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Learning to Speak Through Art
An innovative art-and-writing process blossoms
By C.W. Wolff

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Out of a small office in Huddleston Hall, a new approach to literacy is reaching schoolchildren as far away as the Arctic Circle and Saipan—and as close as Exeter and Manchester, N.H. It's called art-based literacy or "picturing writing," and it has a lot in common with the writing-process method developed at UNH. Both encourage students to talk through their stories before writing, revise their first drafts and illustrate and "publish" their books in class. But picturing writing recognizes art as a language equal to the language of words. In fact, it considers art a more fundamental language, one that can enhance and ease the formidable challenge of word-writing.

"If I didn't have my picture in front of me on an easel stand, I wouldn't know what to write about," says Alexandra, a Manchester first-grader who is among 750 Manchester elementary school students taking part in a four-year, federally funded program to study the effectiveness and cross-curriculum possibilities of picturing writing.

Beth Olshansky, director of the UNH-based Center for the Advancement of Art-Based Literacy, began developing the process 20 years ago on her Durham back porch with her three daughters—including Misa Brautigam '01—and neighborhood children. She has shared the process with 8,000 teachers, and seen quantifiable success, including in Exeter, where students in special education and Title I programs who were taught picturing-writing scored significantly higher in reading than the national average for all students.

"Pictures draw the language out of the kids in an easier way," says Priscilla Drouin '02, the reading specialist at Manchester's Webster Elementary School. "We've seen kids who are struggling readers and reluctant writers get very excited about writing, which is a big switch."

Children study how illustrations in their favorite books advance a story and convey mood, time of day, perspective and point-of-view. They consider how the words and pictures work together. They discuss setting, character, problem, solution and ending. And then they build their own books—pictures first.

"Picturing writing just incorporates everything—reading, writing, language development—into one process for the kids," says Doreen Babcock Duhaime '79, a Webster teacher. "All the kids are more engaged because they are writing about their pictures. It's real for them."

The program appears to be especially effective with Webster's immigrant and refugee students. Ange, 11, spoke no English when she arrived at Webster from a refugee camp in Tanzania. Now she stands in front of her classmates, showing her crayon and watercolor paintings and reading her book about a zebra that loses and then finds her baby: "As the twilight sky turns purple and turquoise, she looks and looks.... At last she finds him far away and they are together and snuggle. And they are so happy."

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