Arts raise reading smarts

Participation: Sandy Plains Elementary uses a program called Arts Smart to reinforce the learning in reading classes.

November 25, 2001|By Erika Hobbs | Erika Hobbs,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The director stood in front of the classroom, twirling a green plastic noisemaker over her head. As it whirred, the 7- and 8-year-olds fell silent.

"Lights! Camera! Action!" the director called. Then the half-dozen pint-sized actors at the front of the class re-enacted "Arrow to the Sun," a Pueblo Indian folktale about a hero's journey to give light and warmth to mankind from the Lord of the Sun.

It looked like a theater class. But second-graders in art teacher Pat Cruz's class at Sandy Plains Elementary School in Dundalk weren't learning to act.

The pupils were learning to read through a program called Arts Smart, which aims to raise the reading scores of youngsters who typically have done poorly on standardized tests.

Second grade, said Cruz, is a critical age. "We want to catch them before they start falling through the cracks," she said.

The program, in its fourth year, was developed as part of a statewide effort to promote arts education in schools, inspired by national studies showing that children who are exposed to the arts in school tend to perform better academically.

At Sandy Plains, most of the children are from low-income backgrounds, school officials said, and more than half qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. As a result, Sandy Plains receives federal funding, called Title I, to bolster learning opportunities for these children.

Using a portion of the Title I funds, educators developed a program in 1998 that uses art, drama, movement and music to help teach children to read. The price this school year is $71,290, which covers salaries, benefits, materials and other costs, officials said.

The children attend Arts Smart classes taught by a specialist four days a week and rotate among aspects of the arts every two weeks. On Thursdays, the classroom teacher prepares his or her own lesson.

During the drama segment led by Cruz, the children were stopped after just a few pages of reading aloud to act out - using their words - what they had just read. Comprehension, Cruz said later in an interview, is every bit as important as sounding out the words.

The movement segment of Arts Smart is similar to a gym class, except the children play tag and the tagged child must attach a root word to a prefix or suffix taped to the wall.

In the visual-arts segment, the children could draw faces made only of blend-letter combinations such as "bl" or "sh."

In music, they learn to play the keyboard. Reading music reinforces other skills, from interpreting letters to practicing reading from left to right, said music teacher Heather Haddaway.

One afternoon this month, a second-grade class performed the classic children's book Caps for Sale, by Esphyr Slobodkina, for their parents. On a set the children had painted, they read their parts confidently from the book, without the staccato delivery of most early readers.

"Reading is fun," said 7-year-old Felecia Love after her performance, proud of her new skill. "Now I can play my computer game I could never do by myself before."

Tsai-ann Yawching, also 7, said she enjoyed reading the book, then acting it out. "I memorized my lines, and it wasn't even hard," she said.

Katie Kelly, 7, is excited about her blossoming literacy. "Reading is exciting," she said. "I get to read books with chapters - like Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen."

The Arts Smart program appears to be showing positive results. In September last year, 60 percent of second-graders who took the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills scored below average in reading, according to research compiled by the Arts Smart staff. By March, 28 percent of the same pupils scored below average.

In a separate study, about 47 percent of third-graders scored a satisfactory rating on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests in 1998 - the first year Arts Smart began in second grade. By 2000, the number of third-graders scoring satisfactory had improved to almost 54 percent.

"We are pleased with their progress," said Jay Tucker, chief of the arts and humanities program section at the State Department of Education.

Cruz acknowledged that Arts Smart alone might not have raised the scores. Pupils are exposed to several teaching techniques, she said. But teachers have noticed that attendance has improved, she added, and anecdotal evidence supports the view that Arts Smart is effective.

"We see kids who did not participate in reading class at the beginning of the day, raising their hands and getting involved by the end of the day," Cruz said.

That is the point, said Stephanie Kimmons, Arts Smart's first coordinator, who now teaches reading at Victory Villa Elementary School in Middle River. Arts Smart was never intended to replace traditional teaching methods, but to reinforce those reading lessons, she said.

"There's a tendency for people to say this [infusing the arts into the reading curriculum] is a feel-good kind of thing because it is hard to see it on a concrete level," she said. "But then the test results started coming in, and when we saw them we said, `OK, now we have a reason to do this.'"

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