Reading Through the Arts

How theater and visual arts can engage students in reading

Reading through the Arts

An important key to teaching children is engaging their attention and facilitating their wonder, curiosity, and interests. We all hope reading will become a passion for our students, and the arts can play a significant role in encouraging them to become readers.

In the book Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan by Greg Mortenson (who also wrote Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time), Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, discusses the role of engaging learners: “We cannot capture hearts and minds. We must engage them; we must listen to them, one heart and one mind at a time.” As the quote from Admiral Mullen suggests, finding what stirs the heart and minds of children will unlock the possibilities of engaging them as learners

In San Diego County, I oversee a federally funded programmatic and research grant called DREAM: Developing Reading Education through Arts Methods. The project is aimed at training teachers to use visual art and theater to support reading education. Motivating kids to read is a big part of the teaching puzzle, and supporting reading fluency and interpretation and ensuring that students can comprehend character, plot, and settings are goals of the program.

Sara Pennypacker, author of the Clementine series and other award-winning children’s books, describes reading as providing mirrors and windows. Books give us ways to think about ourselves and, at the same time, show us new worlds. Given the opportunity, children are ready and eager to think about themselves—when do they not?—as well as look through the new windows provided to them through the stories in their reading curriculum.


Acting out scenes from stories is a tried-and-true method of engaging students in reading. Here are a few examples that I hope will inspire and encourage you.

Have your students read the first page of a story, either out loud or silently. Then, let them form small groups and take five minutes to act out what they have read. To spice up this exercise, you can have one group mime the scene, another group have a narrator with actors, and yet another group employ dialogue taken directly from the reading. Students can’t act out scenes if they don’t comprehend the reading; acting out a scene or story helps them connect with the material and offers a concrete way to start making sense of it. For reluctant and hesitant readers (including those students just learning English), acting provides a more concrete way for them to understand the stories.

“Happy Feet” is an exercise I learned from Judy Bauerlein, a theater professor at California State University San Marcos (CSUSM). This exercise focuses on exploring character, helping students lose inhibitions, and cultivating the students’ imaginations. Kids love it.

First, ask students to move about the room (you can either move the desks aside or have the students walk around and between them). Students must pay attention only to their feet. As a warm­-up, ask them to walk normally. Then ask them to walk according to several different scenarios—for example, as if they have just won a trip to Disneyland and have “happy feet.” You can also create a few more scenarios demonstrating sad, excited, angry, or talented feet. Use adjectives from the reading as you have your students walk.

As students become excited about the exercise, you can move into characters from your reading. How would a main character from the story walk? Perhaps the main character is an old woman; how would her feet move? Ask them to add a short phrase the character would say and say it to others as they pass by. This exercise has many possibilities and can also be translated to working with puppets—another arts tool children adore.

Visual Arts

Children are very visually literate. Their world is full of images, and this is a language they understand. There are many possibilities with visual literacy that support reading. One obvious activity is illustrating ideas presented in the paragraphs, scenes, or even a title of a book or chapter. Children love to draw, and this exercise might also inform you of hidden talents in your students.

Here is another idea that is often right in front of you and is frequently neglected as a teaching tool. A way to engage students as they read is to use the illustrations and drawings in your reading texts as supplementary, complementary, and contrasting information. The following are a few questions that Laurie Stowell, a reading specialist and professor of literacy at CSUSM, developed for DREAM.

Consider the following:

  1. Are there details in the illustration that are not mentioned in the text? What are they? Are there details in the text left out of the illustration?
  2. Do the illustrations provide any conflicting information? What? Why?
  3. What is the perspective of the illustration? Do we see the scene from the point of view of someone in the text? Which character? You, the reader?
  4. Who is in the illustration? Everyone mentioned in the text? Who’s in and who’s out? Who is looking at whom? Why?
  5. How are the relationships of the characters depicted? Who is standing close? Who is far away? What do the expressions on their faces convey?
  6. Where are the characters looking? At the action? At each other? At something else?
  7. What do the characters know that we (the reader) do not know?
  8. What do we learn about the setting from the illustration? Are we looking straight on? Airplane view? Why?
  9. What color palette is used? How does the choice of color contribute to the story? To the mood?
  10. Do the illustrations depict more than visual clues? Do they help us smell, touch, taste, or hear some part of the text? How?

Students are extremely adept in the realm of visual literacy. Once they start looking for clues in the visual representations accompanying their stories, they will also start looking for clues in the vocabulary, metaphors, and writing itself.

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