Guest Post: Using Art to Build Literacy Skills


My friend Lori Carpenter was the art teacher in my former school. Every day, I loved walking down our school halls and seeing the wonderful art created by her students. Now that Lori has retired, I asked her if she’d do a guest post. Smart move!



Using Art to Build Literacy Skills

by Lori Carpenter aka ArtMom13


The ability to understand and communicate using images is an important 21st century skill. In 1979 I attended a NYSATA conference at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY.  I learned about a Title I grant called, “Learning to Read through the Arts”, written by a group of teachers and implemented in Brooklyn, NY.  Read more about that program here:

The program was so successful, it has been replicated throughout the country for decades since. It makes SO much sense. That images and art could motivate students to read more continued to fuel my years of teaching art. It provided a foundation for many of my K-5 lessons. I loved collaborating with primary grade teachers and library/media specialists in my two schools.  Together, we introduced quality visual and literary content to thousands of early learners.

As parents, we want to do everything we can to support our child’s language development. We all know how important it is to read, read, read, and create with your child, right? Start early with wordless picture books. ‘Reading’ picture books helps pre-readers learn how to navigate from left to right, page to page, front to back. Discuss what’s happening in the details so your child will learn about visual clues.  This encourages more complete understanding.  The ability to communicate with visual images as well as words defines 21st century literacy. These skills will help them succeed in school and in life. 


Below are some ideas for you to try with your child at homeThey represent some of my favorite art activities inspired by some awesome artists/illustrators. Have fun!


Linnea in Monet’s Garden by Christina Bjork & Lena Anderson

Paint Monet’s Japanese bridge using oil pastels on 9 x 12” yellow green construction paper.  Look carefully at the many pastel colors Monet used in his original painting! Blend with one finger. Use lots of white. 




Black on White and White on Black by Tana Hoban

Create a straw-binding picture book. Your child will have so much fun creating a picture book to read with a younger sibling!  First, they should fold in half and nest together 3 pieces each of 6×12” black and white construction paper.  Make or buy some (4-5) die-cut black & white paper shapes. Use glue dots to glue one die-cut shape, such as a flower or a sailboat, on the front cover. Glue the
remaining shapes in the book, one on each page, leaving some blank pages. On the blank pages, draw several different original pictures using fine black marker (Flair or Pentel) on the white pages; use white colored pencil on the black pages. 

An adult should use sharp scissors to cut two small notches in the spine through all folded edges. Along the spine, thread one loop
of a rubber band through one of the notches from the inside center of the book to the outside. On the outside of the book, feed a plastic drinking straw (cut to 6”) through one loop, then loop the other end of the rubber band through the other notch, placing it carefully around the other end of the straw.  Have your child add their name & the copyright date to the front & back covers, and voila! A B&W straw-binding book! 


Backbeard, Pirate for Hire by Matthew McElligott

A collage. The pants, jacket, and shoes are construction paper. The hairy pirate face was drawn on white drawing paper with a china
marker—a waxy crayon-like pencil that unwraps like a charcoal pencil.  Add a straw boater and a monocle. Cut around the bearded face to create a cloud-like shape. The wacky designs on the pirate’s clothes may be drawn with assorted construction paper crayons, or oil pastels.  Go crazy with patterns!

 Swimmy by Leo Lionni

Swimmy, a sweet little story, provides the inspiration for a mixed-media printmaking & watercolor activity.   A sea sponge and cool
watercolor washes are used to create a soft watery all-over background.  Allow that to dry completely. Next, various green crayons are rubbed over rickrack (available @ Joann Fabrics or any sewing section) and lace doilies placed beneath the paper to create sea plants.
Lastly, (and this is the fun fun part!) cut a dry flattened sponge into a small (2-3 inches) fish shape with sharp scissors.  Include fins and a tail. Dampen your little fish, (not dripping) and dab it onto some red tempera paint squeezed onto a paper plate.   Wipe off excess paint, then dab down and up, repeating to print about 12 of Swimmy’s friends in a large fish shape. Leave the eye area open for that last, all-important black fish.  You know his name…. 


Feathers for Lunch by Lois Ehlert

Create a colorful paper collage inspired by Feathers for Lunch.

I made a few different bird patterns by drawing them on flattened out cereal box cardboard.  They were easy to cut out using utility snips. My 1st graders then traced their choice of bird pattern on 9×12” construction paper. After cutting out & gluing the paper bird near the center of 12×18” background of blue or violet, scraps from other projects may be used to create branches, flowers, leaves, nests, birdhouses…and of course a cat’s tail…. textured papers also work really well for this project!

 The Mixed Up Chameleon by Eric Carle!

really anything by Eric Carle!

Paint, print, and lightly comb/scrape large (18×24”) paper with tempera or acrylic paint in bright jewel tones. Hang to dry, or dry on a drying rack.  Draw body shapes on the back; that way you can erase and make changes before you cut them out.  Glue to a background paper, add cutout details and enjoy!



Curious George by Margaret & H.A. Rey  

Who doesn’t love George, ‘the good little monkey’?  Look through your collection.  Find George sliding down a snowy mountain on a pizza pan, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, playing with baby bunnies.  Print George, cut him out, and place him in a setting sketched and painted by you! Use a simple black crayon drawing, leave plenty of white space, and keep your watercolor palette limited to red, blue, and green.  Unless of course George is fortunate enough to be with his bff, the man in the yellow hat!


More suggestions:

Ten Little Caterpillars by Bill Martin, Jr. & Lois Ehlert. 

Have You Seen My Cat? by Eric Carle

Pezzettino by Leo Lionni

Waiting for Wings by Lois Ehlert

As you might guess, there are thousands of great picture books out there offering millions of great ideas for the artist/reader.  What will you and your child make next?


Lori’s Bio:

After a wonder-filled 33 years teaching Art to students in Kindergarten through grade 7, I am a happy stay-at-home wife and mom to our 13-year old son. I look forward to fulfilling some dreams like traveling, publishing yoga posters, publishing a picture book.  Having read to and with our son since he was an infant, we still enjoy reading together. My mission as art teacher was to ignite in children a passion for art making, for literacy, and for becoming ‘smart in art’. They seemed to have at least as much fun as I did.  



Thank you Lori!



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