The idea of using Reader’s Theater in the classroom is not a new one. Most research has shown increases in fluency and reading levels. I chose to focus on the use of Reader’s Theater to increase motivation, fluency, and comprehension in reading. First grade is an important step in becoming a life-long reader. It was my goal to have students use expression, proper phrasing, become motivated, and understand what they read. By implementing RT, I hoped to see these skills emerge. Along the way, I also discovered some important lessons about how to implement RT and use student feedback to continue building on the motivation I saw when I began using RT.

At the beginning of the year, students chose new roles each week and were given teacher -created scripts to practice at home. They practiced each night, as part of their homework, and then did a rehearsal on Thursdays with our class, obtaining feedback about their presentation. My initial plan was to have them practice daily in the classroom, but it became difficult to find shared reading time during the school day. Therefore, most practice occurred at home. On Fridays, students performed for other classes at our school. Scripts were also available in the classroom so they could practice during the day at school with their classmates, if time allowed. By winter, I offered students the opportunity to write their own scripts in small groups.

When I started researching the effects of using Reader’s Theater in my classroom on a regular basis, I found that motivation was the key. When motivation was high, fluency and comprehension naturally occurred, as discussed in detail in the previous chapter. Through my observations, class discussions, and reflections I was struck by several reoccurring themes about what motivates students in RT and across the curriculum: the importance of choice, the power of voice, and the value of an authentic audience.

Motivation is … Choice
I was struck by the power of choice, even for first graders. Turner, a professor who researches the relationship between motivation and learning in school contexts, states that choice may be one of the most critical elements of motivation (1995). Most students are not given many choices in the classroom. I believed that by affording the students the opportunity to choose their roles each week and who they’d be working with, the desire to practice and work together would increase. I didn’t want to limit students to particular roles due to their reading levels, so I let them choose the role that they wanted to perform in each script. I knew by the excitement when picking their parts that if I had assigned their roles, as some research had encouraged, motivation would have decreased. Ownership had meaning, and when students were able to pick their parts, motivation and excitement increased. Similarly, S. Keehn et al, in their study of Reader's Theater found that “because students negotiated their parts for each performance, they had some control over the character they performed. This may also have contributed to “ownership” or “buy-in” of these readers” (2008, p.21).

Significantly, Reader’s Theater also turned out to be an effective differentiator for students. Scripts had varied reading levels, and while I was concerned about emergent readers taking parts that were too difficult, I didn’t need to be. The power of choosing the part they wanted motivated them to practice with an adult and seek help from their peers. Vygotsky’s (1978) phases of learning were evident as my research evolved. This is significant. When children are working within their ZPD, learning can occur. Students moved from getting and providing assistance to each other, to independently writing and performing their own scripts.

It was evident through their reflective journals that having choice was effective in motivating students. Each week they would be asked if they liked the role they chose, and 99% of the time, students were happy with their part. Those few that were not, usually explained that the part they got was not their first choice or that the story wasn’t one they were particularly fond of.

When we moved from teacher created scripts to student written scripts, the value of choice was again evident. Students were able to choose their groups, storyline, and roles. While brainstorming their storyboards, all students were engaged. The class came up with norms for working in groups and students were allowed to choose any story to tell, excluding retelling a story or including violence. Students couldn’t wait to work on their scripts daily. As Guthrie (2008) found, when teachers are seen as students' allies in the reading and learning process, student motivation increases. It was at this point I became more of a facilitator, helping them work through their ideas and supporting them. I wasn’t telling them what to do or say in their script. I was letting each group work cooperatively. Yet, they knew I was there if they needed assistance.

Motivation is … Voice
Throughout this process, I routinely solicited feedback from students, allowing their voices to guide decisions and directions we took as a class. Students regularly shared their thoughts and feelings about Reader’s Theater in reflective journals and class discussions, as well as individual interviews. The need for change was evident when I listened and observed the stakeholders, my students.

One of the first things the class indicated that they wanted to modify was our audience. We were regularly performing for the Junior Kindergarten, and when they were asked whom they’d like to perform for, the students suggested other classes in the school, their parents, and family friends. The first week we were able to share our scripts with a different class, the students were ecstatic. This was when the class truly realized that I listened to their opinions and acted on them. From then on, after each performance I had them write in their reflective journals. When their responses started changing how I implemented RT, I saw a marked increase in their motivation by the energy and excitement in the classroom.  The students noticed, and would say, “Hey, I suggested that,” or “That was my idea.” When they learned that they had a voice in what we would be performing, or whom we would be performing for, their reflections became even more valuable.

In their reflective journals, students were always given space to offer suggestions or concerns about Reader’s Theater. Although it took a bit, slowly I began to receive ideas for the types of scripts they’d like to do and topics they’d like to perform. One student suggested we perform a musical. This posed a dilemma. How could I write a musical? If I found a musical script would students choose to be a part of it? I wanted the class to know that I truly valued their ideas and input, so I searched for an appropriate musical script that we could do. With Halloween coming up, I found the perfect script. It was the story of Frankenstein, sung to the tune of Oh My Darling Clementine. I believed that it would appeal to both genders, and it did. I didn’t need to worry, it was not the last script chosen, and both boys and girls chose to do it. It was met with much success, and the students again realized they had a voice in the direction my research went.

My class was having a great time performing for others and suggesting possible scripts. This led to our next big change based on the feedback I received. Not only did they want to perform scripts, but now they wanted to write their own! They made it very clear that this was the direction they wanted to go. While norms had to be created, and limitations needed to be discussed, the class created their own collaborative groups, and started brainstorming and writing their storyboards quickly and with minimal assistance. The excitement was palatable. I heard from parents how excited their children were to be writing their own scripts. As a result of student feedback, Reader’s Theater evolved from basic scripts given by the teacher, to more complex and motivating scripts that students eventually wrote and performed.

Motivation is … an Authentic Audience
The initial plan was to perform for the Junior Kindergarten throughout my research. The class quickly became enticed by the idea that they could perform for others as well. When asked if they wanted to present just for our own class, they quickly said no, that performing for others made it fun. Once I had talked to the other teachers at my school, and they all agreed to have my class visit and perform, I let my students know. They were thrilled and a new level of excitement emerged. They wanted to know which classes they’d perform for (we rotated through all six) and whether or not they’d get to perform for their siblings’ classes (yes). Knowing that they were going to present to another class encouraged them to work harder to make their performance flawless. After their first experience they couldn’t wait to perform for another class. They took their roles seriously, and when they realized that the audience did too, it only encouraged them to work harder.

The class begged to perform for their parents next. I had already scheduled a parent performance, but that was months away. Our headmistress regularly met with grade level parents over coffee, so I quickly added a Reader’s Theater performance to the next First Grade coffee. The classroom was buzzing the day I told them we’d be performing for their parents. They could hardly wait. Once they had performed, parents noted the changes in their child’s motivation to read, and their ability to use prosody when reading.

What ultimately made the audience motivating was that the students got to choose who they wanted to perform for. Listening to who they wanted to share their work with gave them ownership, and proved to be a strong motivator.

Looking Back …
When I look at my class and all they have accomplished this year, I am amazed. I started with a group of students who had great personalities, perfect for Reader’s Theater. At the beginning of the year I could see that many were hesitant readers, who loved to hear a story, but picking up a book and actually reading was difficult. They loved to look at pictures and tell the story in their own words. I had other students who were fluent readers always eager for the next challenge. Regardless of where my students were as readers, all children have a natural tendency to want to play. Reader’s Theater was the perfect way to combine play and reading because students were able to become a different character and make the story come alive.

As the year progressed, I saw the spark for reading increase. My author of the month books were flying off the shelf. Now instead of making up stories to go with the pictures, the students were reading the words, with expression. All year long it had been modeled how good readers read, with fluency and expression. They heard expression regularly from their teacher, peers, parent readers, and in Chapel. They saw that prosody (using proper phrasing and expression) had a role outside of Reader’s Theater. It belonged whenever a book was being read or a story was being told, no matter what the subject.

Ultimately, Readers Theater had an impact on more than my own students. After watching our class perform, the 5th graders decided to write their own scripts and perform them for my class. My 1st graders gave them tips about how write a script. They suggested using teamwork, listening to each other, sharing airtime, and discussed how working with their best friend wasn’t always the best idea. When the 5th graders came to perform, the first thing my students looked for was how the students read their scripts. They offered kind, helpful, and specific feedback to the older children. They had the confidence not only to give warm feedback to them, but also constructive feedback as to how to make it better.

The confidence my class now has is evident in many other ways. During all school concerts, many parents come up to me to let me know how wonderful my class sang. They attributed their stage presence and voice to the use of Reader’s Theater in the classroom. My students' confidence has soared not only in the classroom, but in all aspects of their lives.

By including Reader’s Theater on a regular basis I firmly believe that the students gained a sense of pride in themselves, not only as readers, but as an integral part of our school community. They were exposed to many different types of scripts, fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and song. They were also exposed to all the different classroom settings and teachers at our school. They developed a better understanding of their place in our school and their role in it. They were looked upon as “experts” in dramatic play and as readers.

In prior years I had noticed that students lacked enthusiasm when reading or performing. Although it had been modeled regularly in the classroom, it wasn’t being transferred to the areas outside of reading time. I wanted to change this. With the introduction of Reader’s Theater,  fluency, comprehension, and motivation all increased. Along the way I discovered key lessons that would help a teacher implement Reader’s Theater on a regular basis. The following are tips that could prove useful in a journey to make reading enjoyable and motivating.