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October 6, 2015 Reader's Theater for Fluency, Comprehension, and Engagement By Genia Connell
Grades 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

    If you want to see your students highly engaged in a comprehensive language arts activity, tell them they are going to do a short play. I guarantee cheers will go up all around. Tell them they won't have to memorize any lines, that they can read them directly from the scripts, and the cheers will get even louder. This enthusiasm is only part of the joys I've discovered in using reader's theater in my classroom. 

    Until recent years, I was completely unaware of the instructional magic that is reader's theater. I had heard of reader's theater of course — short little plays that students read — but had never really done anything to incorporate it into my literacy program. I wasn't particularly comfortable or familiar with it, and I wasn't quite sure what its value was. After dipping my toes into the reader's theater water last year and experiencing firsthand the learning and engagement that it promotes, I am very excited to dive in headfirst this year. This week I'd like to share with you my tips for adding reader's theater to your balanced literacy program that will have your students cheering while you check off standard after standard they are meeting.

    What is Reader's Theater? 

    Reader's theater is a highly engaging, collaborative literacy activity that has students practice and perform short scripts, which are often adapted from literature. Using minimalist props and costumes, students rely on expressive voices as they read directly from their scripts to convey meaning and emotion to the audience — no memorization of lines needed. 

    Reader's Theatre to Build Fluency, Deepen Comprehension and Engage All ReadersReader's Theatre to Build Fluency, Deepen Comprehension and Engage All Readers

    Why Do Reader's Theater?

    Children love to use their imaginations in play, but rigorous standards have meant less time on the playground and more time in the classroom. Reader's theater allows my students to use their vivid imaginations and hone presentation skills while helping them meet learning targets and standards from each of the English language arts domains: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. (See Common Core State Standards that apply to reader's theater at the end of this post.) These standards are difficult to meet in a complete balanced literacy program, let alone one class session, but reader's theater is a great tool to achieve this. By incorporating reader's theater, I've noticed my students:

    • improve comprehension as they use close reading techniques on scripts to fully understand the characters and what they are saying

    • develop fluency through repeated practice reading scripts

    • improve expression and inflection while reading aloud

    • show increased reading motivation and confidence

    • learn to collaborate and compromise in order to assign roles

    Use Reader's Theatre to Build Fluency, Deepen Comprehension and Engage All Readers

    How to Get Started Using Reader's Theater

    When first introducing my students to reader's theater, I find it easiest to do so with prepared scripts. These scripts can be found in many places, but my favorite sites for scripts to use in my classroom include:


    Ten Steps I Follow in My Classroom for a Reader's Theater Lesson

    1.  Read through the plays you have selected and decide how many students will be needed for each one. This year, for my twenty-one students, I normally choose four different plays that require between four to six actors each. I selected the scripts below so we could do a compare/contrast of story structure between the original story and the fractured version. 

    Reader's Theatre to Build Fluency, Deepen Comprehension and Engage All Readers

    2.  To get the students started, you can either assign students to each script or let them choose the play they want to do after you introduce them. I allow my students to choose, but I have them rank their choices: one, two, three, and four, and I tell them beforehand not everyone will get their first choice.

    3. Give a copy of the chosen script to each member of the group.

    4. Have students get in their groups, then read the script all the way through independently.

    Reader's Theatre to Build Fluency, Deepen Comprehension and Engage All Readers

    5. Next, I have students count how many lines there are altogether and then provide collaboration time for students to decide how they will split the parts up equally. I tell them there may need to be compromise but all group members must agree on the final outcome. This step puts collaboration to the test and always brings my group members together as they realize their initial impulse to claim a part because they "called it first" isn't going to work. 

    6. Once roles have been decided, students highlight their lines, then practice with their group members. I remind students to read the words as if they are talking, and to use punctuation and context clues to help guide their expression and intonation as they read. Fluency is bolstered by the repetitive practice that occurs. I've noticed even my struggling readers begin to gain the confidence as they repeat their lines with more and more expression each time.

    Reader's Theatre to Build Fluency, Deepen Comprehension and Engage All Readers

    7. As students begin to get familiar with the story following several reads, I encourage them to rewrite lines and make changes to the script if everyone agrees to it. These changes most often include additions made to the narrator's lines that the group members feel will help the audience understand the plot or the characters better.

    Reader's Theatre to Build Fluency, Deepen Comprehension and Engage All Readers

    8. After students have practiced their lines for 20 minutes or so, I provide approximately 20 more minutes to create props our of classroom materials and to do a final run-through of their script.

    9. When it comes time to perform, each group is given three minutes to set up their "stage" at the front of the room and select costumes out of the prop box. Time at the prop box is limited so the focus is on the reading aspect of doing a play and not on "dressing up."

    Reader's Theatre to Build Fluency, Deepen Comprehension and Engage All ReadersReader's Theatre to Build Fluency, Deepen Comprehension and Engage All Readers

    10. Before beginning, each group introduces their play and lets the audience know who is playing each part. Once the performance begins, my class listens attentively from start to finish. 

    Reader's Theatre to Build Fluency, Deepen Comprehension and Engage All Readers

    Reader's Theatre to Build Fluency, Deepen Comprehension and Engage All ReadersReader's Theatre to Build Fluency, Deepen Comprehension and Engage All Readers


    After the Play

    Because reader's theater scripts are often adapted from well-known stories, they are a natural choice to integrate into comprehension lessons on comparing and contrasting. The selection of plays I did last week were fractured fairy tales, so afterwards, students worked with their teams to find similarities and differences between the original and the version in their scripts using the following activity sheet:


    Take Your Reader's Theater to the Next Level

    After reading Because of Winn Dixie by Kate diCamillo last year, my students broke into groups to practice the Winn Dixie reader’s theater script I printed for all of them. This allowed them to see how an entire book could be summarized succinctly between several scenes. Afterwards, they worked in groups to create their own adaptations of read-aloud books we had done that year using the planner shown below. They had to decide on which scene they wanted to focus on, then tell the story purely through character dialogue and narration. The level of comprehension the students gained in order to adapt a script and understand characters and the author's purpose was beyond anything I ever expected. I was honestly blown away at the end result!


    Make Reader's Theater Even More Engaging With a Prop Box

    Perhaps the most anticipated part of reader's theater in my room is when my students get to plow their way through my prop box looking for something to make that just-right costume. Items I've put inside our prop box (an inexpensive plastic treasure chest) include:

    • a variety of hats

    • bandanas in many colors

    • feather boas  

    • swim goggles

    • a tutu and a hula skirt

    • photo props

    • sunglasses                            

    • magnifying lens

    • leopard print coat

    • assorted plastic animal noses

    Reader's Theatre to Build Fluency, Deepen Comprehension and Engage All Readers

    Reader's Theatre to Build Fluency, Deepen Comprehension and Engage All Readers


    You can also print your very own free reader's theater props as seen below to get your prop box started.

    Reader's Theatre to Build Fluency, Deepen Comprehension and Engage All Readers


    If you haven't discovered the joys of reader's theater, I hope you'll give it a try. Fellow blogger Brian Smith has some printable scripts for younger actors and his own tips for bringing reader's theater into the classroom. I can guarantee you will be amazed at the high levels of engagement you see in your students as they combine myriad language arts skills to put on performances that will leave your class begging to know when the next reader's theater is. 


    Make sure you check out Scholastic's all-inclusive resource for reader's theater:

    Reader's Theater: Everything You Need


    Common Core State Standards Met Using Reader's Theater



    Reading Standards for Literature




    Key Ideas and Details



    Ask and answer questions to demonstrate understanding of a text, referring explicitly to the text as the basis for the answers.



    By the end of the year, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poetry, at the high end of the grades 2-3 text complexity band independently and proficiently.




    Reading Standards: Foundational Skills




    Read with sufficient accuracy and fluency to support comprehension.



    Read on-level text with purpose and understanding.



    Use context to confirm or self-correct word recognition and understanding, rereading as necessary.




    Writing Standards




    Text Types and Purposes



    Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, descriptive details, and clear event sequences.



    Establish a situation and introduce a narrator and/or characters; organize an event sequence that unfolds naturally.



    Use dialogue and descriptions of actions, thoughts, and feelings to develop experiences and events or show the response of characters to situations.




    Speaking and Listening Standards




    Comprehension and Collaboration



    Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 3 topics and texts, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly.



    Come to discussions prepared, having read or studied required material; explicitly draw on that preparation and other information known about the topic to explore ideas under discussion.



    Follow agreed-upon rules for discussions (e.g., gaining the floor in respectful ways, listening to others with care, speaking one at a time about the topics and texts under discussion).



    Ask questions to check understanding of information presented, stay on topic, and link their comments to the remarks of others.



    Explain their own ideas and understanding in light of the discussion.



    Determine the main ideas and supporting details of a text read aloud or information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.



    Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas



    Report on a topic or text, tell a story, or recount an experience with appropriate facts and relevant, descriptive details, speaking clearly at an understandable pace.




    Language Standards




    Vocabulary Acquisition and Use



    Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning word and phrases based on grade 3 reading and content, choosing flexibly from a range of strategies.



    Use sentence-level context as a clue to the meaning of a word or phrase.



    Demonstrate understanding of word relationships and nuances in word meanings.



    Distinguish the literal and nonliteral meanings of words and phrases in context (e.g., take steps).



    Identify real-life connections between words and their use (e.g., describe people who are friendly or helpful).



    Acquire and use accurately grade-appropriate conversational, general academic, and domain-specific words and phrases, including those that signal spatial and temporal relationships (e.g., After dinner that night we went looking for them).



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