Heath, S. & Wolf, S. (2005). Focus in creative learning: Drawing on art for language development. Literacy 39(1): 38-45.


The researchers used a blend of data collection methods from action research and linguistic anthropology to examine the learning environment in which students (ages four to seven) worked with a professional visual artist, one day per week for an entire academic school year. The research documents how the visual art environment stimulated students’ vocabulary, command of syntax, and use of metaphor, analogical reasoning, hypothetical thinking, and problem solving skills. Within months the children’s art reflected understanding of visual art concepts, they showed confidence in working through problems, and they exhibited attention to detail, understanding of complex terms and processes, and familiarity with problem solving skills such as sequential and analytical thinking.

Key Findings:

Children developed and used language devices such as perception and expressions of metaphors and analogical reasoning through their work with the professional artist. Children’s early talk included statements comparing one item to another or expressing reminders of their own experience and later, as their drawing became more precise, children’s use of language progressed so that they were able to express their ideas as metaphorical stories.

The researchers also found in the children’s descriptions and explanations of their work the use of “╦ťgrown-up’ vocabulary for comparative analysis. Lastly, as a result of the practice of looking, children developed sustained visual attention to drawing and in a matter of a couple of weeks concentrated work in drawing jumped from less than ten minutes to half an hour. Children developed an understanding of proportion by learning to look, as illustrated by before and after pictures of students’ drawings.

The researchers identified four qualities of the students’ experience working with the professional artist to which they attribute the language development that they observed throughout the artist residency. These are: 1) extensive practice with technical tools under the direct guidance of a professional; 2) activation and deepened comprehension of technical terms integral to the arts as well as sciences and mathematics; 3) development of cognitive strategies essential to internalizing the process of working from initial idea through planning to project execution; and 4) emotional maturation that comes from carrying a project from beginning to completion with ongoing critique.

The children’s involvement in the visual art program appeared to transfer skills to other subjects. The visual art experience brought them into contact with concepts in mathematics and science and gave them confidence to know how to work their way through a problem or calculations. Through their increased attention drawing, the students gained stamina necessary to complete standardized testing in other subjects.

Significance of the Findings:

The study adds to an existing body of research on the benefits of visual art for students, while focusing on the art-based student outcomes and linking these outcomes to transfer in other subjects. The study investigates in detail the ways in which a visual arts environment conditions children to look at and think analytically about a problem. Problem solving and analytical skills are higher order thinking skills integral to success in school, college, and careers. The study illustrates how early exposure to visual arts experiences can help foster these skills in young children.


The researchers combined methodological approaches from linguistic anthropology and teacher action research. They collected data by audio recording children’s conversations with the artist. They then analyzed these data looking for patterns in language and re-examined certain patterns and questions through focused interviews. The researchers examined co-occurring activities, and analyzed changes in student behavior and the input and output of language by count. They also observed the language development and communication that happened during the visual art activities and paid particular attention to vocabulary and syntax, and use of metaphors, analogical reasoning, and problem solving skills.

Limitations of the Research:

The researchers recognize the impossibility of identifying and controlling for all the key variables that could perhaps play a causal role in effects on learning within sustained arts projects. Because the findings are drawn from a single case with particular contextual factors, it is not possible to say whether the findings would generalize to visual art residencies taught by artists to other children in different settings.

Questions to Guide New Research:

Further research should aim to understand the sustained effects on learners of intensive arts learning experiences. Research should seek to describe the types of learning and specific cognitive skills developed during arts learning and how arts experiences foster and enhance vital skills such as problem solving and analytical reasoning. Research that compares arts learning experiences and traditional learning experiences in terms of specific student outcomes will also strengthen the research base.