June 16, 2015

Art Literacy Develops Well-Rounded Students

By Caitrin Blake, Contributing Writer | Literacy Resources Updated April 20, 2017 What is Artistic Literacy?

Art is often viewed by students as an escape from the monotony of academics, a place where they get to create, play with colors and find creative outlets. The study of art is also a literacy unto itself. Artistic literacy is a beneficial supplement to traditional instruction.

When funding allows, fine arts and performing arts have their own classes that are distinct from academic curriculum. However, classroom teachers have an opportunity to promote art literacy through projects in just about any subject.

Art literacy defined

According to the National Coalition for Core Arts Standards (NCCAS), artistic literacy is defined as the ability to understand and contribute to the broad milieu of art-related subjects, including visual arts (painting, pottery, drawing, and so on), theater arts, musical arts, and dance. Students actively participate in these fields through physical engagement and creation as well as through reading and interacting with source materials.

Why do students need artistic literacy?

Art is more than an escape from traditional classroom work. Studies have found that benefits from participation in the arts include:

  • Improved student performance on standardized tests
  • Stronger academic motivation
  • Improved social skills

Moreover, students who participate in art programs perform better in all measurements of literacy, demonstrating just how significant it is to include art education in the traditional K-12 curriculum. Finally, integrating art into schools and communities helps students foster community cohesion and ultimately enables them to better connect to the world at large.

Current rate of art literacy

As a result of decreased funding, many districts have either massively reduced or cut art education classes and programs. One study found that 25 percent of public high schools have eliminated arts programs entirely, resulting in a dismal rate of art literacy for students. Unfortunately, most standardized tests don’t actively measure for art literacy, thereby making it difficult to determine the exact rates.

Components of artistic literacy

Art education takes place in disciplines such as visual arts, music, dance, media arts and theater. As outlined by the NCCAS, standards for art literacy include the following:

  • Creating
  • Performing, presenting or producing
  • Responding
  • Connecting

While the standards are distinct, most assignments have overlap, making it possible for one assignment to engage a number of different standards at once.


The creating component of art literacy consists of planning and conceptualizing work, organizing and developing ideas and completing the project. In art classes, teachers can have students sketch ideas first, then guide them through the creating and finishing processes.

Teachers in other subjects can include the art creation process in class projects, whether assignments are artistic renderings or performed interpretations. Examples of this might include performing scenes or skits related to historical events or literature, or, alternatively, completing multimodal compositions as part of a research project.

Performing, presenting and producing

The standards for performing, presenting and producing vary quite a bit. Within this category, students are required to:

  • Analyze and interpret artwork
  • Develop and refine artistic renderings
  • Convey meaning through the presentation of their artwork

Students must understand both the process and the purpose behind their own creations; this standard pushes them to examine these issues. While students can do this by analyzing artistic pieces or performances and presenting their results, this could also be incorporated into academic work.

For instance, history teachers might have students create, analyze and present projects on historically significant events or periods. By adding options for multimodal compositions or artistic representations of research, teachers can help students justify or explain their artistic choices.


Within this category, students must be able to analyze artwork, interpret its meaning and intent and apply evaluation criteria to artistic pieces. Teachers can ask students to deconstruct an artistic creation, then connect this new understanding with their own creative process, thereby connecting multiple standards at once.


The connecting standard allows students to create art from their own experiences. Students synthesize their own point of view to create art and also relate it to societal, cultural and historical contexts. This standard lends itself  to incorporating art into curriculum.

Teachers can display visual or media art that relates directly to history or literature, which helps students to understand content from another perspective. Art teachers can help students to understand art in a more profound way through teaching art history alongside art creation.

Measuring art literacy

An Education Week article on measuring artistic literacy cites the framework created by NCCAS. Scott Jones, a senior associate of the Arts Education Partnership, one of the national arts education organization that helped author the NCCAS standards, argues that measuring art literacy is significant because if it isn’t measured — which is all too often the case — people tend to view it as unimportant.

The NCCAS standards include guidelines that give educators concrete examples of art literacy assessment using sample lessons. One sample lesson is in the visual arts discipline; it asks students to examine cultural, social or political issues in contemporary art. According to Jones, this framework allows teachers to measure literacy within each of the four standards, enabling students to directly represent their knowledge within the context they are learning in. He also asserts that art literacy needs to be measured in conjunction with other literacies, encouraging the overlap of arts to other core subjects.

Artistic literacy helps students understand academics and culture

Artistic literacy promotes art as a study unto itself and also helps students understand other subjects using art. Giving students the opportunity to express their knowledge through artistic means allows them to illustrate comprehension of subject matter.

Caitrin Blake has a B.A. in English and Sociology from the University of Vermont and a master’s degree in English literature from the University of Colorado Denver. She teaches composition at Arapahoe Community College.

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