Instructional strategies for improving content area literacy may seem difficult to implement in subjects whose medium is not primarily the written word. Visual art is one such subject where literacy is not traditionally the main focus of instruction. As content area literacy–the theory that reading and writing skills should be developed across all disciplines–continues to be emphasized in the primary and secondary school levels, it is important for instructors to implement appropriate instructional strategies for pursuing such a project.

Elementary school

Content area literacy can be promoted at the elementary school level by developing the foundational vocabulary that is used to discuss art. Words such as tone, value, color, composition, rhythm, and balance should be described for students within a visual arts context. A great strategy for the construction of this basic vocabulary is through artwork annotation.

Artwork annotation is when students record their reactions or observations about a piece of art directly onto the piece itself. This can be done by either providing students with facsimiles they can write directly on, or by giving students sticky notes, having students write on them and then attach them to a large poster depicting the artwork in the classroom. The benefit of providing individual facsimiles is that students are given enough space to write down all of their personal reactions to a piece. However, compiling all of the students’ reactions onto one shared poster allows students to expand their own vision and interpretive powers by seeing the similarities and differences in how their peers saw the same piece of art. Such comparisons promote the development of an individual point of view.

Middle school

Students at the middle school level should supplement their art-making with an interactive notebook. As art projects are assigned, have students record their process in a notebook. Sketches and inspirational images should be supplemented with notes about how they feel or what they are thinking as they embark on the process of creating. This strategy encourages students to explore and record their own personal voice. Through self-critique, students begin to understand not only how to verbalize their feelings about their own art, but also about the art of others.

High school

At the high school level, students should be expected to engage in advanced methods of art interpretation and analysis. One strategy for developing this level of critical thinking about art is through questioning. In this type of analysis, students write the questions they have when viewing a piece of art. This strategy forces students to think not only about what a work of art tells them, but also what it leaves out. By engaging in a piece of art from an interrogatory position rather than a declarative one, students begin to see the structures of interpretation that form how we make meaning from art. Questioning also forces students to think about their own thinking and analyze not only the piece of art, but their reactions to the piece of art as well.

Another strategy for high school students is to introduce texts on art theory. Texts that explore the purpose of art on a theoretical level allow students greater insight into the act of producing work. As they continue to create, students should start to develop individual ideas about why they create what they do. Historically, the art world has experienced many paradigm shifts. Reading different written works about the historical movements within the art world is a great way to supplement projects that explore similar themes.

Ultimately, there are many opportunities for the inclusion of reading and writing skills in the art classroom. The improvement of such literacy skills inevitably leads to the improvement of critical thinking and analysis skills as students’ relationships with art evolve.