Basic reading through dance program: The impact on first-grade students' basic reading skills.

McMahon, S., Rose, D., & Parks, M. (2003). Basic reading through dance program: The impact on first-grade students' basic reading skills. Evaluation Review, 27(1), 104.


Researchers developed a quasi-experimental research design to evaluate the impact of a dance-integrated reading program on first-grade students’ beginning reading skills, such as code knowledge (alphabet sounds) and phoneme segmentation (separating letter sounds from spoken words). The Basic Reading through Dance program was developed by Whirlwind, a non-profit arts education organization, utilizing imagery, memory, and reading research and emphasizing the use of visual and kinesthetic imagery to develop phonetic abilities.

A total of 721 first-grade students from Chicago public schools participated in the study, with 328 students from six schools in the treatment group who received the dance-integrated program, and 393 students from nine schools serving as the control group. The researchers administered the PhonoGraphix Test before and after the intervention period to collect pre- and post-test data. The PhonoGraphix Test is a standardized measure of basic reading ability. Researchers used the pre-test data to diagnose individual and class-level reading skills and used the post-test data to document learning (by comparing pre- and post-test results).

Key Findings:

The study revealed that participation in the treatment group (receiving dance-integrated reading lessons) led to greater improvement in reading comprehension when compared to a control group who did not receive dance-integrated reading lessons.

Specifically, treatment group students significantly increased their scores in consonant sound recognition (part of code knowledge). Treatment students increased their scores by 27 points from pre- to post-test, whereas the control group only increased their scores by 10 points (out of a possible 100). The treatment group also demonstrated significantly more improvement in vowel recognition, gaining 30 points between pre- and post-test compared to the 19 points gained by the control group.

Treatment group students improved significantly in segmenting phonemes (separating sounds from spoken words) after participating in the dance integrated reading instruction. Treatment students gained 28 points from pre- to post-test, whereas control students gained 15 points.

Significance of the Findings:

The findings of the Whirlwind dance intervention show that innovative teaching strategies that focus on teaching basic skills through arts integration can improve basic reading skills. The program was so successful that the treatment group that started out with lower pre-test scores than the control group, outperformed them on post-test assessments.


Whirlwind developed a standardized 20-session dance-based reading curriculum targeted specifically at improving basic reading skills in first-grade students. Each session requires students to use their bodies to physically represent the alphabet symbols for various sounds in the English language, as well as combinations of sounds.

In total, 721 first-grade students participated in the study, with 328 students in the experimental group and 393 students in the control group. Some attrition occurred between pre- and post-test due to students either having been transferred out of the classroom or simply being absent on the particular day of the posttest.

Students in the treatment group received the dance-based reading curriculum twice a week for ten weeks, and each session was 40 minutes long, exposing students to 13.3 hours of dance-based reading instruction overall. The control classrooms participated in traditional reading instruction. On days when treatment students did not receive dance-based reading instruction, they received traditional reading instruction like that of the control classrooms.

The researchers used the Read America’s PhonoGraphix Test as a standardized measure of basic reading ability. Researchers used performance assessments to diagnose individual and class-level reading skills (pre-test) and document learning (pre-test vs. post-test differences). The PhonoGraphix Test measures core areas of preliminary reading including code knowledge, a student’s ability to identify consonants and vowels, and phoneme segmentation, the ability to separate sounds from a spoken word. The researchers utilized several analyses to compare the improvements of the treatment group to the improvements of the control group.

Limitations of the Research:

There are several limitations of this study. First, the researchers matched the control and experimental groups for characteristics such as racial and socio-economic diversity, and geographic location, and did not utilize random assignment. Second, researchers used only one measure of reading ability, and the inclusion of multiple measures assessing reading acquisition would have increased the strength of conclusions. Furthermore, although this study demonstrated the effectiveness of the dance-integrated reading program for increasing students’ foundational reading skills, it remains to be seen whether the program will be effective for in developing complex reading skills. Last, the present study is limited to showing the effects of one particular program as being more effective than “standard” teaching. The results cannot be generalized to other innovative arts integration programs, nor does this study determine that the dance-integration program would show significant improvement over other teaching models besides those used in the Chicago public schools.

Questions to Guide New Research:

As there are few empirical studies conducted in dance, this study strongly suggests the need for further investigation of the impact of dance on reading skills. How does instruction in dance and movement continue to impact students’ reading abilities beyond the foundational skills analyzed in the study? A longitudinal study following a treatment group that receives sustained and intensive dance instruction and a control group that does not receive special instruction will shed light onto transfer of skills from dance to other academic areas. Where possible, it would be beneficial to conduct randomized controlled studies with various populations, across various grade levels and subject matters.