6 Ways to Use Books in the Art Classroom to Support ELA and Visual Literacy

books on a shelf

Literacy in the art classroom can be accessible and fun! Students can comprehend at a higher language level when listening than when reading. Reading aloud teaches important skills such as concentration and context to create meaning. It can also expose students to new worlds and perspectives and grow their language bank. When we can help students grow their writing, reading, and critical thinking skills, it can support deeper artmaking and appreciation. Pair book literacy with visual literacy in the art room and see amazing things happen!

The University of Kansas discussed the importance of literacy and defined it as the ability to communicate clearly and effectively. ELA literacy focuses on reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Visual literacy focuses on identifying, reading, and understanding images. Living in an image-based world, colors, shapes, and even emojis are parts of visual literacy. Understanding both of these areas of literacy and how they impact each other is necessary to thrive in today’s society.

books on a shelf

Let’s explore six ways to use books in the art classroom to cultivate ELA and visual literacy for all grade levels.

Note: Be sure to review all books beforehand to determine if they adhere to your district and school’s curriculum and are appropriate to share with your students.

1. Read aloud while students work.

During independent studio time, read an artist’s biography or story that relates to your unit of study. The class will be so eager to hear the story that they will tell each other to be quiet!

2. Play an audiobook.

Many schools and local libraries have a way to check out audiobooks. Like the idea above, play an audiobook while the class is working on an assignment to keep them focused. Students love the voices and sound effects an audiobook can bring!

pillows on floor for story time

3. Illustrate book plots.

Just like books, art can tell a story. Learning the parts of a story can be very beneficial. One part of a story to focus on is the plot. When reading aloud, pause and ask the class what the plot is. Ask students to infer what may happen next. Students can share verbally or draw it in their sketchbooks. This keeps engagement up because they will want to hear if their predictions are true!

For more connections, check out Literacy Through Storytelling in FLEX Curriculum. From morse code and character sculptures to landscape interpretation, this is an excellent literacy resource!

students drawing book scene

4. Review ELA concepts.

Tie in ELA concepts to the book at hand. Not only will this ensure all students have the same baseline knowledge, but it will also reinforce key concepts in a new way.

Here are some foundational ELA concepts for each major grade level:

  • Elementary
    Identify characters, settings, major story events, character traits, and themes.
  • Middle School
    Determine the theme and plot and analyze how the setting shapes the characters.
  • High School
    Identify steps in the text’s description of a process, analyze a series of events with cause and effect, and pinpoint the central idea.

5. Try bookbinding with your class.

Create books in an art classroom with recycled items or with professional-level materials. Bookbinding has many forms and a rich history. Use books as a vehicle for students to write and illustrate their own story or use it to collect information, like a sketchbook or graphic organizer.

Here are a few ideas to make your own books:

  • Bookbinding
    Use scrap paper and a durable cover such as chipboard or a recycled cereal  box. Try a simple binding method such as the Japanese ribbon technique in the Ordinary to Extraordinary Lesson in FLEX Curriculum, this circle book, or this square smash book.
  • Flipbooks
    This is a student favorite, but it does take a lot of paper and creativity. Flipbooks are also a great introduction to animation. You can make basic flipbooks with pads of sticky notes. You can also build your own with copy paper and a stapler.
  • Origami Books
    Origami helps students focus, follow directions, and use hand-eye coordination skills. Here are two tutorials (1, 2) to get you started.
  • Sketchbooks
    Sketchbooks are a staple in most art classrooms. Students can brainstorm ideas, try new techniques, and record their processes. Sketchbooks can be pricey, and, oftentimes our budgets do not allow for sketchbooks for each student. Learn how to DIY your own sketchbooks here.

6. Discuss color symbolism.

Discuss how color can bring added meaning. Help students associate colors with the main antagonists and protagonists in a story. Select color schemes to convey the mood of a particular scene. Create an artwork focusing on color to illustrate a character or scene. Set a timer to make this prompt a great bellringer!

stack of books

Read books aloud or silently; listen to them, share them, create them, fold them, or tie them together. Imagine stories, record them, illustrate them, or write them. ELA literacy and visual literacy are both important tools for becoming literate in this world. When paired together, they create new connections and reinforce existing ones. Bring the art of literature into your classroom with the ideas outlined above and discover new levels of creativity and engagement!

Tell us your favorite method to incorporate books into the classroom.

What is your favorite book to share with your students?

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.


Jackie Myers

Jackie Myers, an upper elementary art educator, is a former AOEU Writer. She enjoys road trips with her family, creating mixed-media collages, and trying out new recipes in the kitchen.

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