Drawing out the young readers

The Education Beat

Visuals: Experts say children develop vocabulary as they hone their artistic skills.

November 04, 2001|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

I'M SITTING NEXT to a sweet little 5-year-old named Amira. On Halloween morning, she's dressed in pink gauze and wearing a sash that reads "Prom Queen." There will be a parade of costumes later.

Gayle Maxwell, art teacher at Cherry Hill Elementary School in Baltimore, also is in costume. She's wearing a red dress with patches, mismatched blue and black stockings and carrot-colored braids that stick out horizontally.

"I'm Pippi Longstocking," Maxwell announces. "I'm 9 years old, and I live all alone. Let me read all about me."

Then she reads aloud the first few pages of Astrid Lindgren's 1950 children's classic, and 15 kindergarten kids get down to the business of the day: drawing a crayon picture of Pippi that's roughly accurate as to shape and color - triangular red dress with square patches, rectangular legs, round freckled face.

The children do remarkably well in a lesson that's as much about reading, writing and math as it is about art. Maxwell doesn't expect perfection. She tells me the children's work will be saved and examined next spring. "This was an exercise in the language of art, and by next spring they'll know their way around that language. Come back, and they'll show you."

For the second week in a row, I'm looking at art as a vehicle for reading. Last week, it was the art of music. This week, it's what we call the "visual arts." I'm taking the same approach: identifying a few of the region's best art teachers and talking to them and other experts.

For one thing, says Clare Grizzard, elementary art teacher at Roland Park Elementary/Middle School, "We're all reading teachers. Art is, after all, a system of symbols using images to express thoughts."

Grizzard and her Roland Park middle school colleague, Shyla Rao-Jones (who also teaches at the Maryland Institute College of Art), have turned the school into an amazing exhibition hall with art posted everywhere and integrated into most subjects and classrooms.

The teachers tell me children normally go through developmental stages in how they draw and create artwork, just as they do in reading. Toddlers, from the first time they hold a crayon until about age 3, scribble. They marvel that their movements create marks. Then they gain muscle control and begin to form the simple shapes (starting with the circle) used in Maxwell's class to represent Pippi Longstocking.

About age 4, children begin to combine shapes to make nearly recognizable objects, such as a person or house, and by 5, they're including details such as chimneys on buildings and wings on butterflies. Older children learn through their artwork - and through their reading - such organizational principles as balance, repetition, movement and proportion.

But, says Grizzard, many children don't do much drawing before they begin formal schooling. "It's a shame," she says. "Art is the first language after speaking, but a lot of kids arrive here with their drawing all dried up."

Bernadette C. O'Brien, who heads a national program called Learning to Read Through the Arts, says children develop vocabulary as they hone artistic skills. Scribbles have meaning to a toddler, she says: "If you ask a child the next day what the scribbling said, he'll tell you the same story."

If you think of letters as pictures of sounds, say experts, then a picture is a thousand words. Much of visual art, says Baltimore sculptor Mary Ann Mears, "is image as a form of narrative, or a series of images as a form of narrative."

Just as the reader has to organize visual information, so does the artist. Art is used in classrooms to organize and interpret, to discern a literary work's "main idea" and to track a story's plot line. Drawing helps writing, just as songs make facts memorable.

Mears tells of an experiment in which two groups of middle school students with similar abilities were asked to answer a "prompt" with an essay. One group had to organize its answer in a drawing before writing, while the other skipped that phase. The group with the artwork produced essays that were "more detailed, nuanced and sophisticated," says Mears.

A ton of studies show that arts programs lead to academic success. Students with four years or more of art study score more than 50 points higher on the SAT verbal test than students without arts. Schools with strong arts programs also have better scores in the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program. Studies show that high participation in art helps students from low-income backgrounds more than it does those with high family incomes.

One final advantage that the visual arts share with music: Because the visual processing needed for reading and art takes place in different parts of the brain, art "activate[s] multiple parts of the brain and enhance[s] learning," says Mariale M. Hardiman, principal of Roland Park Elementary/Middle.

It's not an accident that schools for children with reading disabilities have strong arts programs to tap into these students' "multiple intelligences."

At one such school, the Lab School in downtown Baltimore, art teacher Ursula Marcum estimates 75 percent of her students are "very gifted artists."

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