Instruction in visual art: Can it help children learn to read?

Burger, K., & Winner, E., (2000). Instruction in visual art: Can it help children learn to read? Journal of Aesthetic Education, 34(3/4), 277-293.


This study examines the relationship between learning in the visual arts and students’ reading ability. The researchers conducted two very small meta-analyses to test the hypothesis that instruction in the visual arts improves reading. The first meta-analysis relied on nine studies that compared arts only instruction to a control group receiving no special arts instruction. This first comparison allowed the researchers to determine whether extra instruction in the visual arts, taught separately from reading, helps students develop skills that transfer to reading ability. The second meta-analysis relied on four studies that compared an arts-integrated reading treatment to a control group receiving reading only. This second comparison allowed the researchers to determine whether reading instruction integrated with art is a more effective method of teaching reading than is reading instruction alone.

Key Findings:

In the first meta-analysis, the researchers revealed a small, reliable, positive relationship between arts instruction and reading readiness but no association between arts instruction and reading achievement.

The second meta-analysis revealed a positive, moderate relationship between reading improvement and an arts-integrated form of reading instruction. However, the arts-integrated reading curriculum did not improve reading skills more than a direct reading curriculum.

Significance of the Findings:

Training in the visual arts leads to small improvements on reading readiness, but not reading achievement tests. The researchers interpret evidence of transfer from art to reading readiness as near transfer (transfer from visual skill to visual skill). Their analyses did not produce evidence of far transfer, that is, transfer from visual art training to reading achievement (from visual skill to linguistic skill). Results of the second meta-analysis suggest the arts may be effective as an entry point into reading, motivating children to read. These findings may be of importance to educators, reading specialists, and school districts considering implementing such strategies/programs, as well as program developers.


The meta-analyses involved three basic steps: (1) a literature search for all possible studies, both published and unpublished, in the defined population; (2) identification and categorization of the relevant characteristics and results of the studies; and (3) conversion of outcomes to comparable effect size measures. The meta-analyses included only experimental and quasi-experimental studies of reading skills.

Limitations of the Research:

The basic limitations of this research are those associated generally with the use of meta-analytic techniques. The research combines data from different studies conducted under varying circumstances and perpetuates an inherent bias toward published articles because researchers may fail to uncover unpublished studies. Specific to this research, the very small number of relevant studies used in the meta-analyses and vulnerability to teacher expectancy effects pose further limitations. Finally, the authors stipulate that the findings from these meta-analyses are "extremely fragile," requiring more replications before firm conclusions can be drawn.

Questions to Guide New Research:

Does improvement in reading readiness facilitate later reading achievement?

Do children who show improved reading readiness scores as a function of arts instruction become better readers?

How does arts-integrated reading compare to other nonverbal entry points such as sports or science/nature study?