Walker, E., Bosworth McFadden, L., Tabone, C., Finkelstein, M. (2011) Contribution of drama-based strategies. Youth Theatre Journal, 25, 3-15.


Building on a stream of educational research that has focused on the impact of the arts on performance in non-arts academic subjects, this three year longitudinal study investigated the impact of integrating theatre arts into the language arts and social studies curricula on fourth- and fifth-grade students’ cognitive, procognitive, and prosocial development through the Theatre Infusion project. This three-year study employed a randomized controlled design in which 1,140 students from 56 fourth- and fifth-grade classes were observed. Twenty-eight fourth-grade and fifth-grade classrooms (14 at each grade level) at seven district elementary schools were randomly assigned to the “treatment” condition and the remaining 28 classrooms were assigned to the control group. The findings provided evidence on the contribution of the arts in strengthening students’ performance in the non-arts curricular areas.

Key Findings:

The data revealed that students who were in the treatment group showed significant improvement over students in the control group in language arts. These findings include:

  • Overall, students were 42% more likely to pass proficiency on a language arts state standards test, even after controlling for gender and socioeconomic background. Fourth-grade students were almost 100% more likely to pass a language arts standards test.
  • Students exposed to the arts integration program in only fourth grade (and not in fifth grade) or in both years, were more than 20% more likely to pass the state assessment in language arts.

Results for social studies improvement, however, were mixed. The earlier a student was exposed to arts integration, the more likely they were to earn higher grades.

  • Students exposed to the arts integration program in only the fourth grade (and not in fifth grade) were 30% more likely to earn B or higher grades in social studies.
  • Students in the control group for the first time in fifth grade were 35% more likely to receive a final grade of B or higher than students who were placed in the treatment group for the first time as in fifth grade.

Significance of the Findings:

Accountability pressures on school districts and teachers are currently reflected in a strong focus on increasing standardized testing. These pressures have led, in some cases, to a focus on tested subjects, to the exclusion of other curricular areas such as the arts. The assumption that student learning in the tested subjects can only be facilitated by direct instruction of these subjects is not supported by the results of this study. This study finds arts integration as a more effective means of instruction for proficiency outcomes than direct instruction.

Exposure to the arts in the fourth grade, regardless of exposure in the fifth grade, was a determining influence on how well students performed in non-arts subjects in the fifth grade. Thus, exposure to arts at an earlier trajectory of a student’s history increases success in future years, and lack of exposure decreases the success of a student.


The Theatre Infusion project was conducted over the course of three years and was designed to help students in grades four and five improve academic performance, particularly in language skills and creativity. 1,140 students from 14 elementary schools in an urban school district participated in the research. Twenty-eight fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms (fourteen at each grade level) at seven schools were randomly assign to the “treatment” condition; and twenty-eight classrooms in seven other schools were randomly assign to the control group. Students received twenty 45-minute lessons and teachers attended 12 hours of professional development training during the school year.

Students were assessed on measures of academic performance on a binomial scale: 0 (failed) and 1 (passed) for language arts and 0 (less than B) and 1 (B or higher) for social studies. Every effort was taken to ensure students were assessed in both fourth and fifth grades. Prosocial and precognitive development were measured through five indicators, rated by the teacher of a given child. Students attitudes toward the arts were measured by a 25-item self-administered questionnaire.

Limitations of the Research:

The data collected was unable to identify the precise mechanisms through which the arts infusion project produced the resulting outcomes. Some schools were unable to keep the treatment and control group separate when progressing from fourth- to fifth- grade, so there were crossover fifth-grade classes that may have influenced student outcomes. Also, with the mix of results in social studies depending on the timing of the arts infusion instruction, this study may not be generalizable for this subject matter.

Questions to Guide New Research:

“¢ Since students exposed to arts integration in fourth grade saw greater success than students who received instruction in fifth grade, how would student success be affected if arts integration was introduced earlier in the student’s school career?

“¢ What are the long-term outcomes for students, who received arts integration instruction in fourth- and/or fifth-grade, beyond those studied?