Ten Ways to Support Literacy in the Art Room

We all know literacy is key. Getting kids to read is one thing, but fostering an excitement and fervor around loving literature is another. All teachers should have literacy at the top of their priority list as it connects to all disciplines and enables lifelong learning.

Here are 10 ways to support literacy in the art room.

1. Model your love of reading for your students!

Create a “Must Read” list on your web page and update it frequently. Let students know you are a reader, too and, when appropriate, share your favorite authors and books with them. Post new finds on classroom Twitter feeds and always have a book on your desk. Let kids know you borrow from the local library and allow them to take books from your classroom library on loan.

chair with books

2. Create a literacy rich environment.

I have a basket of art-themed books in my classroom. I rotate what’s in it periodically and let ambitious early finishers read on the carpet. Begin to grow a library of books related to the arts and keep it accessible in your classroom. They could be books about artists (here are 70 to start with), books with fabulous illustrations, picture books, books about creativity, books that teach artistic methods, books for art research, and/or books that simply inspire.

3. Design projects based on or connected to great books.

More than half the lessons I teach in pre-school to third grade correspond or connect to a book I keep on hand and share during the lesson. I work in a district where literacy rates need improvement, and the more I can do to encourage a love of reading, the better off my students will be.

Three of my favorite books to use are:

Whenever I need inspiration for new lesson ideas, I hit the children’s section of the library and leave with more ideas than I can handle. For three more ideas, click here.

project based on Rabbityness

4. Help make Read Across America Day memorable in your school.

My school has a committee for this and I volunteer my services annually. I make the visiting community readers pins, craft banners related to the organized activities for the day, make props of book characters for kids to take photos with, and even assist the students with costume and mask making for our annual Read Across America parade where kids dress up as their favorite book character. Of course, I make my own character costume as well!

Lee as Mo Willem's Pigeon character

5. Find out what strategies Language Arts teachers in your school employ and use them in your room.

My school is focusing on the Fab Four Reciprocal Teaching strategy right now. So, whenever we read anything in class, I have students use this strategy when breaking it down. It reinforces the concept, shows support for your fellow teachers, and establishes a consistency in the curriculum across disciplines.

6. Create a vocabulary wall.

Build a word wall related to what you are teaching or even a word ladder with great words you can use to talk about art. This will enrich student vocabulary as well as the discussions in your classroom.

7. Collaborate with peers on interdisciplinary lessons.

Talk to the Language Arts teachers in your school and design some fun collaborative projects. For example, I’ve had students create “Onomatopoeia Art” where they are challenged to define a word visually.

8. Get kids writing in art!

It can be as simple as a “Complete the sentence about your art” prompt or as advanced as an essay format research paper. Teach kids how to intelligently convey – with words – what they have done with images. Use writing prompts as jumping off points for drawing activities or vice versa. Also, I’ve had great success with Graffiti Conversations. You can learn more about those here and here.

9. Speak eloquently and use challenging vocabulary.

Be professional and give thought to the words you will use when presenting information. Of course, you need to use language on the students’ level, but you should also be challenging them with new words – which you clarify and explain – so their vocabulary is always expanding. Academic conversations should not be reserved for English class only.

10. Give books as rewards.

Literacy is a gift and has transformative power. Support it and encourage students’ efforts by giving books as rewards or gifts when appropriate. Remember to inscribe the book and make it personal. I gift the graduating students who win the Art Award a great art history book. It is a reminder of how special a beautiful book is and that in learning lies great power and endless possibilities.

Literacy impacts every aspect of both the educational and the “real” world. Showing and sharing your passion for reading as well as finding ways to integrate literacy in your lessons will deepen your students’ understanding of art and the world around them. What an amazing gift to give!

What is your favorite book to use in the art room?

What do you do to support literacy and a love of books in your school?

Lee Ten Hoeve

Lee is an energetic PreK - 8th-grade art educator in an urban district. She’s passionate about making art a core subject and employing curiosity to engage learners. 


  • maddigab

    One of my favorite books to read is Regina’s Big Mistake, by Marissa Moss. I actually saw this many many years ago on Reading Rainbow. Regina is very scared to draw on her paper for fear of “ruining” it. Her art teacher only gives her 1 sheet of paper. She learns that making a mistake is o.k. and can actually turn out better than what she had originally planned.
    My other favorite is called Willow, by Denise Brennan-Nelson and Rosemarie Brennan
    (this is just pasted info from amazon)
    Miss Hawthorn’s room is neat and tidy, not a pencil or paintbrush is out of place. And that’s how she likes it. And she likes trees that are colored green and apples that are painted red. Miss Hawthorn does not like things to be different or out of the ordinary. Into Miss Hawthorn’s classroom comes young Willow. She doesn’t color inside the lines, she breaks crayons, and she sees pink trees and blue apples. What will Miss Hawthorn think? Magical things can happen when your imagination is allowed to run wild, and for Miss Hawthorn the notion of what is art and what is possible is forever changed.

    • Lee Ten Hoeve

      This sounds amazing. I just requested it from my local library so I can check it out. Don’t you love it when a student changes the way you think about art? As you said, it is a “magical” experience. Also, Reading Rainbow is possibly my favorite show of all time and as a child I was fanatical about it.
      Thank you so much for taking the time to share a great find and to comment! It is appreciated!

  • Nicole Hohn

    Any suggestions for secondary school reading?

    • Lee Ten Hoeve

      Hi Nicole,

      Of course, I love reading snippets or short stories as prompts for sketchbooks or even full fledged projects with my middle schoolers. Anything by Neil Gaiman works wonderfully – dark, mysterious and brooding. The Tiny Book by Joseph Gordon Levitt is great for pairing drawings with poetic sentences and is great jump start for when kids are stuck. So, poetry is great. The work of Billy Collins is good for middle schoolers.
      I still use “children’s books” like Once Upon an Alphabet by Oliver Jeffers with middle schoolers because the humor is spot on and it is a great way to get kids creating their own alphabet books (terrific middle school graphic arts project). I’m also a huge proponent of having middle schoolers transform picture books into short films. It’s such an inspiring process that involves costume design, film, editing, background, makeup and script writing. If you have a camera I highly suggest this as a group project. We’ve done the Day the Crayons Quit, Where the Wild Things Are (hand painted all the sets and green screened them in later) and Knuffle Bunny Too (also green screen with a photography focus).
      Lastly, Flashlight by Lizi Boyd is a great book for introducing the power of contrast. The flashlight illuminates only certain portions of the illustrations and the rest is done the negative. This is a natural fit for a printmaking lesson with only black ink and white paper. Ta- dah!
      Thanks for the question, I think I may write another article directed more at connecting literacy to middle school art lessons now that you’ve got me thinking!

  • S Thames

    I love this article! One of my is EMILY’S ART. Emily, a first grader, has to deal with losing an art show, even though she is a very talented artist.

    • Lee Ten Hoeve


      Thanks for the recommendation! I am going to buy that book right now. I’ve never heard of it but it looks terrific. Thank you so much for your contribution and taking the time to share!

  • mary kernan

    I too love this article! One book I use in the Art Lesson. I always compare and contrast what it was like when I had elementary art way back when….

    • Lee Ten Hoeve

      Hi Mary,

      I’m glad you found this article enjoyable! Thanks for sharing.

  • Morgan Peacock

    I think that this is a great blog and is very helpful! I know that as an art teacher I will have to incorporate other subjects such as reading and writing into my classroom. This was extremely helpful on how to get students interested in reading in the art classroom! There are a ton of ways to tie lessons to books and I think it’s a great way to find new lessons as well as get the students reading about art!

    • Lee Ten Hoeve

      Thanks for sharing Morgan. I also think AOE is a terrific way to connect with other awesome art teachers and share our ideas and experience. I’m so glad you found the article helpful.

  • Heidi Longo

    I also have books in my art room on art history. Ancient Egypt, ancient Greek and Roman art, the Medieval period, knights, castles, African art, these are all used throughout the year, as well as books on dinosaurs, space, the oceans, the rain forests….and more!

  • Jill Bellia

    I often use books in the classroom. One I love that just came out in the fall of 2016 is They all Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel. It shows how different animals see a cat. The illustrations are beautiful. I am currently using it with 6th grade to get them to think about different points of view.

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