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
It’s the perfect activity for a library setting.
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:
After the kids are familiar with the script, the librarian assigns roles to each participant.
Performing Readers Theater
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
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
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
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.