Arts-based approaches to teaching literacy: stop all the testing and do this

By Susan Davis and John Saunders

Millions of dollars have been spent on targeted programs to improve literacy and numeracy learning outcomes around Australia. However this year’s NAPLAN data shows stagnation in terms of data improvement, with a downward shift in performance levels for writing.

We don’t believe this lack of movement in data is matched by a lack of impact in the classroom. On the contrary, we believe the current focus on formal, regulated programs in reading and writing, including in early childhood education, is having an enormous negative impact. As we see it, there has been a narrowing of focus and a preoccupation with test results. The unfortunate flow on effect is increased anxiety and behavioural issues as children are labeled as ‘difficult’ or ‘slow learners’ and disenfranchised from their learning. There are huge increases in exclusions of children from the earliest ages. According to media reports more than 1,000 prep year students in Queensland were suspended for bad behaviour last year.

Adding to narrowing of what happens in the classroom is the current obsession with certain types of ‘evidence-based’ practice such as targeted programs in direct instruction, phonics, and atomised, decontextualized approaches to teaching writing as lists of grammatical features and structure. Schools are spending thousands of dollars on literacy and writing programs as well as systems to measure and monitor children weekly, even daily. However, these programs rarely translate to children becoming more confident communicators and ‘meaning makers’ who feel in control of the forms and means of their expression.

We are not claiming there are no literacy and writing programs out there making a difference. There would be many. But we are blogging to tell you about some we call arts-based approaches.

What is an arts-based approach?

Within education, the arts incorporate the five areas of Dance, Drama, Media, Music and Visual Arts. Each have specific processes, skill bases and disciplines that they draw on. These different arts areas have some similar elements and approaches, including knowing through doing and creating, with children learning to express ideas and emotions through voice, movement, actions and different expressive forms. The arts can be taught as discrete single discipline areas, or in combination with other learning areas or arts areas. So we can talk about arts learning but also ‘learning through the arts’. In primary schools, teachers may use arts processes and strategies to teach content in other learning areas and this often helps create more engaged and experiential learning.

Examples of arts-based approaches we have implemented include using drama to support learning in English, History, Geography and Science. In one example Sue Davis created a program where year 5 students were enrolled as ‘spacetroopers’ who have to research various planets to locate one where water might be found. They then had to prepare for a space trip to that chosen planet. Throughout the unit children were involved in writing in a diverse range of forms including written reports, letters and diary entries. At the end of drama sessions when children had ‘experienced’ the content and learning, they were sometimes running to their desks to pull out their books to write.

Positive impacts of working with an arts-based approach

There is a range of research that consistently demonstrates the positive impact of arts-based approaches for improved academic and social outcomes for students in schools. The international research includes Critical Links, an important compendium of findings from numerous studies on student academic and social learning through the arts. There are consistent positive associations between dramatic enactment with reading comprehension, oral story understanding and written story understanding.

More recent research from the US includes meta-analysis work that found Drama and arts-based learning programs can have a significant impact on improving language arts and academic learning programs. Another study with students who had learning difficulties indicated the use of drama strategies improved student motivation, narrative cohesion and language acquisition. A growing body of Australian research supports the international work ranging from the impact of arts programs, including research for the Songroom through to classroom based work with a focus on literacy development in the early years. This and other work in secondary schools by University of Sydney researchers shows the impact of arts-based programs can be substantial.

Sydney Theatre Company’s work with an arts-based approach in Australian schools

An example of an arts-based approach with positive results for student literacy and writing is the Sydney Theatre Company’s School Drama™ project. This program was pioneered by Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton, who were Co-artistic Directors of the Sydney Theatre Company at the time, with Professor Robyn Ewing from the University of Sydney. School Drama™ teams teaching artists (with performance and/or applied theatre background with an acting background) with a classroom teacher. They work together with primary school classes to use drama strategies and children’s literature to make English and literacy learning come alive.

A key feature of the program is to help build the participating primary school teacher’s capacity to use arts-based strategies. Each school and teacher begins the program with a particular literacy area they want to improve and they engage in careful benchmarking of pre and post literacy data.

John Saunders, Education Manager at Sydney Theatre Company, was an experienced secondary drama teacher when he then took on managing the School Drama program. He believes something very special happens when children are having so much fun with drama they forget they are learning. As they are busy enjoying themselves they are increasing their ability to visualise, comprehend and write. He tells a story about how, after working with the children’s book about the Stolen Generation called The Burnt Stick by Anthony Hill, children said they felt like they didn’t do any writing at all because they had had been ‘learning in our way, a fun way’. In fact they had been writing every lesson, but it hadn’t felt like ‘work’. Such programs are successful across whatever area of literacy is in focus, however children who are behind usually show the biggest improvement.

In his research John found that while the program leads to improvements in academic areas including literacy it also impacts on so-called ‘soft skills’ or ‘non-academic’ areas such as empathy building, confidence, motivation and engagement. Research by independent evaluator Robyn Gibson supports these findings.

When learning approaches such as these focus on experience and active learning, children become confident in using language and literacies within real and imagined contexts. Data on impact is growing and is providing insight into more innovative, transferrable approaches to teaching literacy.

Unfortunately politicians and policy makers rarely recognise our projects, including professional learning models we have piloted and researched, or any other arts-based approach. Arts-based programs are simply not acknowledged as vehicles for improving valued academic outcomes.

We believe if governments invested just some of the millions they invest in improving NAPLAN scores into arts-based programs, such as School Drama and related professional learning, the results would be astounding.


John Nicholas Saunders is a former secondary school teacher and the current Education Manager at Sydney Theatre Company.  He holds a Bachelor of Creative Industries (Drama), Bachelor of Education (Secondary), Masters of Research and is currently studying for a PhD.  John’s classroom work together with his research has focused on Drama as pedagogy and its benefits for student literacy, engagement, motivation and empathy.  John has extensive experience in Arts Education and has held positions as a senior curriculum writer, head of department; Board member of Playlab Press, President of Drama NSW and Drama QLD.  He currently holds positions as: President, Drama Australia; Honorary Associate, The University of Sydney; Chair, Australian Major Performing Arts Group (AMPAG) Education Network; and Drama representative, National Advocates for Arts Education.  In 2014 he was awarded the Council for the Humanities, Arts and Social Science (CHASS)  prize for future leader  in the field and in 2016 he published ‘The School Drama Book: Drama, Literature & Literacy In The Creative Classroom’ with is colleague, Professor Robyn Ewing. 


Susan Davis is Deputy Dean Research for the School of Education & the Arts at CQ University, Australia. Her research has focused on drama, arts-education, engagement and  digital technologies. She is one of the Co-Convenors of the Arts Education Research SIG of AARE and a Board member for Drama Australia and the Sunshine Coast Creative Alliance. Sue was previously a drama teacher and performing arts Head of Department and has created and managed many arts-based projects in collaboration with various education, arts industry and community groups. Susan was one of the convenors of a Creative Education Summit held at ACMI in 2016, with summit outcomes contributing to an Arts Education, Practice and Research group submission to the “The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training Inquiry into innovation and creativity: workforce for the new economy”. She was also invited to present further evidence at a roundtable for the inquiry. 

(Featured photo by Grant Sparkes-Carroll)

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22 thoughts on “Arts-based approaches to teaching literacy: stop all the testing and do this

  1. Brian Cambourne says:

    Thank you for this reminding us of the positive effects that arts based education has on literacy in particular and learning in general. The five areas of Dance, Drama, Media, Music and Visual Arts embedded in your program offer multiple opportunities for meaning-making using a range of symbol systems, which (in my opinion) can only promote and support meaning-making using the written form of language.

  2. Jennie Duke says:

    Thank you. I remember a young man who only came to school when we were planning, rehearsing and performing our primary school play. We made sure to stretch it out for as long as we could! This is a message that will surely be passed onto undergrad teachers I work with!

  3. John Nicholas Saunders says:

    Jennie, that sounds a bit like me when I was a student in primary school! It’s so strange that we know The Arts can have enormous impacts on academic and non-academic outcomes, and yet they keep getting pushed to the side. Glad you enjoyed the blog post.

  4. Savannah Bartlett says:

    I believe in arts-based approaches too; dance, sing and play! I am a pre-service teacher going into schools to teach with an arts-based mindset. I feel strongly capable that teaching and learning through art is pure. Thank you for the amazing read and please keep posting.

  5. Sue Davis says:

    Thank you Brian, Jennie & Savannah, great that the post is prompting your reflections on the value of arts-based learning and activity. Savannah, SOOO good you feel encouraged to take an arts-based mindset into your teaching and learning. We need creative and courageous teachers to continue to join the profession!

  6. Ruth Flaherty says:

    I did a six month research of artsbased pedagogues in primary schools along with another researcher, for DECD (SA).
    The teachers who employed these pedagogies had outstanding results, with students commenting that they learnt so much, but had so much fun doing it, they didn’t feel like they were learning.

    We drafted a model, which DECD was supposed to put inline for site leaders about different approaches, supported by videos of different sites employing the Arts in this way. Whilst the model is on line, it’s not yet need polished to be totally useful to site leaders.
    Here’s the URL if you’re interested.

  7. Sue Davis says:

    Yes we’d heard of the great work being done in SA Ruth, terrific to hear that there are moves afoot to share that learning more widely. Thanks for the link – i think there was a : missing in the URL but I was able to find it thank you! I hope the project is continuing!

  8. Barbara Jones says:

    “Evidence Based” means just that – so to dis programs (phonics) that deliver the best there is for teaching children literacy skills looks extremely ignorant on your part and I wonder why you would want to deny children this as what is only a small part of their education . It’s like ignoring any future “Evidence Based” findings on the positive impacts of Arts based pedagogy. I have studied Fine Arts and worked with children on collaborative projects in primary schools so am well aware of the benefits but also work with children with learning difficulties and the difference in using evidence based teaching methods is life changing. If teachers deliver this properly it lifts the whole class.

  9. Sue Davis says:

    Hi Barbara, we would not dismiss evidence out of hand and certainly don’t deny explicit phonics teaching works for many and is part of effective literacy learning programs. We are not saying there is not a place for them or arguing for either/or, but rather both!

  10. Phonics is a vital element. However it’s not the only “evidence based approach”. We are over doing phonics! It is a skill but not the best and only way to support learning to read. There are many social and critical aspects that must be taught also. It saddens me to read some skills based only supporters even want to do away with reading literature to children. The work presented on this article is evidence based! Just not cog science evidence based!

  11. Gale Ball says:

    As a retired teacher I always had an arts based pedagogy – and it worked beautifully for 40 years! Children still had explicit teaching in phonics, sight words and maths skills etc – however with a creative flair to activities. It is about balance and developing well rounded children who enjoy learning. There should be more play, music, dance, art and drama in all KLAs. This allows children to enjoy school and learn in a fun way – and it allows teachers to teach in a creative way and enjoy their work. Less data collecting, data walls and data talks and more time for quality teaching and learning I believe. Thankyou for this article – it gives me hope for the future of education.

  12. Sue Davis says:

    Thanks so much for that confirmation Gale that it is indeed possible to use arts-based pedagogy as well as explicit teaching in phonics (and other approaches to teaching various aspects of literacy and numeracy)! The value of an arts-based approaches is that it can not only increase children’s motivation and engagement, but increase the opportunities for children to test out ideas and their ability to communicate, and to have a real context for doing so. Sometimes people think you can only engage in this type of learning ‘after’ kids have learnt the basics, but in fact it can be the means for them wanting to learn ‘the basics’. ‘How can i write a letter to the Queen of Space’ I recall a child asking after one of our space troopers sessions. She really struggled with her written literacy and the teacher had said ‘don’t expect her to write anything’ but she was determined to write/draw her response and then seek assistance to improve it. Also see Annette Harden’s articles about her PhD classroom-based work, whereby she used drama and also explicit literacy teaching and mapped the literacy development with children she taught in the early years

  13. mikailah lehmann says:

    i have been an Occupational Therapist for over 30 yrs and i have found children have changed and where in the 80’s and 90’s i could structure and lead the session now children want more relating to how they are in the present moment and for lessons to be more dynamic and interactive. I am increasingly using drama, sound, music art dance and story to engage children in movement. Children on the spectrum want to feel their ideas are winning ideas and they need support for more muscle tone, more endurance and i find the creative arts support love of learning and literacy through passion 🙂

  14. Sue Davis says:

    Thanks for sharing that Mikailah! We certainly need to find different ways to engage the increasing numbers of children we have in our classrooms who are autistic or on the spectrum. As a parent of a son with ASD I can share that most of the traditional literacy learning programs did not work, even intensive phonics teaching both in school and with a speech pathologist. Having the motivation to read the names of Pokemon characters on his cards and Gameboy did wonders for his interest in learning to read though! We know of other colleagues in India and Ireland who have been doing really important work with using drama and mask work with children and young people on the spectrum.

  15. Ruth Flaherty says:

    A couple of years ago myself and a colleague did a six month research of using arts based pedagogies in the primary school and developed an online resource for site leaders.
    It still needs some refining but we have included video footage of some sites that use this approach well. Here’s the website

  16. John Nicholas Saunders says:

    Hello Ruth, thank you for sharing this research and project! What a fantastic resource you’ve developed to support teachers.

  17. katy mckeown says:

    Interesting article and comments.
    With our new Steamdance program at The Australian Ballet we have seen measurable results in improving curricular outcomes in STEM and other areas such as literacy which certainly demonstrates that arts has a huge impact in that arena with the wrap around wellbeing benefits.
    The programs you reference are of a well researched, tested and high quality- this is certainly a factor in their success. Many of the phonic literacy programs are very successful because of this too. I think a measure of success is where we complement and enhance what is already in place in schools.

  18. John Nicholas Saunders says:

    Thank you so much, Katy! And the work that The Australian Ballet does on the Steamdance program is wonderful and worth looking at more deeply! For those interested, check out the website

  19. Cheryl Hancock says:

    Love it !! I am a visual arts specialist teacher with over 27 years experience. Fortunately have worked in schools where the arts are valued and we use the visual arts to tell stories, explore literacy , to write about art and explore culture. Keep up the advocacy!

  20. John Nicholas Saunders says:

    Thank you so much, Cheryl! Keep up your amazing and inspiring work!

  21. Vera Bergman says:

    Your thoughts on ‘Arts-based approaches’ are very similar to the theory of ‘Discipline-based Arts Education’, as practiced in the USA. Let’s hope that this method will at last be regognized by both policy makers and teachers throughout the world!

  22. Paul says:

    As a musician, artist, and teacher, I’ve been an advocate of this kind of thing for years. Gaining support for new ideas, and acknowledgement within a stagnant teaching culture is an ongoing challenge.

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