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Teach Reading by Putting on a Play
Readers Theater (RT for short) can dramatically improve kids' fluency, writing, listening, and social skills

Teach Reading By Putting on a Play

Drama is fun and natural for children. Youngsters at play are always inventing characters, scenes, and stories, using expressive voices and invented dialogue. One form of drama — Readers Theater — is particularly effective in building reading fluency, encouraging emotional growth, motivation, and engagement. Readers Theater, or "RT" for short, can

  • boost listening and speaking skills
  • enhance confidence
  • transform reluctant readers into book lovers.

It’s the perfect activity for a library setting.

Getting Started
Readers Theater is easy. There’s no preparation, fancy costumes, props, sets, or memorization. Just put out the word that an RT group will be meeting at the library every week, and get set for fun.

With RT, kids can scale mountains, battle dragons, or row Viking ships across the ocean — all while sitting on the library floor or standing on a makeshift stage.

Jo Worthy, associate professor of education at the University of Texas, advises librarians to read expressively during shared read-alouds in order to set an example of how things should sound. Then try:

  • choral readings, in which all the children read a passage in unison, and
  • round-robin readings, where kids take turns reading the lines of a prepared script they pass from person to person. Everyone gets a chance to try out each role.

After the kids are familiar with the script, the librarian assigns roles to each participant.

Performing Readers Theater
The simplest way to perform Readers Theater is with the cast at the front of the room, facing the audience, scripts in hand. Name tags showing the name of each character may be helpful for younger groups.

Kids stand as they read their parts. Music stands can hold the scripts, leaving kids' hands free to turn pages and gesticulate. For a seated performance, chairs are fine, and tall stools are even more theatrical.

Kids should be encouraged to read their lines with as much creative expression as they can. Ask them to be aware of one another and to listen respectfully.

For several exciting and creative variations on performing, see Mack Lewis's "More Variations on Readers Theater." 

"Readers Theater is a controlled way of doing drama, so it's especially nice for the shy child. You have a script in front of you — kind of nice to hide behind — and that gives a child security," says Jo Worthy.

Choosing a Script

A prepared script gives kids a chance to get comfortable with the story. Finding a script is easy — there are many available online and in books (see "Free Scripts!"). Most online scripts are free for library use. Start with a short script — two or three pages is ideal.

Practicing the Script
Research shows that even resistant readers practice their RT scripts enthusiastically. Most children have a desire to perform and express themselves; RT gives them a way to do that.

Mack Lewis, a 3rd- and 4th-grade educator from Central Point, Oregon, thinks plays are the perfect way to teach repetitive reading. "Kids don't resist because it isn’t a chore. Before they know it, they’ve learned the text. And their confidence grows immeasurably.” Repeat reading becomes part of the process. “Few 2nd graders will read Stellaluna more than once or twice. But give kids a script and schedule a public performance and they'll be more than happy to read it 20 or 30 times!"

Writing Your Own Scripts
Once your RT group gains confidence, they can begin adapting an existing story or writing their own scripts.

To adapt a script, choose a story or a section of a book that takes about five minutes to read. Look for a book or folktale that is rich in dialogue and has well-defined, exciting characters.  A compelling storyline, a tale that moves along at a steady pace, and action and conflict are other things to look for. Children’s trade books such as Rosie and Michael by Judith Viorst; Yo? Yes!, by Chris Raschka; and Hey, Little Ant by Phillip and Hannah Hoose are ideal stories to adapt for Readers Theater.

Nonfiction books can also provide good source material, especially those about people from the past such as Ruby Bridges or Duke Ellington. With a little imagination, even a science book can be transformed into a play by personifying animals and natural objects.

Andy Salgado of the educational arts group InCollaboration in New York suggests true-to-life stories for middle-school students. " Issues of race, sexuality, and identity are good for teens who are struggling to express their needs and struggles," he explains. He cites Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick and its movie component, The Mighty, as a well-constructed, dramatic story. "As the kids discuss the dramatic issues in the book, it helps them articulate a lot of their own needs," he says. "They become engaged and argue with each other about issues in the story."

Salgado believes books should depict kids as actual people worthy of respect. "Too many books show young people as goofy or ignorant," he laments, "without showing that many of them are struggling, just trying to carve out their niche."

For younger children, books about animals and magical creatures, particularly from folktales, have been successful for many teachers. The youngest ones, says Salgado, "want to be all the animals in the animal kingdom!"

RT and Emotional Needs
When kids are struggling or need a different way to express themselves, RT can help. Librarians will be heartened by the successes that schools have had with RT. For example, a drama program at PS 162M, a K–12 school in New York City’s Harlem for children with special needs, quieted anxiety, drew out the perennially shy, and increased the children's self-esteem tremendously," says Risa Stern, the school’s arts coordinator. She remembers an emotionally disturbed 3rd grader who sat on the periphery the first year, edged in slightly and started to pay attention in 4th grade, and by 5th grade had become an active participant. "I could literally see the moment when he suddenly become a reader," recalls Stern.  "He looked up at me with a smile and he knew what he had done. He was so proud. He had broken the code to reading. This child truly blossomed right in front of our eyes."

RT is a Dramatic Success

A 1999 study in The Reading Teacher by Strecker, Roser, and Martinez showed that 2nd graders who did Readers Theater on a regular basis made, on average, more than a year's growth in reading.

And according to Tim Rasinski, a professor at Kent State University, in Kent, Ohio, "research shows that practiced reading or repeated reading leads to significant gains in fluency — a key element in effective reading programs."

"If you want to get your kids reading with comprehension, expression, fluency, and joy, there's nothing more effective than Readers Theater,” says children's book specialist Judy Freeman.   

Jennifer O. Prescott is the managing editor of Instructor, where this article was originally published in the January/February 2003 issue.