March 2022 How to Boost Literacy with Music & Art

8 Min Read  •  Literacy

Words are powerful tools, aren’t they? Just by opening our mouths and speaking, we can build someone up or tear them down. We can bring them comfort or raise alarm. And while words certainly cannot change reality, they most definitely change how people perceive it. That’s where the power comes from – our individual emotional responses. Understanding this, how can we use the power of words to boost literacy?

Did you know that words can literally change your brain? Compassionate conversation and positive words enhancing cognitive function and build resiliency, and over time, also strengthen the frontal lobe. Harmful words shut down both the logic and reasoning areas of the brain by releasing stress-producing hormones and neurotransmittters. Words change how we think of ourselves and perceive the world around us. So using the right strategies to boost literacy is a must.

One of my favorite quotes comes from Mother Theresa. She wrote “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters and make many ripples.” So how can we, as educators, be the ripples on the water and change the narrative in our classrooms, our community and our personal lives? How can we create a compassionate use of our words? Moreover, and keeping the standards in mind, how can we boost literacy in an engaging way?

Understanding words and word use is imperative, of course. However, reciting vocabulary and definitions is a daunting and tiresome use of our time and energy. Instead, let’s boost literacy with the use of music and art to teach the meaning and use of words for a positive, empathetic and understanding classroom.

Boost Literacy with Music and Rhythm

Even if you are melodically- or rhythmically-challenged, you can add music to your lesson to spark excitement, creativity and retention. Students will learn to use words accurately and in the correct context. Additionally, with the addition of music and art, they’ll also use skills such as critical thinking, social skills, creating, and communication… all in a collaborative environment. Another plus is that it doesn’t matter whether you teach second graders or sophomores; you can add music to any grade level! Of course, reading is the best way to improve vocabulary and word use. But creating a song through lyrics and easy accompaniments is a wonderful activity that adds engagement in learning.

Create a word list for your students. You could always use vocabulary for a particular lesson or unit. But don’t be afraid to think outside the box! You could use words of empathy or social and cultural awareness. Or maybe even a list of positive character traits. Personally, I’m a huge fan of using words found from the top 100 SAT word list. Don’t worry – these words can be introduced to students of any age – not just those aiming for taking the SAT’s or in gifted courses. Students with strong vocabularies tend to earn higher scores on tests than those with average vocabulary kills. 

Pick a Theme

It is not imperative to have a theme but the overall product you create will have a bit more consistency if you do. Assign 2-3 words per student and ask them to complete a brain dump. Don’t just have them simply write the definitions of the words. Instead, have them create phrases or sentences that define the words and use them in the correct context. Then challenge students to create sentences that use the overall theme using the words through in a rhyme.

For example, I will use the words disdain and compromise from my word list. For an overarching theme, I’ll use compassion. After writing out the definitions, creating phrases and sentences using these words, it’s time to create a rhyme. 

“We may not agree, in fact my thoughts may be of great disdain/But my ability to compromise will not be in vain.”

The rhyming sentences demonstrate compassion and define both words. Have each student or group or group of students recite their rhyming sentences, and voilà! You have song lyrics in one class period and you are ready to add a melodic or rhythmic accompaniment!

Don’t be afraid

You’re probably thinking something along the lines of how you couldn’t possibly play a musical instrument! Well, I am here to tell you: yes you can! The ukulele is a fun and easy way to add music to motivate and energize a lesson. And believe me, your students will enjoy the addition of this instrument. They are not expensive, and many school music departments have ukuleles available.

If you don’t have ukuleles readily available, consider talking to your principal about purchasing a school set, or writing a grant through,, or even a local foundation to fund a set for your classroom instead. 

There are many tutorials and chord charts available with demonstrations on how to play and teach the ukulele in a short time. Try learning three to four easy chords to start such as A minor, F, C and G. Students can now create small melodies with the lyrics of their vocabulary and sing their lyrics with their ukulele accompaniment. 

If the ukulele isn’t your style, consider having students set their lyrics to simple rhythm tracks through audio workstations such as Garageband or Soundtrap and create their own rap. For younger learners, consider choosing one style that everyone agrees on and stick to a solid, rhythmic pattern. Older students will enjoy experimenting and playing with rhythmic tracks to find the one that best suits their lyrics and sound. Now your students can experiment with their vocabulary poems and set them to music, whether it be melodic or rhythmic.

Because students are all in the same key, and lyrics are geared around a central topic or theme, words and music will fit together nicely and are ready for presentations. The final presentation will have a beautiful flow and cohesiveness to the lyrics and sound and your class will have created a song with a powerful message and strength to the literary concepts you are teaching. 

Looking for additional ways to boost literacy using music? Try an in-depth lyric analysis!

Storytelling Through Art

If music isn’t your forte, that’s okay! Visual art is always an option as well, and has been for thousands of years.  Want proof? Look no further than the Chauvet Caves of southern France where there are well-preserved cave drawings dating back 30,000 years. Paintings depicting the prehistoric period used art as a form of language and communication. These drawings told stories of encountering mammoths, lions and rhinos. Some of the first known forms of communication and storytelling. 

Similar to the lyrics and song writing strategy shared above, assign students one or two words from our vocabulary list. Have them define and use a brain dump activity to create small phrases or sentences using words in the correct context.  Next, ask students to use these words and phrases to create a short narrative that describes a moment of their life. Consider choosing a theme, character trait or moral story for students to focus on. What were they doing? How did they emulate that trait? Did they help others or was it an act that was done when no one was looking? Have students create a story of this moment in time. Once their narrative is written, it’s time to illustrate it!

Using anything from a small piece of paper to a large tag board, create a space for students to illustrate within. A personal favorite idea of mine is to use the silhouette of each child. The silhouette creates a space to work, also acting as a personal frame for the child to illustrate within. 

Once the silhouettes have been created, challenge your students to illustrate their stories through elements of illustration and artistic expression such as line, shape, color, texture and space. Use emotion, background details, symbolism and try to fill in as much of the space given to illustrating their narrative. Students may use elements of balance and create a focal point with supporting details around it. 

Shadow and light will emphasize certain elements and add balance by drawing your eye to the focal point. Using color will aid in keeping in mind the story, the time of day, season, weather, temperature to create an immediate sense of time or place. All of these elements will help describe or symbolise the narration.

When completed, allow students to tell the story of a moment in time from their life as described their own illustrations. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. How incredible it will be when your students can tell a story of their own life through symbolic, artistic illustration?

Curating the Work

Many times our administration or the public only sees our final product or project… not the time or effort we put into it. How can we curate our preparations and work or musical projects so others may see and listen at their convenience? Well, why not record students as they are working? Not only record their performance, but the progress leading up to the performance. Put all of the videos and photos into one movie space, and add a QR code! We can then print the QR code, frame them and hang in a hall or other designated area for all to see.

Have guests use the picture mode on their phone or device to scan the code and your video will pop right up! They’ll be able to see the preparation, work, and final product your learners have been working on. Don’t forget to keep these QR codes up for parent nights, expos… even PTA meetings. You never know who will stop by and see these images and recordings of not only student projects, but their progress and excitement throughout the process. The good news is you can use QR codes for any type of projects!

Words are Powerful

Why is it important to consider the power of words? It’s their power. It’s the power of words that give voice to our students and that voice only comes when they understand and personalize them. Make the words come alive and you will see a boost in literacy and in their confidence. Isn’t that why we are all here?