The bottom line ….

1.16        Read aloud with fluency in a manner that sounds like natural speech.

2.1          Recite poems, rhymes, songs, and stories.

3.1          Identify and describe the elements of plot, setting, and character(s) in a story, as well as              the story’s beginning, middle, and ending.

State standards. These are the skills that need to be mastered or exceeded during the first grade year. They are covered and taught using the existing reading curriculum at my school. In most instances, young learners are excited to discover new things. But is this enough? Will students retain the information and skills over time? Will their motivation increase? Will student expression, while reading, carry over to other subjects and grade levels? Will they get frustrated?

One question led to many. As an elementary school teacher, both public and private, I have observed some students excel and some struggle. I have used strategies to excite the struggling readers and push the confident readers. I strongly believe in heterogeneous groupings, but have found it difficult to combine levels when working in small literacy groupings. The more confident readers get frustrated waiting for the emergent readers, and the emergent readers get frustrated with the inability to keep up with their peers. It made me wonder what could I do as a teacher to increase motivation, fluency, and comprehension of all my students.

The answer came to me in the fall of 2009. Our reading curriculum, McGraw-Hill, had a play for one of the stories. While I have always shied away from doing drama in my class (too much work, props, time, etc), this story seemed possible. There were exactly eight parts, so I could put my classroom of 16 into two groups. The parts demanded different levels of reading, and I thought all students could be accommodated. As we read through the script, I could sense the excitement in the classroom. Smiles and giggles permeated the room. When it came time to choose parts, I decided to randomly let students select the part they wanted, secretly hoping that the stronger readers would choose the most difficult parts and the emerging readers the smaller roles. Much to my surprise, the emergent readers chose the most difficult parts and my stronger readers chose the smallest parts.

With some trepidation, I agreed to all their choices, and the practicing began. We read through it a few more times that day, with each child practicing their part. I heard the struggle of the emergent readers as they tried to recite their parts … would this work? Would they all be successful and confident? Would the emergent readers get frustrated and give up? I truly didn’t know.

I told the class that in five days we would be performing the play for the Junior Kindergarten at our school. This made them step it up even more. The excitement was incredible. I had children asking to practice throughout the day, even during snack time! All readers were motivated. The struggling readers practiced the most. I watched them transform from hesitant readers, sounding out each word, to more confident readers who were including wonderful expression when they read. Practices weren’t perfect, some lost their place and forgot to speak, or incorrectly read their lines. The rest of the class encouraged and helped them.

Who would have believed in such a transformation? The class worked cooperatively practicing, encouraging each other, and celebrating their accomplishments. They made their puppets, practiced some more, and then the big day arrived ……

The Junior Kindergarten entered quietly. I had one group behind tables ready to perform. My class was introduced and the first group began. I was a bit worried. The play was in a book, pages had to be turned, and there wasn’t room for everyone to have a book. They began and the Junior Kindergarten was mesmerized. The first group did amazing. So well that when the Junior Kindergarten was asked what the story was about, they could easily explain the sequence of events and the plot. We then had the second group perform. The same thing happened. They did great! After both groups had performed, I had the Junior Kindergarten offer feedback about what they liked about the play. They mentioned many things, including how the students used expression, and my first grade class beamed with pride. My class then gave feedback to the Junior Kindergarten about how they felt performing for them and hearing their positive remarks. It was a wonderful experience for both classes.

Following this performance I started thinking and researching about incorporating theater into the classroom. How could I do it on a regular basis and not overwhelm the kids and myself? The obstacles I had always envisioned disappeared when I ran across Reader’s Theater (RT). No props were needed, groups can be heterogeneous, and there is minimal preparation on my part. This seemed like a great fit for my class and me, especially after this first experience. I decided to investigate how I could use Reader’s Theater in my classroom to increase motivation, fluency, and comprehension in reading.