One of the crucial tasks of, not just literacy programmes, but education in general is broadening and deepening the vocabulary of young people, without which there would be no progress in a young person’s ability to realise their thoughts and feelings through language.
John Hattie’s synthesis of 800+ meta-analyses of learning strategies places the impact of vocabulary programs at d = 0.67. This is significantly above the average d=4.0 which he explains should be the least we expect of any program in a year of schooling.
In the preface to Teaching effective vocabulary (2008), the UK’s Chief Adviser on School Standards, Sue Hackman, compares having a good vocabulary to ‘an artist’s palette of colours’.
Vocabulary is more than a list of words, and although the size of one’s vocabulary matters, it’s knowing how to use it which matters most. The best comparison is to an artist’s palette of colours which can be mixed and applied to create powerful effects.
So, speaking as an artist, I understand the special role that the performing and visual arts play in teaching and learning vocabulary to students. This is also reflected, for instance, in the many resources that exist for drama and literacy. Data on the contribution of the arts to learning literacy is available through research such as The Arts and Achievement in At-Risk Youth: Findings from Four Longitudinal Studies (March, 2012). It shows that students who received an arts-rich education read more newspapers, books and visit more libraries than their arts-starved counterparts.
… low-SES youth with arts-rich backgrounds were more likely than their less-arts-involved counterparts to read newspapers or participate in high school yearbook or newspaper production. But the NELS:88 database includes two other indicators of literary involvement: book reading and library visits. According to this database, 26-year-olds from low-SES backgrounds who had engaged with the arts intensely from middle school through to high school were more likely than the low-arts, low-SES group to have done either literary activity. Eighty-two percent of the high-arts, low-SES group read at least one book in the preceding year (1999-2000). This was roughly the same share of book readers as in the overall study population (81 percent), and it was higher than the corresponding share of the low-arts, low-SES group (74 percent). Regarding library visits, 55 percent of the high-arts, low-SES group in the database did this activity at least once in the past year, compared with 48 percent of the overall sample and 43 percent of the low-arts, low-SES group.
Why not use drama programs more in teaching vocabulary?
Patrice Baldwin and Kate Flemings make the case in Teaching Literacy Through Drama: Creative Approaches (2003, 2005 & 2007) that it’s not because teachers don’t see the benefits of using drama in literacy programs and in teaching vocabulary. They are aware that drama gives structured literacy opportunities for pupils to respond:
- socially (working in and out of role together to create and communicate shared understandings and meanings);
- intellectually ( thinking in and out of role);
- physically (enacting);
- emotionally (feeling, personally responding and empathising in and out of role);
- morally (linking thought, action and consequence);
- spiritually (enduring personal insights);
- culturally (recognising and valuing diversity).
Since 2011, I have been following a drama and literacy initiative by Professor Robyn Ewing project at the University of Sydney with the Sydney Theatre Company that aims to build the confidence of teachers to better utilise the arts in the curriculum. Simply titled ‘School Drama’, the rationale for the program is explained in publicity materials that the STC sends to schools each year.
The Arts remain an under-used component of primary curricula despite unequivocal evidence that they enhance student learning outcomes in all Key Learning Areas (eg, Ewing, 2010; Catterall, 2009; Gibson and Ewing, 2011; Bamford, 2006: Deasy, 2002; Fiske, 1999). In addition, many primary teachers do not feel well equipped to embed the Arts in what is an already overcrowded curriculum. More specifically, there is strong research evidence that demonstrates the effectiveness of drama as critical, quality pedagogy (eg, Burton and O’Toole; 2009; Ewing and Simons, 2004; Miller and Saxton, 2004; Baldwin and Fleming, 2003) but, again, teachers feel they must concentrate on the teaching of literacy and numeracy. This is especially so in an increasing regulatory, high stakes testing national context. As a result, drama is often undervalued and underused.
The time and effort of busy people having to do ‘another thing’ is hard to avoid, so it becomes crucial to make the case for rewarding those at the ‘coalface’. Finding ways of making arts education not only altruistically rewarding but of practical assistance to hard working teachers and artists should be the norm. School Drama meets that objective.