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Natural Awakenings North Central New Jersey

Learning to Read Through the Arts: A Holistic Approach to Literacy

Dec 01, 2011 03:03PM ● By Shelley Tzorfas

We may all know of a bright child who after entering the first grade began to struggle by the middle of the school year. At first, he (or she) was excited to go to school and make friends, but as the weeks passed, became unhappy, perhaps even withdrawn. Teacher conferences yielded no easy answers, and the child’s motivation continued to wane. The quest to help such kids has left many parents—and teachers—frustrated. And teaching requirements that put test scores ahead of social intelligence have failed many of our children.

For a child struggling in school, a typical classroom may just not be the best place to learn. Ask any struggling child: The classroom has a certain “schoolroom smell,” and the harsh glare of fluorescent lights can make it difficult to focus. Even row after row of desks can be intimidating to certain children. Replace that static environment with a room full of art supplies and soft music playing in the background, and you can almost see and feel how a struggling child’s sense of balance is restored.

But how does learning about painting and sculpture—and participating in those and other forms of artistic expression— improve literacy and critical thinking skills? How does art help those children who, though seemingly bright, lack motivation and fail to thrive in a typical classroom setting?

According to the Fact Sheet About the Benefits of Arts Education for Children, “Art stimulates and develops the imagination. It strengthens problem-solving and critical-thinking skills, adding to the overall academic achievement and school success.” When using art to help struggling students, academic skills should be put to the side for bit—like a “time-out” period, minus the punishment.
One of the first formal programs, Learning to Read Through the Arts (LTRTA), established in 1970 by Natalie Lieberman, was explained in this way: “Reading is not an isolated mental process. It is part of a person’s whole experience. Some children, however, cannot grasp reading skills because words are abstract, unrelated to the world of their senses. Art, on the other hand, is an experience of the senses. Shaping clay, squishing papier-mâché, spreading pungent paint, playing musical notes on a recorder, stretching and turning in a dance, involve all the senses that we live by. The Learning to Read by the Arts Program simply combines these two processes and suddenly the written word begins to have meaning.“

By learning to paint or draw, the child is taking a “mental break” or a “mini-vacation,” and the stress of learning to read is released. Children can relax through artistic expression, freed from feeling judged. It’s akin to art and play therapy, since proficiency isn’t required. The key is that nothing is required but the child’s freedom to express himself through art, and the goal is for children to feel good about themselves and build trust in their abilities. Sometimes this is accomplished with simple watercolors and brush stroke techniques. Other times, it may come through capturing photographs in nature while taking a hike with a camera. The mere opportunity to see things from a different perspective generates an enormous sense of well-being.

Art can also help older students who have already learned to read. When high school kids are given a chance to recreate themselves from the inside out through artistic expression, at a time when developing their self-image is critical, that creativity stays with them for life.

My own struggles in school, which I kept hidden because my dyslexia went undiagnosed, were relieved by my art class; I counted the days, hours and minutes to the next one! Thankfully, our school had a great art program. If not for art, I probably would have not received a master’s degree. And as a tutor for those with learning disabilities, I’ve used Learning to Read Through the Arts in nearly all my sessions, to wonderful results. Kids who couldn’t draw or paint learned to do so by the third session. Some of my students have even won awards, happily having discovered hidden talents.
For any parents whose kids are struggling in school, enrolling them in a good art or music class makes a lot of sense. Many community colleges offer art classes and workshops as well. Artistic expression can help your child flourish and become inspired, and with creativity, become a truly well-rounded person.

Shelley Tzorfas, a tutor for more than 20 years, offers individualized instruction for those struggling with ADD, ADHD, dyslexia, and autistic spectrum disorders. See her website,

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