art). Most anyone can trace/copy so most anyone so most everyone can do art. Donít be afraid to look foolish take that first step. We all did to learn how to go from crawling to walking.

Art has been found to be such a powerful form of communication that many societies and dictatorships have tried or chosen to control and limit its ability to express. With such a powerful tool available why not take advantage of it and incorporate art into teaching reading and writing as a form of communication.

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