The Core, Literacy, and the Arts: Integrating for Empowerment and Success

Rachel Wadham


Many educators fear that implementation of the common core will remove forms of effective pedagogy and subject content including the arts from their classrooms. By examining the nature, language, and implications of CCSS standards, the author demonstrates how relationships and intersections of the standards enable teachers to integrate the arts with literacy standards in meaningful cross-disciplinary classroom experiences.

Education reform in the last decade has stretched and manipulated the organizations of education in a wide range of directions. Often these directions seem ill fitted for much of the accepted knowledge and practice embraced by education professionals for centuries. The stress from the pressure for reform increases exponentially. For many the implementation of the Common Core State Standards is just another one of these forced educational reforms that will continue to mandate a focus on standardized tests representing achievement in a narrow range of subjects.

This focus has resulted in many educators teaching to the test and removing subjects like art and physical education in order to spend time on what we're being told matters. It is clear that many education professionals hold this view of the Core (Wexler, 2014). But what if this view gives us an understanding of the Core that is limited? What if the Core can actually empower teachers to embrace the knowledge and practices they know work? What if the Core will help us restructure education to make disciplines like the arts foundational to education again? Let's take a look at these what ifs to see how the Core, literacy, and the arts can come together to make the landscape of education the most empowering and open it has been in decades.

Essential Principles

The first step in understanding how the Core can be foundational to both literacy and the arts is to understand some if its basic philosophical underpinnings. While there may be those who disagree with these premises (Wexler, 2014), others clearly contend that these principles are important parts of the Core (Franco & Unrath, 2014). But no matter what stance is taken, it seems clear that there are some foundational principles we must accept if we contend that there are implementations of the Core that can combine literacy and the arts into a powerful whole. 

A set of standards. First, is it important to clearly understand that the intent of the Core is to articulate a set of standards and nothing more. At its most basic, a standard is a statement or rule that helps us ensure quality. The implication is that if we apply the standard, a certain level of quality will be met. There have been and always will be standards for manufacturing, business, government, and even education. No matter what their realm, standards are intended to provide a foundational level of quality. This all holds true for the Common Core. As stated in the Core documentation, these standards are designed to provide a clear statement of what students are expected to learn in grades K-12 in regards to reading, writing, speaking, listening, and mathematics.

A basic understanding of what a standard is and is not is very important, since it is this understanding that helps us clearly delineate the role of the standards in the classroom. The Core is not by definition or application a curriculum or pedagogy. The Core outlines only the outcomes of performance, meaning the standards describe "what a student should know and be able to do" (e.g., make inferences from a text) (CSS, 2010, §2.1). They do not describe how teachers should reach this goal (curriculum), how it should be taught, or what tools should be used (pedagogy). We should consider the standards as the foundation upon which individual schools and districts will build their own quality learning environments. A core standard provides only the base. It is up to individual professionals to build on these underpinnings with their own chosen building blocks.                

The building blocks professionals will individually design and choose from include assessments, curriculum, tools, textbooks, texts, pedagogy, methods, and interventions. The implications of this reality are twofold. First, because the Core does not dictate beyond standards, every implementation of a standard has the potential to look very different. And second, it is up to individual schools and districts to develop what that implementation looks like. The focus in the Core on standards alone puts a lot of responsibility on teachers to use their own authority to express and develop the Core in their own classrooms. In fact, the Core puts a premium on teacher autonomy, frequently acknowledging that a "great deal is left to the discretion of teachers and curriculum developers" (CCSS, 2010, § Key Design Consideration, ¶8).  

So in implementing the Core with a literacy and arts connected focus, the first important thing to understand is that the Core's foundation provides a very solid footing that allows for the curriculum, pedagogy, and methods we use to be tied to the research-based practices that show how powerful the arts can be (Caughlan, 2008; Longley, 1999). In advocating for the Core, it is essential for teachers to embrace the autonomy the Core gives them by advocating for the broadest possible interpretation of how we can teach the Core. In this advocacy it is certainly possible to show that the Core's interpretation of literacy is inexorably linked to the arts.

Integrated literacy. A second principle that must be understood is that as the Core articulates its standards for the English language arts, it advocates for an integrated model of literacy. For decades the focus of curriculum in schools has been to separate content areas into distinct and separate spheres. While it is clear that disciplines and content areas do have important differences, the reality is that they also have commonalties. Among the most basic of these commonalties are the aspects of literacy. For no matter the focus (e.g., social studies or science) all disciplines are going to ask that students possess the important skills of reading, writing, thinking, speaking, and listening. 

It is very clear that from the Core perspective the building of literacy skills is a shared endeavor including all content areas. "The Standards insist that instruction in reading, writing, speaking, listening, and language be a shared responsibility within the school. The K-5 standards include expectations for reading, writing, speaking, listening, and language applicable to a range of subjects, including but not limited to ELA [English Language Arts]" (CCSS, 2010, §Key Design Consideration,¶6 ). No longer is literacy exclusive to language arts. These skills are intended to be threaded throughout every content area. The focus on integrated literacy helps us to see a much broader scope to the development of literacy skills. With this understanding it is critical that teachers believe that literacy cannot be taught without other subjects and that all other subjects include opportunities to promote literacy. 

There is little doubt that this truth also applies to the arts. For as Franco and Unrath (2014, p. 29) have noted, "The CCSS-ELA, which emphasize integrated literacy . . . have provided visual art education with a carpe diem moment: the opportunity to demonstrate that the capacities upheld by the CCSS-ELA are authentically invited by the unique content of art and can be richly developed through comprehensive, high-quality art education programs."  

Skill development. It is important to understand that the focus of the Core is on skill development. Throughout the Core emphasis is placed on teaching and assessing skills instead of individual concepts or facts. In particular the Core for English Language Arts focuses on students' ability to develop analytical or higher-order thinking skills, which include focusing on the ability to solve problems and think critically. Scholars and educators such as Tony Wagner (2008) clearly show that these are the skills that employers desire. It is the skills of critical thinking, collaboration, adaptability, initiative, communication, information literacy, and imagination that the Core emphasizes to provide schooling that will make students college and career ready. 

The Core switches our focus from teaching students discrete information through lower order skills like memorization, recall, matching, labeling, and reproducing to allowing us to find ways to essentially teach students how to learn. In this technologically driven information age, knowing facts and figures is of little value because they will go out of date. However if students have the abilities that will allow them to be lifelong engaged learners by using higher order thinking skills, they will be able to learn and adapt no matter how the future changes. The focus on higher order skills is beneficial not only because these skills match to the needs of the modern age, but also because the focus allows us to connect skills across disciplines including the arts. For as Smith (2014, p. 12) noted,

Critical thinking and cross-curricular learning, components of the CCSS, are already elements of the National Standards of Music Education. Aspects of ELA Common Core instruction can be addressed in, and can support, general music programs without stealing attention from performance goals, such as singing, performing on instruments, or moving to music. Incorporating these elements into music instruction can make students better musicians.

The Core as a set of standards that advocate for integrated literacy and skill instruction serve as a perfect foundation for teachers to build into their teaching a wide range of approaches and applications, including those connected to the arts. Building on these foundational principles is the beginning of integrating literacy and the arts. But to extend understanding beyond the foundation, let's break down how an implementation of the Core standards connecting literacy solidly to the arts could be accomplished.

Unpacking the Standards

The first step in connecting the Core to the arts is to fully unpack the standards to find connections that can be easily made. The process of unpacking standards requires us to read them very closely and to identify intersections between standards so that we can establish connections between the disciplines. It is at these intersections that curriculum and pedagogy can be applied to create a truly integrated curricular vision. In the Core standards are two very clear intersections of literacy and the arts: (a) explicitly stated connections and (b) implicit skill connections.

Explicit connections. Very few people look at the Core and see the arts explicitly noted; however a closer reading may offer a different perspective. In reading the Core we find words like drama, visual, dramatic, illustrator, pictures, illustrations, images, oral, hearing, audio, multimedia, and video clearly stated. An explicit statement of these terms seems to offer an explicit connection to the major art forms. We can clearly see dramatic arts in drama, visual, and dramatic. The visual arts are easily connected to the words illustrator, pictures, illustrations, and images. Music is indicated by the words oral, hearing, and audio. Among the words connected with the media arts are multimedia, and video. It seems that the only art form that is not clearly articulated through this language is dance; however we might say that words like visual and dramatic apply as effectively to dance as to drama. So all the major art forms can be found explicitly connected to the language of the Core standards. 

While it may not have been the Core developers' intent to include the arts as part of the standards, it is hard to argue that they are not there. This is true because the Core's focus on text is very broad: Text includes a wide range of communication forms. A text is something beyond just print on paper: In actuality a text can be anything that portrays information. Because of this broad focus it is equally possible that a painting, a musical composition, or a dramatic performance could constitute a text as much as a book does. The Core is clear in indicating that information can come in many forms and that it is critical for students to apply essential literacy skills to any and all of them. So it seems clear that the argument can be made that when we are determining a creator's point of view using an oil painting by an old master or addressing the allusions to mythology in piece of classical music, we are applying the Core in appropriate ways.

Implicit connections.The second approach to finding the arts in the Core standards is to look at the implicit skill connections between the literacy skills outlined and those necessary to engage with the arts. Here again the language of the Core shows us a solid direction. Assessing the verbs with which the standards indicate the skills needed by students shows that the language of the English Language Arts Standards and the wording of the National Core Arts Standards (State Education Agency, 2014) express the need for many similar skills. For example the Core's anchor standards for reading include verbs like analyze, develop, interpret, relate, covey, and evaluate. These verbs also appear in the Core arts standards, making these skills common to standards on both lists.  

If you expand this analysis further into the standards for writing, speaking and listening, it is clear that other skills related to creating, presenting, producing, and responding are central to both sets of standards. In their study The College Board (2014) articulated their understanding that these strong connections among skills sets are apparent in both sets of standards. For example, they found that the focus on creating expressed in the National Core Arts Standards was aligned to 26 of 30 comparisons made to the Core's writing standards. Additionally the creativity standards aligned positivity to eight of the ten Anchor Standards for Reading. This study also found that the process-oriented approach in the mathematics standards was a "powerful unifier"—that both of these groupings of standards emphasized "planning for one's work, analyzing the task or idea at hand, considering the role of context as it relates to a particular problem or idea, and consider[ing] tools and resources that will aid in solving a problem" (The College Board, 2014, p. 11). These clear skill connections are convincing evidence that the standards for literacy and those for the arts are very strongly connected. 

Applying the Standards

The explicitly stated arts and implicitly existing skill connections reveal clear intersections between literacy and the arts. These intersections indicate places where integrated curricular opportunities can be found. For creatively engaged teachers, unpacking the standards in this way will reveal ingenious opportunities for integrating literacy and the arts. But even for the most creatively engaged, the arts can sometimes be daunting, since we often see a significant lack of artistic talent in ourselves. 

Comfortable starting places. It's important to note that these perceived deficits are often societal constructs, not true realties, so it is important for everyone to understand that even if you don't feel like you are talented at art, music, drama, or dance does not mean that you can't successfully integrate it. An important first step for many will be to get a little more experience with an art form. Professional development offered through universities, museums or other cultural intuitions is a practical place to start in any part of the country. Many of these groups not only offer instruction that can help you learn how to create and engage with your own art, but include classes on how to use arts in the classroom. This kind of training is important, providing opportunities to build confidence with the arts in ways that will make you stronger in your teaching. 

However there are also ways to integrate arts into literacy instruction even without this kind of experience. One of the best ways to start is with what you know. Most teachers feel relatively confident with literature and traditional forms of texts. This is an ideal way to start building the arts into your literacy curriculum because books offer us ways to learn about the arts. Finding a quality biography of an artist and using this informational text to compare how a section relates to the whole is the easiest way to bring arts themes into literacy instruction. The next step might be to have students look at the work of the artist they learned about in the biography, then compare and contrast the information that both texts give them about who the artist is, eventually using both texts to communicate knowledgably about the artist. A further extending step would be to have students create art in the style or form of the artist to see how that experience helps them understand how the artist used his or her own form to relate knowledge and personal experiences. 

Each of these steps draws on significant parts of both the literacy and arts standards:

  • Anchor Standard for Reading 5. Analyze structure to determine relationship of parts to whole.
  •  Anchor Standard for Reading 7. "Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats" (n.p.).
  •  National Arts Core Standard for Connecting.

Developing activities in this way should be quite familiar to most teachers, so it is natural to start to build an arts focus by basing instruction on forms of literature with which they are already comfortable.

Nonfiction connections. Nonfiction, in particular, is an easy and direct connection to the arts since there are quite a lot of texts available that address artists and artistic processes. Additionally nonfiction is easily connected to the Core with its enhanced focus on informational sources through the Anchor Standards for Reading: Informational Text. Thus incorporating the arts through nonfiction texts is an ideal way to begin connecting arts and literacy. A rich scope of informational texts focused on the arts is available to teachers today; but to get teachers started here are three favorites that are particularly effective for integrated curriculum.

The Noisy Paint Box by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by Mary GrandPre (2014), is highly recommended. This Caldecott winning biography of Vasily Kandinsky is a remarkable introduction to the modern artist.

This book could easily be integrated into units on modern art. It's also effective for integrating science, since it focuses on the possibility that Kandinsky had synesthesia, which could be expanded with the use of other texts like Phenomena: Secrets of the Senses by Donna M. Jackson (2008). 

My Country Tis of Thee: How One Song Reveals the History of Civil Rights by Claire Rudolf Murphy, illustrated by Bryan Collier (2014), integrates history. This stunning book follows the progression of a familiar song that connects various civil rights events from women's rights to segregation. Not only does this book have significant connections to interpreting a selection of music, it also has rich connections to social studies, along with other texts like Can't You Make them Behave, King George? by Jean Fritz, illustrated by Tomie dePaola (1977).

Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring was written by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan and illustrated by Brian Floca (2010). This behind the scenes look at the creation of a ballet has a strong focus on collaborative aspects of art. 

This focus has strong connections to the National Arts Core standards as students learn the complexities of refining and completing an artistic work. It also has strong connections to other biographies, like Martha Graham: A Dancer's Life, by Russell Freedman (1998), which could easily extend the application of the core standards into comparing and contrasting texts.

Fictional texts. Though nonfiction is an excellent genre for integrating standards, we should consider other traditional texts as well. For example, works of fiction can also offer insights into the process of creating works of art. Looking at how a fictional character uses art to respond to a personal challenge helps students begin to understand how they can go about developing their own artistic work. Additionally, this kind of focus addresses Anchor Standard for Reading 3—analyze interaction of individuals and ideas as well as events—along with the National Arts Core Standards for creating in fundamental ways. Here are three fictional favorites that are effective for integrated curriculum.  

This is a Moose by Richard T. Morris, illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld (2014), is about a group trying to make a movie about a Moose, but things don't go quite the way they planned. There are some fascinating connections to the processes of movie making, but also an effective message that readers should not define themselves in the ways others define them, which extends this book into social and emotional literacy skills as well.

Guitar Notes, by Mary Amato (2012), follows the interactions of two high school musicians as they share a practice room. Tripp, a guitarist, and Lyla, a cellist, learn about themselves as well as about the processes of making music as they form a supportive and caring friendship. This text delves into the creative process and also addresses the potential of music to help us deal with personal issues in a very powerful way.

In Rupert Can Dance, by Jules Feiffer (2014), Mandy loves to dance, but what she does not know is that her cat Rupert also loves to dance, and each night he uses her dancing shoes to break loose. When Mandy discovers Rupert's secret, she's so happy, but soon finds that trying to get Rupert to dance like she does is not the way to make him happy. This book conveys the energy and power of dance. It also helps readers to see that art is created in many different ways, and each way has its own power to express the artist's intent.    

From its foundational principles to the intersections possible with its standards, the Core designations for literacy and the arts clearly can and should come together. Instead of limiting us as educators, proper use of the Core demonstrates that teachers can and should be empowered to engage in integrated literacy in ways that explicitly tie to the arts. The vision offered seems to open and empower the landscape of education by allowing teachers to embrace a vision that incorporates the arts as a fundamental part of literacy development. 

Rachel Wadham is the education and juvenile collections librarian at Brigham Young University. Rachel holds a master's degree in library science from the University of North Texas and a master's in education from Pennsylvania State University. Her published works include three books: This Is My Life: A Guide to Realistic Fiction for Teens, Integrating Children's Literature though the Common Core State Standards, and Integrating Young Adult Literature though the Common Core State Standards.


Caughlan, S. (2008). Advocating for the arts in the age of multiliteracies. Language Arts, 86(2), 120-126.

The College Board. (2014). The arts and the common core: A comparison of the National Core Arts Standards and the Common Core State Standards. New York, NY: The College Board. Retrieved from:

Franco, M., & Unrath, K. (2014). Carpe diem: Seizing the common core with visual thinking strategies in the visual arts classroom. Art Education, 67(1), 28-32.

Longley, L. (1999). Gaining the arts literacy advantage. Educational Leadership, 57(2), 71-74.

National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers. (2010). Common Core State Standards. Washington, DC: Authors. Retrieved from

Smith, N.T. (2014). Strengthen your music program by incorporating aspects of the ELA Common Core State Standards. General Music Today, 28(1), 12-15.

State Education Agency Directors of Arts Education. (2014). National Core Arts Standards. Retrieved from:

Wagner, T. (2008). The global achievement gap: Why even our best schools don't teach the new survival skills our children need—and what we can do about it. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Wexler, A. (2014). Reaching higher? The impact of the Common Core State Standards on the visual arts, poverty, and disabilities. Arts Education Policy Review, 115(2), 52-61.

Children's Books Cited

Amato, M. (2012). Guitar Notes. New York, NY: Egmont USA.

Feiffer, J. (2014). Rupert Can Dance. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Freedman, R. (1998). Martha Graham: A Dancer's Life. New York, NY: Clarion Books.

Fritz, J. (1982). Can't You Make them Behave, King George? Tomie dePaola (illus.). New York, NY: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan.

Greenberg, J., & Jordan, S. (2010). Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring. Brian Floca (illus.). New York, NY: Flash Point, 2010. 

Jackson, D. M. (2008). Phenomena: Secrets of the Senses. New York, NY: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. 

Morris, R. T. (2014). This is a Moose. Tom Lichtenheld (illus.). New York, NY: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

Murphy, C.R. (2014). My Country Tis of Thee: How One Song Reveals the History of Civil Rights. Bryan Collier (illus.). New York, NY: Henry Holt and Co.

Rosenstock, B (2014). The Noisy Paint Box Mary GrandPre (Illus.). New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.