Deirdre Moore | November 2014

Now You’re Speaking My Language! Supporting Arts Vocabulary Development

Supporting Arts Vocabulary Development

Supporting arts vocabulary development. It’s a subject dear to my heart and right down my alley. I worked with a combination class of 3rd and 4th graders, having them do a “turn and talk” or “pair share” about dynamics. Then, we shared as a whole group.  It was only our second session with the concept of dynamics and with music terms like forte (loud), piano (soft) and crescendo (gradually getting louder).  I was amazed. Without prompting, many of these students tossed around those words.

Even fortissimo (really loud!), which I included partly because it is so much fun to say!  Just last week these students never heard these words before. They needed to be constantly encouraged to use those musical terms rather than language like loud and soft or low and high. And now this week they sounded like musicians!

And that is the power of language.

I once had a fabulous dance teacher ask

me, “Is it really important we teach children dance terminology like time and space?  Isn’t the experience enough?”  I answered with a resounding “YES, we must teach them the language!”  By knowing these terms, children have the ability to describe an experience with more specificity. Additionally, they gain the ability to intentionally manipulate those elements in their own movements.  When they are audience members or perceivers, they will have a better awareness of what they see and hear. And in turn, will better understand the performance or piece.  We expand children’s vocabularies, so that they may better articulate their experiences and better understand them.  Encouraging children to “use their words” is important in every other subject we teach in school. It is no less important in the arts vocabulary development.

I love to see the pride that students take in using terminology accurately.

When students understand this is important, and you insist they use that terminology they will rise to the challenge. Thus, be more exact in their explanations.  You can also see the joy they have in saying “fancy” words that are either multisyllabic (like onomatopoeia in poetry) or in another language (like fortissimo in music or chasse in dance).  You model that behavior.  If you model joy in language, they will be encouraged to enjoy it too!  Get dramatic with it.  Say piano in a soft voice and forte in a strong voice.  Say fortissimo in the strongest most operatic Italian voice you can muster!  Savor the words and invite your students to do the same.

Just as you have word walls for ELA and math, have areas in the room to post vocabulary related to the various arts.  If the language is hanging there in the room, it will stand as a visual reminder to you and to your students to embrace the language of the arts vocabulary development.  You might find having those terms posted also helps you and your students to make connections between the arts and other curriculum areas.

If you are talking about  lines in math, the students may connect that to line in visual art or dance or even in theatre and poetry (like a line of dialogue or a line in a poem).  Then you can help your students have a better understanding of line in math by discussing how it is similar to and how it differs from line in the different art forms and vice versa.

As educators we all know how important developing rich vocabularies is for our students.

When you are developing the vocabularies of your students, don’t forget the wealth of language specific to the arts that can help your students be able to more fully appreciate what they encounter, be better equipped to speak intelligently about those experiences and make connections between the arts and the rest of their lives.

About the Author

Deirdre is a teaching artist and AI coach in the San Diego public schools dedicated to helping classroom teachers make arts an integral part of their teaching. Deirdre has an MEd in Arts Integration and over twenty years of classroom and performing arts teaching experience. Email Deirdre.