Connecting Learning Standards to Arts-Based Responses to Literature

Children’s literature can be used by teachers as instructional materials to meet a variety of educational goals and objectives. Using children’s literature that includes multiple modes of communication offers more opportunities to invite students to respond using arts-based forms, such as visual art, drama, music, and dance. Students may be more encouraged to respond to literature if teachers use more familiar terms, such as music, art or drawing, acting or drama, and dance or movement rather than discussing modes, like gestural, spatial, or audio, as terms. Arts-based responses allow students to use all their senses as they make meaning. As an example, an arts-based response might be one in which students act out what they think might happen in a story, create a rhythmic pattern or tune to symbolize each character in a book, or move the same way as they believe characters felt or acted in given situations to help analyze a character’s emotions and motivations. Multimodal books are not required tools for arts-based responses in that teachers can encourage or create arts-based response activities for any book, but when a text already utilizes audio, gesture, movement, or space in creative ways, it can offer students a model and set the stage for engaging in arts-based responses.

An argument can be made that incorporating arts-based responses is especially important for students who excel in other modes of communicating besides reading and writing. Nevertheless, in many of my discussions of arts-based responses with teachers, it often is revealed that they believe arts-based responses are fun extension activities but they may be pushed to the periphery in light of the increasing pressure of standards and testing. Yet, incorporating arts-based responses can help teach skills necessitated by the standards. To help ensure that teaching and learning are directed toward a meaningful outcome, teachers have purposes for using any strategy, practice, or lesson they teach, including the practice of incorporating arts-based responses. Teachers’ purposes are aligned with their state’s standards for student learning, including the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects (CCSS; National Governors Association & Council of Chief State School Officers [NGA & CCSSO], 2010), which have been adopted by most states across the United States.

I asked pre-service and practicing teachers about their purposes for having students respond to literature. Table 1 shows a list generated from their responses, including helping students comprehend or interpret a text, connect to characters or events, and consider new events or situations. The right column of Table 1 shows how these purposes aligned with standards, such as CCSS Reading Standards for Literature K-5, CCSS Speaking and Listening Standards and NYS P-12 Common Core Learning Standards (NYSED, 2011).3 This alignment shows that asking students to respond to literature in the classroom can help teachers and students accomplish important learning goals.

Teachers’ Purposes for Literature Response Activities  Standards
  • Gauge students’ comprehension of the literature
  • Give students a chance to ask questions, help students work out anything that is confusing, or advance students’ understanding of the literature
  • See if students are able to communicate their ideas to others
CCSS ELA-Literacy. RL. K.1.-5.1 Key Ideas and Details. Asking and answering questions in kindergarten which develops into using details to make inferences at 5th grade
  • Make sure students understand bigger ideas in the literature
CCSS ELA-Literacy. RL. K.25.2 Key Ideas and Details. Retelling in Kindergarten which leads to determining themes and summarizing
  • See if students can recognize plot details and events that affect the progression of the story
  • Help students see right/wrong, successful solutions to problems, different perspectives, consequences, or positive outcomes to actions
  • Help students become more empathic as they understand different characters’ emotions and actions
CCSS ELA-Literacy. RL. K.3.-5.3 Key Ideas and Details. Identifying, describing, and ultimately comparing and contrasting characters, settings and events
  • See how different students interpret the same story, and let them see and value those differences
CCSS ELA-Literacy. SL.K.15.1. Comprehension and Collaboration. Participate and engage in collaborative discussions about grade level texts and topics
  • Help students make connections to curriculum topics, their own lives, the world, other texts
  • See if students relate ideas in the story to other topics they have learned in class
  • Help students prepare for things that they have not experienced themselves
(NYS) Responding to Literature 11. Recognize and make connections from literature to other texts, ideas, and cultural perspectives
  • See if students enjoyed the stories
(NYS) Responding to Literature 11a. Self-selecting texts based on personal preferences
Table 1. Literature Response Activities Purposes and Standards
Teachers’ Purposes and Links to Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects (CCSS; National Governors Association & Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010) and the NYS P-12 Common Core Learning Standards (NYS Department of Education, 2011).

Earlier in the chapter, purposes for asking students to respond to multimodal texts were established. These included giving students opportunities to make meaning of texts that draw on multiple modes of meaning and to understand the potential of each mode of communication in order to make choices that allow them to create and understand messages more fully. These two purposes align with the CCSS Reading Literature standard, Integration of Knowledge and Ideas regarding how illustrations, words, and, in later grades, multimedia elements in print, digital, and multimedia texts contribute to the overall effect of the text.

Siegel (2006) explained how translating information from one mode of communication into a different mode, called transmediation, generates new understandings of the information. Since each mode has a different potential to communicate, transmediation furthers students’ meaning making because it requires them to think about content in different ways and is a clear benefit of arts-based responses. In addition, when teachers generated their lists of the purposes for responding to literature, there were a small number they listed that did not match with the standards, including promoting creativity, allowing students to think out of the box and explore their own thinking, fostering empathy, and giving students a chance to be actively engaged and gain ownership of learning. These purposes for literature response were important to teachers with respect to maintaining a positive and productive learning environment. Arts-based responses offer rich opportunities to fulfill many purposes such as those included in Table 1, while enhancing understanding of literature and creating lifelong learners.

The design of arts-based responses goes beyond thinking of a final product such as a cute craft to send home, to instead, thinking about the activity as part of a process that will allow students to engage with the content and literature. Because arts-based responses to children’s literature are central to achieving teachers’ purposes and align with state standards, the final section of this chapter will feature well-designed arts-based activities that can help students transmediate between modes and think about making meaning in new ways.

Examples of Arts-Based Responses

The visual and performing arts responses to children’s literature featured in this section are offered as suggestions and to inspire new ideas. Each book and each class offer unique opportunities to create and innovate. As you consider the use of arts-based responses in your own classroom, envision each suggestion taking place with students and teachers exploring and experiencing the text and the activity together. Students are not professional actors, musicians, artists, or dancers, and yet they are fully capable of visual and performing arts responses. Likewise, teachers do not need to be professional artists or dancers either to effectively use arts-based responses with students. As pointed out by Berghoff (1998), these responses are not about teaching the disciplines of art or music in the language arts classroom but allowing learners to use their knowledge from these disciplines to learn in the language arts classroom. These ways of thinking and expression are familiar to young children, she explains. “From early childhood on, children make sense of the world through dramatic play, drawing, dancing, singing and other communicative forms” (p. 521). Teachers can foster an environment where these ways of thinking continue to be valued as students explore the world in ways that are familiar. Each example in the following section also includes a link to the standard(s) that the activity addresses as a reminder that offering arts-based responses accomplishes important curricular goals.


Music responses explore how all elements of music and audio, including individual sounds, pitch (high or low), dynamics (loud and soft), rhythm, and tempo (speed) communicate with listeners.

Sound translation

The text of This Jazz Man by Karen Erhardt (2006) follows the familiar tune of “This Old Man,” but the verse on each page introduces a different jazz performer. As part of the verse, there is a string of sound words that helps readers hear the sound of the instrument performed by that jazz player. There is also an extended sound word phrase incorporated into the illustration. For this lesson, read through the book as a class read aloud. Then reread the book and invite students to sing along with the reading using the tune to “This Old Man.” Finally, use materials available in the classroom to translate the string of sound words back into sound (hands and feet, pencils, water bottles, books, etc.). Encourage students to be creative as they find materials to make the sound. Once a sound has been chosen for each song verse, reread and sing the song one more time. Instead of speaking the sound words, replace them with the chosen sound to translate the sound words to actual sounds (Robertson, 2008). CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.K.4-5.4

Hear your life

What Charlie Heard by Mordicai Gerstein (2002) is a picture book biography of the life of composer Charles Ives, who is known as a composer whose music was often misunderstood or regarded as difficult to listen to (recall that this book was discussed previously in reference to audio modes). Charles Ives heard all the sounds in his life as music, and his compositions are meant to portray this, however dissonant or cacophonous (i.e., disagreeable; not harmonious) his compositions ended up being. For example, one of his more famous pieces is a representation of two different marching bands playing two different pieces in different keys, marching from opposite directions, crossing in front of the listener, and then moving away. In this picture book biography, sound words are used as part of the illustrations in different colors and fonts next to the object, person, or animal from which the sound originates. The pages are full of sounds and colors, showing the sounds that permeated Charles Ives’ life. First, share the book with students, guiding them as they interpret the messages communicated through multiple modes. Then, invite students to write and illustrate a scene from their life using the same style. Figure 2 shows how a class of students represented sounds in an illustration drawn from a personal memoir writing piece they were working on. In this classroom, when the teacher then asked students to go back and revise their memoir, the exploration into the sound and visual representation of their story allowed them to add much more robust sensory detail into their revisions (Robertson, 2008). CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.K.7-5.7; CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.K.3-5.3

figure 2

Figure 2. Student example of the illustration style in What Charlie Heard by Mordicai Gerstein.


Drama responses allow students to explore how elements such as body language, posture, gesture, voice, and inflection contribute to expressing and understanding meaning.

Color and emotions

The following activity allows students to explore the relationship between color and emotions and involves two children’s literature books: My Many Colored Days by Dr. Seuss (1996), and The Way I Feel by Janan Cain (2000). Both of these books relate emotions and moods to different colors. Start the lesson by reading each of the books in a large group format. For the remainder of the lesson, ask students to work within small groups. Provide each group with plenty of different colored pieces of paper. To start, ask one person in the group to act out an emotion for the other members, charade style. Other members of the group will then choose a piece of paper in a color they think represents the acted-out emotion. The group members will then share the emotion they believed was being acted out, as well as why they chose that particular color to represent it, and the actor can share if the group members guessed the emotion they were portraying. Repeat the steps in this activity so that each person in the group has an opportunity to act out an emotion or mood. Younger children still exploring ways to name their emotions can use this activity to further develop their understanding of emotions. Older children working on incorporating more descriptive words and explaining and portraying emotions in their writing can use this activity to add further dimensions to how they and others think about emotions and moods. This activity can be especially enlightening, since students may realize that though they think they are showing one emotion, others may perceive it differently. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.K.7-5.7

Sound and action story

The following activity invites students to think about the attributes of specific characters in a text. The idea was adapted from a suggestion by Gelineau (2012) to create “original sound stories” by determining sounds to match well-defined characters (p. 67). The following activity extends that idea by asking students to create a sound as well as an action for each character in a book. While this activity could be applied to many different texts, The boy who cried ninja by Alex Latimer (2011) is offered as a suggestion to learn how the process works. The book has a wide variety of diverse characters, including a Mom, Dad, Grampa, ninja, astronaut, giant squid, pirate, crocodile and monkey. First, read the book, The boy who cried ninja, aloud. Then, break the class into small groups and have the students decide on a sound and an accompanying action for each character. Each group will then practice reading through the book: every time a character is mentioned (or shown in a picture) they perform the action and make the sound for that character. After each group practices, they will perform their action and sound stories for the class while the teacher reads the story aloud. The process of selecting a sound and action that matches a character will deepen discussion of the characters, and performing the story for the class will extend that discussion to the larger group. For older students, this is a good book to introduce this activity, but then the process can be applied to books where the characters have more development. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.5.7

Dance and movement

Dance and movement responses explore how both dance or body movement can express messages and communicate with others.

Walk like a/an

Every time students need to move around the room, make the most of these transitions by turning them into a response activity focusing on dance and movement. For example, as students move to get in line or to shift activities in the room, connect to a character in a class read-aloud by asking students to move as if they are feeling one or more of the emotions that character had experienced. This will help students identify with and understand the actions of the characters. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.K.3-5.3

Find your style (dance and music response)

Often in children’s literature, common themes or storylines are repeated. Start this lesson by creating a story map (WETA Public Broadcasting, 2015)—a graphic organizer that outlines the elements of story, such as setting, characters, plots and events, problems and solutions—for the following three stories: 1) The Twelve Dancing Princesses, a classic fairy tale with many adaptations (though the illustrations in Marianna Mayer’s [1989] and Ruth Sanderson’s [1990] versions are particularly beautiful), 2) The Barn Dance by Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault (1986), and 3) Brothers of the Knight by Debbie Allen (2001). Each book follows a similar story line but has its own style, tone, and setting. Ask students to explore the illustrations, the language use, and the design of the books as they compare and contrast the three stories. Add a further dimension to the stories by pairing them with musical samples representing the three styles displayed in the books (a classical piece, such as Bach’s “Minuet in G”; an American folk song, such as “Turkey in the Straw”; and a current, popular, hip hop selection.) With music selected, let students dance to the styles in the books. Discuss or find examples of costumes, props, or musical instruments to explore the elements of tone, style and setting in each story. The decision making process as students choose the music, instruments, or dance moves that connect with the different styles represented in the books actively engages students in the process of transmediation, described earlier as a process of translating information from one mode to another and thus creating new understandings. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.K.3-5.3; CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.K.7-5.7

Visual art

Visual arts responses explore how color, lines, shapes, drawing, painting, and all other elements of art communicate messages to the viewer.

Make a match

Illustrators are artists, and their work is based on traditions and styles in art. Share illustrations from a children’s picture book and compare them to a matching art style. For example, pair the illustrations in Marianna Mayer’s (1989) Twelve Dancing Princesses with Jean-Honore’ Fragonard’s The Swing (students may also be very excited to recognize this particular painting from Disney’s Frozen). Compare Picasso’s cubism artwork with the illustrations in D. B. Johnson’s (2002) Henry Builds a Cabin or the work of children’s book author David Wiesner with surrealism works of Salvador Dali or Vladimir Kush. Extend the activity by asking students go on an “art hunt” and make matches between picture book illustrations and pieces of artwork. For a challenge, ask students to create their own illustrations. Though some of the styles may seem detailed and difficult for children to replicate, they may still choose one of the harder styles to explore the process. Or suggest they work with an easier style, such as naïve artwork, characterized by a childlike nature and represented in picture books such as The Bookshop Dog by Cynthia Rylant (1996) or Joseph Had a Little Overcoat by Simms Taback (1999). Students can create illustrations to go with a story they are writing or related to an event in their life. After matching art and illustrations or illustrating using a certain style, have a discussion with students about why a style might be used with a certain book. Did the style help tell the story or set the mood? When they used the style themselves, how did it affect the overall message they were communicating? CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.3.7

Pinhole view

Illustrators are becoming much more innovative in the creation of wordless picture books. The wordless picture book Flashlight by Lizi Boyd (2014) offers many opportunities for discovery. The illustrations show the character exiting a tent in the woods at night. Most of the page is black with grey line drawings to show the dim background. The character is holding a flashlight and there is a bright spot of the illustration on each page in the path of the flashlight. Small holes are cut out of each page giving a glimpse of what is to come or perhaps something missed on the page before, further drawing visual attention to details in the book. Since exploring dark spaces may not be conducive to a classroom or school environment, teachers can extend the reading of this book by using the idea of the cut outs. Have students view the classroom, other areas in the school, or outdoor areas of the school grounds through a hole cut in a piece of paper. Have them sketch the new things to which this pinhole view of the world drew their attention. What do they see differently with different shaped holes? Do they see things they did not notice without the pinhole view? This artistic response helps students understand the effect and theme of the book and also helps give them a different perspective on their environment. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.K.5-5.5


3: NYS standards are used as an example of how an adaptation of the CCSS can show particular attention to responding to literature. NYS did adopt the CCSS but added the fifth area to the Reading Standards of “Responding to Literature.” Return