Expanding Student Minds with the Vocabulary of Movement (Action Research with 8th graders, using Dance to teach Reading and Writing)


As a kinesthetic and linguistic learner, and someone who has studied in both the fields of Creative Writing and Dance I often find myself exploring ways in which movement and language might connect or support one another. In the past I have done this through my own performances, choreographing dances in which I also speak, or my words are projected on a screen, or recorded into the music. I have also explored the ways in which dance and writing connect historically, researching the overlap of artistic ideals seen in modernist writers and early modern dancers. As my interests have shifted towards education, I naturally found myself thinking about the ways that dance has helped me to learn and what lessons movement as an art has taught me. The first of these important lessons, was the importance of eliminating, or at the very least choosing to ignore, the fear of being misjudged and misunderstood. I came to the realization that as soon as a person lets that fear dictate what they do or do not express, any opportunity of being understood is already gone. The lesson that followed, one even closer to my heart, is how to view being misunderstood as an opportunity to expand my own view and look deeper into my own ideas. These are important lessons that I believe everyone should have the opportunity to learn. I’m not sure if every person would learn these lessons though dance alone, but I believe it is the idea, the conviction that I was an artist, that ownership along with the permission to be unique that allowed me to learn them.

The english language is a much more obvious and common form of expression, though much more complicated and nuanced than most believe. Context, character (as in the person, real or fiction doing the speaking or writing), whether the language is figurative or literal, all of these determine what a word or phrase means. This is true in dance as well. We must ask ourselves the same questions in analyzing a work of creative writing and a work of dance; who are the central characters? What is the scene playing out? Is the scene only what it appears to be or is it more abstract? Does that object, word, phrase, movement, glance, stand in for a larger idea?

With the knowledge of how dance has helped my confidence and creativity, as well as the awareness of a strong connection between linguistic and kinesthetic expression, I felt a desire to bring dance into my 8th grade English classroom. I sought to improve student learning by using dance as a method of increasing student confidence, participation, and enjoyment of the curriculum as well as by using dance to explore critical concepts. I started by asking myself the question, “how can I use movement to facilitate student confidence and participation?” To me, the answer seemed obvious, that’s just what dance does, but I knew I needed to break it down further for those who might not share my immediate passion.    

Movement is a social and bonding creative experience that facilitates teamwork (McNeill, 2013). In my own experience with dance I have found that the opportunity to create original movement and move freely without value judgement has had the ability to increase confidence as well as physical and verbal participation in myself and in my students. I have seen this result in the 1st and 4th grade creative movement classes which I taught and I have also seen it in myself during my experiences as a student of dance. In the first choreography class I took in my freshman year of college I was closed off and hesitant to take any real part in the class. I was so used to bottling myself up in public social situations that I couldn’t move my arms in improvisation. Reaching out was somehow to much of a risk. This is not an uncommon starting point for many students as they enter their first dance class. By showing me that they wanted to hear what I had to say, and by encouraging and allowing me to contribute to something creatively, my instructors broke that habit in me through dance, instilling in me a confidence and a willingness to take part in classroom activities. I knew that there was something essential about that attitude, the idea that there was no good or bad, only new, unique, genuine. This is an attitude I attempted to carry forward with my 8th grade English classes, the idea that there was no right answer, only the product of a genuine search for answers.

In addition to using dance to increase student confidence and participation I wanted to use dance as a method of bringing to students the sense that what we do in the classroom is both fun and meaningful. In asking the question, “how can I use dance to bring a sense of purposeful enjoyment to the curriculum?” I was asking a question that has been asked in a wide variety of ways by dance educators, though not so much by educators of English. Dance has been used in varying settings to offer up a feeling of purpose to individuals, encouraging them to find the enjoyment in everything from academics, to family ties, to life itself. In one such program, a program called “Movement speaks,” dance was used as a way of  revisiting a sense of youth upon the elderly (Lent, 2016). The elderly participants were able to find a means of joyful expression in movement, owning their limitations while throwing any sort of “can’t do” attitude out the window. In the case of these elderly dancers, the “can’t do” attitude was related to their physical limitations, creative dance showed them that despite those limitations there was still an unlimited amount of movement invention available to them. This is the kind of environment I wanted to create. One in which students would be able to set aside their ideas about what they were bad at or what they perceive themselves incapable of and focus on the creative possibilities. I wanted to create a climate through movement in which students feel and understand that their individual learning journey is important for very personal and intrinsic reasons such as discovering their passions, their individuality, and becoming self-sufficient and self-motivating.

Programs like those in the Perpich Center for Arts Education have used movement to explore the critical content of literature and history through the use of movement metaphors. These types of programs are lacking in the public schools. In an attempt to incorporate the full power of movement into the public school classroom I wanted to look into the following question, “How can I use the body as a metaphor in the English classroom in a way that gives students a deeper understanding of dance as an art as well as a deeper understanding of the concepts being explored through movement?”  The exploration of this question included in large part an attempt to move students towards the understanding that dance and writing are both art forms which are used for the communication of ideas which are then subject to interpretation in various complex ways by viewers. For this purpose I decided that I would introduce dance to the curriculum under the larger theme of “art,” the connecting word between my two creative disciplines. Not only was it a word that connected Dance and English in a category together, but it was also a word that would require some unpacking. I wanted to provide my students with the opportunity to determine what art meant as a class, and expand upon it throughout our lessons.

Literature review

The goals of student participation, confidence, and enjoyment form an essential connection in this action research study. In this first section of the literature review I will demonstrate how the literature reveals this connection as well as how all three components serve to facilitate academic improvement and a more positive classroom climate.

In relation to student enjoyment of the curriculum; movement, rhythmic or otherwise has been know to be a mood booster. One study showed that aerobic exercise is just as effective at treating depression as anti-depression medication (Lengel, Kuczala et al., 2010). We exercise to “blow off steam” or “take a brain break” and by creating a connection with movement, we can also engage our minds in a way that promotes learning and memory. In various action research studies correlations have been found between kinesthetic activities and increased spelling scores, increased Spanish scores, and increased memory retention (Skoning & Wegner, 2016). One Inner City Elementary School that taught one unit with common vocabulary memorization methods and another using movement, showed a 19 point mean improvement in vocabulary memorization in the students who used movement in their learning process. When students enjoy the curriculum, they are engaged in a way that allows them to learn more readily. In seeking to make the classroom experience more enjoyable I hoped that I would be relieving the kind of stress that these studies show can prevent students from reaching their potential in the classroom.

Student engagement and information acquisition, in addition to being beneficial to a student’s grades is also a factor in student confidence and it is likely that increased engagement and retention of information, when successful, could potentially increase student confidence with the subject matter, thus increasing participation (Marsh, H. W., Parada, R. H., Yeung, A. S., & Healey, J. 2001). Low student confidence is also both a result and cause of aggressive bullying behaviors, behaviors which lead to an environment in which students attempt to beat others down in order to build themselves up (Maclellan, 2013). Dance has been used in classrooms to build a more positive climate, help students work together as a team of equals, and give them a positive path towards self-confidence (Douglas, 2017). By adding genuine excitement and teamwork to the curriculum, movement has given both teachers and students a feeling of enjoyment which encourages their desire to participate and attend class.

Peer modeling is considered to be another importing factor in developing confidence in students by showing them that other students at their level can successfully perform the same type of task they themselves will set out to do (Schunk & Hanson, 1985). Dance provides a myriad of opportunities for students to benefit from the confidence they will gain through seeing their peers perform and the experience of performing in front of their peers (Douglas, 2017). Dance classrooms have also utilized activities such as structured relaxation techniques and guided movement meditations to help students refocus with the aim of becoming more metacognitive thinkers. The skill of metacognition itself has also been connected to building positive self-concept and reality-based confidence through the ability to self-assess accurately in order to give realistic self-feedback while remaining confident in the work done (Maclellan, 2013). As I mentioned in the introduction, one lesson I learned in dance was that not only was I free to put my ideas out in front of others, but others were free to interpret my ideas for themselves. I learned that whatever their interpretation might be it could only serve to fuel my ideas further, and it did. I was able to then re-evaluate my own ideas with the kind of metacognition that I hope for my students to be able to harness.

In the following section I will focus on the literature speaking to the specific value of dance in schools as it pertains to the deepening of student understanding of concepts. Aspects of confidence, participation, and enjoyment are also wrapped up in this section, as these elements are the building blocks which help students access deeper concepts.

A Survey in 2000 showed that 14% of secondary schools include a dance program while 90% include some sort of music program and 93% include visual arts. Dance is the most underrepresented art in schools (Robien, 2010). Yet in successful programs, dance has been a successful and transferable way of learning. In successful dance classrooms students have the opportunity to incorporate their own music, stories, images, interests, and personal histories in creative ways, teaching students that they have valuable ideas and authority in the learning environment (Douglas, 2017). Movement has been used to make learning concrete by using student bodies to represent concepts such as, in the math classroom, demonstrating circumference and diameter by having students circle up, one student then walking around the outside of their circle and then through the center (Kuczala, 2015). Movement is a way to encourage students to make  a genuine connection with the content because kids enjoy moving and incorporating movement into an academic subject can help kids enjoy a subject they might not otherwise enjoy (T. Lengel, M. Kuczala, & J. B. Madigan 2010).

Dance has been used successfully to help students tackle higher level thinking about concepts. At the Perpich Center for Arts Education, for example, students studying the underground railroad tackled the question “what is an obstacle to freedom?” through movement and discussion (Robien, 2010). The movement metaphor here, which focuses in on the word “obstacle” is used as a way to make the concept concrete as well as deepening the students’ understanding of the concept by providing them with multiple ways of thinking about the ideas. This type of movement exploration exercise is similar to the ways in which I used dance in my english classroom to allow students to explore literary elements through multiple mediums.


I taught an 8th grade English class at a rural Middle School. There are 347 total students at the middle school, which is very small for the area, about half of the state’s average. Students at the Middle school are 77.5% white, 12.1% black, 8.4% two or more races, 1.7% hispanic, and 0.3% asian and there are no English Learners at the middle school.

Ways I determined of exploring the answers to the questions I’ve asked myself for this action research included having students use movement to study vocabulary, as well as exploring the place of voice, tone, conflict, point of view, character, word/movement choice, and form in creating meaning in writing and in dance.

Parents, Students, and the participating teachers filled out Informed Consent Forms in order that they were informed about the parameters of the action research and agreed to participate. I began observation before implementing my research by teaching a unit on Informational Texts without the incorporation of a dance sol. In the following unit I included a dance sol in my learning objectives for the class. Observation from my first 8th grade unit provided a useful comparison in my English class for the question of using dance to improve student confidence and participation. For the first unit I kept a teacher journal of observations about my students and the roles they tend to take in the classroom. This teacher journal continued during the second unit when the action research began to incorporate student involvement with dance. Notes in my journal included unstructured observations of my classroom climate including my observations of individual students. In any future document that is made public, student names will be replaced by pseudonyms that will make the child unidentifiable and anecdotal notes have been kept in a secure location outside of the school and on password protected documents.

At the start of the dance-incorporated unit I took a survey of student attitudes and beliefs about art to begin exploration into how I might give students a deeper understanding of dance as an art. This survey was compared with a post-unit survey of the same questions. Throughout the unit I gave students questions to answer in student journals which they kept. Each new journal entry was written in response to an individualized question which I wrote in their journal in response to reading their previous entry.

The following research question was the main focus of my instructional time in the English classroom: “How can I use the body as a metaphor in both the Dance and English classrooms in a way that gives students a deeper understanding of dance as an art as well as a deeper understanding of the concepts being explored through movement?” In order to help the students make a connection with the emotions and ideas behind movement I introduced them to the 16 movement elements included in Anne Greene Gilbert’s book Creative Dance for All Ages.  We used these elements in an exploration of the short story “All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury, towards creating meaningful movement in connection with the literature and the literary ideas of the unit.

Students kept a journal in which they reflected upon the ideas behind our art theme. Every few days they received a prompt which aimed to elicit information about their understanding of what they had learned and what they believed. These journals were reviewed for information about how the students incorporated the movement elements of the lesson into their understanding of the lesson concepts. These journals were also very useful in determining students confidence in sharing their ideas. Journal prompts were individualized based on students’ previous responses and the ideas that they personally would benefit from considering further. The first prompt asked the question, “How can ideas and emotions be portrayed through art (for example: in a story, poem, or dance)?”

Several viewings of modern dance films were used in order to have the students analyze dance through the literary lenses they were being taught. This included relating dance to metaphor and other figurative language terms as well as observing dance for voice, tone, conflict, point of view, character, and word/movement choice.

Findings and Implications

  1. Increasing Student Confidence and Participation

    2. Increased participation in studying for vocabulary tests

When I first came into my student teaching placement my students already had a routine in place in which at the beginning of each class period they would spend 10 to 15 minutes studying their vocabulary silently. This made it fairly easy to replace this routine with a new one that involved movement. The students would split up into groups and come up with a movement to match each vocabulary word and its definition, then we would share and practice them together. I decided against measuring their scores for my research, but am confident that there was an increase in participation as a result. This movement activity turned their silent study time into group work and the requirement of movement made it so that each student’s studying was visible. Students needed to come up with their movement definitions in groups and then present them. Once that was finished they all needed to do the movements and repeat the words and definitions out loud. This resulted in near one hundred percent participation at all times, meaning, even if the student was passively following along, by saying the words and doing the movements they were exposed to the material more than they would be passively looking at a sheet of paper. There were no students laying their heads on their desks waiting for the time to pass as some clearly had been with the original routine, because they had to be up and moving.

In the future, movement vocabulary is a routine I’d like to uphold in my classroom. It encourages participation, gives students a chance to interact with their classmates at the start of the day, and especially for homeroom can be a great way to wake students up and get their minds ready for the day.

Increased Confidence in unique ideas:

Throughout the action research there were several points in the lessons in which students resisted an activity that brought them outside of their comfort zones. “This is weird” became a common phrase that would meet the introduction of some new activity. The viewing of dance films from the 1930s, the train-of-thought style writing required for their student journal responses, trying to incorporate what they knew as “Language Arts words” into the larger context of art, was all very “weird”. It was also “hard”, the second most common comment contributed at the beginning of lessons. It was difficult for them to do what was outside of their comfort zones. “This is weird” and “this is hard” have a certain similarity about them. I learned that weird generally turned out to be a very positive thing, despite inevitable initial resistance.

For example, at the start of student journals, students were very hesitant to write. “So what do you want us to write?” They kept asking. They had been given the following open-ended question: “How can ideas and emotions be portrayed through art (for example: in a story, poem, or dance)?” They did not feel they had been given enough information to know the answer. Many also felt that once they had written, “the answer” they could close their notebooks and be finished. It was a continual task to remind students that the 10 minutes they are given for writing is meant to be used, that I am not looking for a one-off answer, I am looking for them to follow their thoughts, ask questions, and make genuine attempts at answering them. After discussion about what it means for a question to be open to interpretation, and about using our unique background knowledge and experiences as a jumping point, they were ready to begin. As the days went by and they continued to have student journaling time, unique ideas began to spring up, and by reassuring students that their interpretation was always valid as long as they could explain it in writing, those ideas were expressed. One student asked, “can the planet be art?”, another, “can a person be art”?, still others wrote about their families achievements and how art is about chasing your dreams. The following is an excerpt from one of these student journal entries:

We look around but don’t realize what is really around us. Our planet is art. Our planet is hot magma, rock, grass, shrubs, trees, etc. People garden certain colors of flowers to make themselves feel happy. Colors of our world control out emotions. Grass makes people happy because it is bright green, thunder storms or shady areas made you lazy or sad because it is dark. Art could be simply the type of clothes you wear in the morning. Art is expressing yourself and your personal opinions

Having a real sense of confidence in one’s own creativity is something that takes more than 8 weeks to learn. However, I believe I was on the right track with these students and by giving them an environment in which their primary expectation was creativity rather than correctness they were beginning to open themselves up to their own creative potential.

Increased Teacher Involvement/ Enjoyment, Decreased Teacher Dependence

As a teacher, I felt increased involvement in the classroom. Because the class was more mobile, the class consisted of several bursts of activity that required instruction, facilitation and even participation at the student level. Alternatively, I felt that in the environment prior to the Action Research unit I was taking on the role of an instructor and then a helper and resource circling the sidelines as the students pursued an assignment. In my teacher journal I wrote,

“I enjoyed getting to interact with the kids for the entire lesson instead of scouring the room for a moment they might need help.”

Although the unit sought to focus on art as a theme in order to give students a framework to further explore the ideas behind being a writer, reader, and communicator, I chose to focus on dance as the second art form to writing because it is an area in which I have expertise. With the ability to share that expertise and passion I feel I brought a genuine liveliness to my lessons.

In any reproduction of this action research idea I would recommend that the teacher focus in on an art that he or she has a personal understanding of and genuinely enjoys.

The danger with working in a way which involves so much movement, creation, and group activity is that there were points at which students became overly excited, talked over me, or veered off topic in their groups. Classroom management is somewhat easier when students are working silently and individually, allowing the teacher to check up on each student in a calm atmosphere that allows for concentration on the part of the teacher. However, I felt that this first individualistic atmosphere actually lent itself to students feeling dependent on the teacher, needing to raise their hands and get input before beginning any real work on their own. In the noisier, more active environment involved in this study it seemed that even when time was needed to refocus, students were more likely to take initiative as they felt that their goal was, in fact, to contribute something unique rather than to “get it right”.

I think that a balance of these two types of atmospheres would eventually encourage students to be more self-sufficient in their individual work as well. Many of these students were not lazy, but rather hesitant to get started out of fear of starting something the wrong way and needing to redo it, a feeling which when left too long to settle becomes laziness. Going forward, I’d like to continue to explore ways to encourage students to be empowered to make their own interpretations of an assignment and have the confidence and communication skills to backup that interpretation.

 Critical Concepts

What is Art?

The idea of art was brought up as a mysterious concept, intentionally left up to the students to define. The students were originally confused by this idea. Many when asked to offer up a definition of art simply thought of it as“painting”, a common thread shown by their initial arts interest surveys. When we began to broaden out definition of art, creating a circle map of what might fall underneath the category of art and why, a few students became frustrated. One asked, “Why don’t we just look up the definition and get it over with”, the student was not satisfied with my explanation that there is no definitive definition of art and that people all over the world debate about the essence of what it is, so I allowed him to look up the definition. He found several conflicting definitions including the following, “The definition of art is controversial in contemporary philosophy. Whether art can be defined has also been a matter of controversy.” This began opening the possibility for these originally resistant students to form their own ideas of what art might mean. By getting rid of the boundary that is created by the idea that there is a simple solution, students began to think outside the box and make connections. Students determined that the main criteria of what makes art is that it is expressive, it involves ideas and or feelings, and it is created out of love or passion. Some students incorporated fishing, cooking, and even football into their definition of art while others insisted those things did not count as art. In determining that our love and passion for a thing was a large determining factor in whether or not something was an art, we came to a place where we could allow others to have different definitions for art based on their own passions.

This activity involved an experience which is very essential to life in the real world, and that is agreeing to disagree. Students came to accept that they had differing interests and yet they were still bonded together by the idea that these interests they had were “art.” In the post-unit survey an interesting thing happened as a result of this strong attachment to the idea of passion for an activity being a determining factor on whether or not that activity was art. When asked what their favorite activity in the Unit was, several students made a connection between the Figurative Language unit that emphasized art as it’s theme and the previous unit in which they created their own informational texts. They chose their informational text as their favorite art activity because they were able to write about the art that they loved and they were able to choose the topic. During that activity students wrote about everything from hunting to Taylor Swift. They were creating art in their English class. They were focusing on a topic of their passion, they were using the medium of writing, and they were expressing their own knowledge and experience through that medium.

 Clarifying Point of View and Metaphor:

During the action research there were a few areas in which students struggled most, these being point of view and metaphor. Students explored point of view visually by watching a music video and discussing at which points the movement of the camera and the characters might signify 1st, 2nd, 3rd, limited, or omniscient point of view and why. By hearing the justifications that students made, I was able to pinpoint many of their most common misconceptions, such as confusing 2nd and 3rd person point of view. Students were able to discuss point of view in such a foreign way that it became exciting, although challenging, and not all students stepped up for the challenge. Many chose to stay silent, likely for fear of exposing their misunderstandings. In future it would be wise to have a written portion of this exercise in order to require 100% participation and to assess the understanding of all learners.

Through the various activities involving the use of metaphor it became clear that there was a widespread problem with what students in all of the 8th grade classes perceived a metaphor to be. The common given definition of a metaphor is “a comparison without the use of like or as”. As a result students could easily identify metaphors such as “I am a flower” or “her eyes are the blue sky above” because both sides of a comparison are given, and “like” or “as” could easily be added in to change the metaphor to a simile. However, more complex metaphors such as Robert Frost’s “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I took the road less travelled by” go unidentified as metaphor whether or not the student had an understanding that Frost wast not necessarily talking about a literal road. Through the idea that a movement could be a metaphor for an idea or feeling, the concept that metaphor includes one image standing in for another was added to the students’ idea of what a metaphor could be. For example, students were asked about the metaphor in Martha Graham’s “lamentation”, what does the purple cloth represent?, what is it a metaphor for? These kind of questions slowly introduced the idea that metaphor is more about the interplay of literal and figurative ideas rather than something formulaic in the wording that can simply be determined visually at the sentence level.

Expanding the realm of literary devices and figurative language: 

In their critical study of Ann Beattie’s short story “Snow” students were encouraged to analyze literary devices: rhythm, form, point of view, word choice, tone, voice, conflict, and characters. This was paired with an analysis of Martha Graham’s modern dance film “Heretic” in which the students discussed how they might apply these same devices to interpret the meaning of the dance. Through this critical comparison students were able to assess the larger purpose behind the figurative language and literary devices. The interdisciplinary nature of these types of activities is something that challenges students to think outside of the box. These are the types of activities that were most met with the complaint “this is hard”.

I think that a much longer study is required in order to determine the true results of working in these cross sectional activities. The one undeniable benefit however, was the idea students gained that writing was not just something to do in English class because they had to. This idea can take students a long way. One example of this is in comparing the enthusiasm and quality of student writing in their Informational Text assignments to their 9 weeks writing assignment which they did just before. For their 9 weeks writing assignment, a fairly high stakes, graded, state mandated 5 paragraph essay test, students handed in 3 paragraphs, or 5 very minimal poorly written ones. For their informational texts on the other hand, I had these same students asking if they could write more than 5 paragraphs, and I was reading paragraphs that took up full typed pages. To extend this idea to the action research unit, I will say I strongly believe that when students get the message that art is about doing what they love and writing is about communicating that love, there is great potential.


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Gilbert, A. G. (2015). Creative dance for all ages: a conceptual approach. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

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Skoning, S. N., & Wegner, T. (2016). Dancing Elementary Science Vocabulary. Dance Education in Practice, 2(4), 13-19.

T. Lengel, M. Kuczala, & J. B. Madigan (2010). The Brain-Body Connection. In T. Lengel, M. Kuczala, & J. B. Madigan (Authors), The kinesthetic classroom: teaching and learning through movement (pp. 16-29). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, A Sage Company.

T. (2015, April 22). The Kinesthetic Classroom: Teaching and Learning through Movement | Michael Kuczala | TEDxAshburn. Retrieved November 08, 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=41gtxgDfY4s

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