By Emily Lawrence-Boulger, BFA, M. Ed, Ed.D. Candidate
When it comes to assessing reading comprehension, it is important to clearly define what it is you are assessing. Most educators are looking to measure their students’ abilities to retell what they have read. Traditionally, comprehension assessments are presented both formally and informally, consisting of asking detailed questions about the content or text in forms of open-ended, oral, cloze, or multiple-choice questions.
Reasons for assessment can include a student’s measurement of grade level, ability to summarize main ideas and accurately recall information, or explain the moral of a story. In this particular article, I am writing about measuring a student’s ability to recall specific details and events from text. The reason I am focusing on this is because recalling and remembering what the text is about is the foundation to understanding the aforementioned aspects of comprehension. If a student cannot remember what they read, then they will not be able to understand the other components.
Visual arts is a tool that can accurately inform the assessor of what the student recalls, and in some cases will provide more information than one of the traditional methods previously mentioned. Similar to assessment through multiple choice or composition, the assessor clearly defines what they want the students’ outcomes to be, and then rubrics can be created in the same way for visual arts as it is for those traditional forms. For example, when a student is asked to write a description of the physical characteristics of a specific character from a piece of text, they will more than likely leave out more details then they would if they were asked to draw the same character.
I have found that when I ask students to draw a character, it forces them to pause, think, recall, and visualize each component of the character. When drawing, you have to imagine the image before putting it on paper. Once the leg is drawn and it is time to draw the feet, decisions must be made that force them to pause, think about the story, recall the information, and visualize it in order to draw it on paper. These steps teach the students to break down the recall process and think through details.
Describing the physical characteristics of a character is a very specific question to ask a student to depict on paper. The assessor can also ask more open-ended questions such as recalling a specific scene of a story or text. When I read the book James and the Giant Peach, I ask the students to describe the accident that happened to James in the garden. When it was answered by multiple-choice, the answer was simply, “he dropped the beans.” When the students were asked to answer this question by writing, the answer was “James fell, dropped the beans, and lost them on the ground.” When I asked the students to draw a scene depicting the accident, it included so many more details, not only demonstrating their understanding of the accident, but also their ability to recall other parts of the story that were mentioned earlier, such as the garden having a brick wall around its location at the bottom of a hill. Some students also drew the tall thin house on the top of it, as well as the tree roots James tripped over, or the details of the beans and even the details of the container in which the beans were being stored. The drawings provided the assessor with so much information beyond just that one question.
All students are individuals, and therefore learn differently. Because of this, using a variety of assessments is recommended when attempting to achieve accurate results. Using visual arts as the only assessment tool is not a fair or accurate form of assessment, just like using only traditional methods. It is best to use as many differentiated methodologies as possible in order to understand what your students have learned.
Emily Lawrence-Boulger is currently the founder of Shoe Town Art Center and a visual art educator at the Beverly School for the Deaf. Prior to this, Emily worked for over fifteen years as a special educator/ autism specialist and earned several degrees such as a BFA, M.Eds. in special education, behavior intervention in autism, and visual arts, and is currently working on an Ed.D. in administration. She is presenting a session entitled “Using Visual Arts as a Tool to Assess Reading Comprehension” at the 2016 VSA Intersections: Arts and Special Education Conference on Tuesday, August 2, 2016.