“Reading is not dancing on top of words. It is grasping the soul of them.”  Friere, 1985

The best way to describe Reader’s Theater (RT) is by explaining what it is not. There are no props, costumes, memorization, or sets. This makes it convenient and easy to implement. In Reader’s Theater children interpret scripts through their oral expression while reading a part to an audience. It’s a safe way to encourage children to enjoy reading. Reader’s theater gives students a purpose for reading and sharing their learning.

RT has been used in classrooms across the country. Research has shown, time and time again, the benefits of implementing RT into the curriculum. Jennifer Prescott, the editor of Instructor Magazine, suggests RT can “boost listening and speaking skills, enhance confidence, and transform reluctant readers into book lovers” (2003, para. 2). A 1999 study in The Reading Teacher by Strecker, Roser, and Martinez showed that second graders who participated in Reader’s Theater on a regular basis, made on average, more than a year's growth in reading. Instructor columnist and RT supporter Judy Freeman confirms, “If you want to get your kids reading with comprehension, expression, fluency, and joy there's nothing more effective than Reader’s Theater" (2003, para. 8). Put Reading First, a booklet published by the U.S. Department of Education states “Readers’ Theatre provides readers with a legitimate reason to reread text and to practice fluency. Readers’ Theatre also promotes cooperative interaction with peers and makes the reading task appealing” (2001, p. 25). Through the implementation of Reader’s Theater on a regular basis in my classroom, I hoped to find an increase in fluency, comprehension, and motivation in reading. In the following sections I define these terms and discuss the research that supports them, and how I used them in my classroom.

Their Words Say It All – Fluency at its Best!

RT has been shown to boost reading fluency. Why is this important? Fluency has been identified as “a critical goal in the elementary reading curriculum” (Young& Rasinski, 2009). How can fluency be defined? Put Reading First defines fluency as “the ability to read a text accurately and quickly” (p. 19). Fluent readers do not have to “concentrate on decoding the words, they can focus their attention on what the text means” (p. 19). Rasinski adds to this definition by including the idea of prosody, which is using appropriate expression and phrasing while reading.

Based on current research, Young and Rasinski (2009) identified three methods that promote fluency: modeled fluent reading, assisted reading, and repeated readings. He notes in his research that repeated readings can lead to improvement in reading, but also to improvement in decoding words, reading rate, prosodic reading, and comprehension (2009). Put Reading First states, “The best strategy for developing reading fluency is to provide your students with many opportunities to read the same passage orally several times” (2001, p. 23). Reader’s Theater allowed for this in a fun and exciting way, where repeated readings didn’t seem repetitive and boring. Tyler and Chard see Reader’s Theater as an authentic venue for rereading while motivating even the most reluctant reader (2000). Griffith and Rasinski, in their 2004 study state:

The nature of Readers’ Theatre requires interpretation of text with the human voice. There is no memorization of text because the children are asked to creatively interpret the meaning of the passage each time they read. There is no acting; there are no props and no costumes. The drama is communicated by the children, through phrasing, pausing, and expressive reading of text. (p. 129)

Fluency, which I define as prosody and speed, is encouraged in my classroom. Students have a variety of modeled readings on a daily basis through read alouds, parent readers, listening stations, and listening to each other read. Pre-reading passages, assisted reading with the teacher, and then rereading with a partner encourages fluency and is an integral part of my reading instruction. I hope that the use of RT will encourage practice, thus increasing fluency and reading rate.

Reading for Understanding – The Power of the Message

Opitz and Rasinski state, “The purpose of reading is to understand a message” (1998, p 14). Being able to understand the words and not just dance on top of them gives meaning to the task (Friere, 1985). A good reader makes connections between the words and their meaning. They find ways to make text-text, text-to-self, and text-to-world connections (Allington, 2001). Optiz and Rasinski identify good comprehenders as those who use a variety of strategies while reading. The ability to know what is important, making predictions, inferring information, summarizing what has been read, questioning while reading, and using imagery allows the reader to fully comprehend the meaning (1998).

To increase comprehension, a variety of strategies can be used. One strategy, RT, enables the student to be both purposeful and active (Put Reading First, 2001). Understanding the script, interpreting it, and being able to expressive themselves are ways for the reader to show a deeper understanding of the message. Asking and understanding who, what, when, where, how, or why of the story is necessary when presenting Reader’s Theater, so that the message can be conveyed to the audience. Rasinski believes that it is through repeated readings that these skills can be practiced and then transferred to other previously unread texts (1990). In addition, Adomat (2007), a professor at Indiana University, explains that as students become different characters through drama, they generate new meanings and understandings for stories, and come to understand them from multiple perspectives.

Understanding and not just reading words is one of the emphases of RT. To convey meaning to the audience, the reader must truly understand what is being read. The ability to use voice can only come with a true understanding of the passage. Being able to interpret the information in a meaningful way and transfer that into RT should increase comprehension and enable the reader to make connections and see characters from multiple perspectives.

Motivation – The Key That Unlocks the Door

Webster Merriman dictionary (2010) defines motivation, from the root word motive, as something (as a need or desire) that causes a person to act. Linda Gambrell, in her article for The Reading Teacher, explains it has been shown that motivated children who spend more time engaged in reading are better readers (1996). She goes on to say that motivation is crucial for learning to take place in all areas of the curriculum. Having not just skills, but also the desire to read will lead to successful readers.

How can a classroom environment increase motivation? The Running Start Program, using Cambourne’s (1988) model of literacy, feels that if children are immersed in a book rich environment, exposed to many demonstrations of how books are used, engaged in interactions with others about books, given choice, and supported by adults, motivation will be fostered. Allowing children to choose books they are interested in to read is well recognized as a motivating factor in reading. Students expend more effort in learning and understanding if they are allowed and encouraged to choose their own reading material (Gambrell, 1996). Gambrell’s research also confirms that, “opportunities for sharing and talking with others about books is an important factor in developing engaged, motivated readers" (p. 22). Yopp and Yopp believe that “It is only through meaningful literary experiences that children can develop an enthusiasm for reading” since “few basal readers and skill sheets stimulate hearts and minds the way books do” (1996, p. 3). I hoped that including RT as a part of my curriculum would increase motivation since it would be meaningful and relevant.

How do I create a classroom environment in which students are motivated to read? First, I provide a book rich environment. Students are exposed to literature from all genres. There is an “Author of the Month,” rotating novels that included fiction and nonfiction works, and exposure to articles. A large class library, sorted by genre or topic, is also available to students. Once a month, we visit the public library, where students hear stories read by the children’s librarian, and check out books. Parents are encouraged to come and read to the class using books of their choice. Students, as authors, read their writings during “open mike” time in the classroom. The value of reading is evident, and my students tend to take advantage of the variety of books available in the classroom. A listening center, with commercially recorded books is also available.

With the implementation of RT, I hoped students would want to read and reread their scripts due to the motivation of performing in front of an audience. Knowing the students that came to me this year made me wonder whether they would all embrace the idea of RT. Would it be enough to read scripts with voice? Would they want to add props and costumes, making it more work then I had counted on? Wilhelm argued that to truly understand a story, a reader must be engaged and involved with interpreting the elements such as character, setting, and plot (2007). By surrounding students with a print rich environment and implementing RT, I hoped that motivation would increase.

Developmentally Speaking – Are They Ready?

“Every child is capable of learning given the right opportunities, context, and assistance,” states Carol Lyons, author of Teaching Struggling Readers: How to Use Brain-based Research to Maximize Learning (2003). The National Association for the Education of Young Children, in their position statement assert, “In developmentally appropriate practice, practitioners create and foster a “community of learners” that supports all children to develop and learn” (2009. p. 16). Thus, meeting students at their developmental level is paramount for learning to occur. To understand the developmental phases children go through, Vygotsky, a leading researcher in developmental and child psychology defines the “distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers,” as the zone of proximal development (ZPD) (1978). In simple terms, this means that the best learning occurs when it is understood where a child’s independent level is and what they are capable of with extra support. When students are working within their ZPD they experience challenge, but new learning is within their reach.

According to Vygotsky, there are three phases of learning and development in the ZPD. Lyons defines these as, “Assistance provided by more capable others; transition from other-assistance to self-assistance; and assistance provided by self” (p. 50). In the initial phase, children exhibit learning with “the help and support of others” (p. 50). When they begin to transition to the second phase, children are able to accomplish tasks that are “challenging, but well within the child’s ability with help” (p.52). The final phase completes the ZPD. In this stage a child is able to “imitate and successfully complete a task” independently (p. 53).

During Reader’s Theater, students are working together to tell a story. Rarely are all kids reading at the same level in first grade. Because RT provides a range of scripts and roles, I was hoping that students would be appropriately challenged at their developmental level. Most begin as emergent readers, relying on the teacher or more fluent peers to provide assistance. As their confidence and abilities improved they would transition from needing the help and support of teachers and peers, then ultimately to successfully completing RT with a minimal amount of help.

Vygotsky also believes that verbal interactions with peers and adults are a critical factor in learning because by imitation, “children are capable of doing much more in collective activity or under the guidance of adults” (1978, p. 88). In RT, verbal interactions are a daily occurrence, through group practice and peer feedback. Not only are they learning fluency and comprehension through practicing their script, but they are also moving through the different phases of development, supported by their peers.

For the students to work through these different phases of learning, they’d need to choose roles that were within their ZPD. I wondered if they would. Would they choose easy parts? Or would they choose parts that would be too challenging? Would it be enough support to have peers assist them when they needed help? Could their peers provide it? Would they be fluent enough and have enough knowledge to help? Would I need to step in? I was curious to see how this unfolded, whether students would pick appropriately leveled roles and how their choices would affect their learning.

Lights! Scripts! Action!

RT is an exciting avenue that can lead to increased motivation, fluency, and comprehension. I introduced the idea early in the year, and walked the students through one performance using the same script for all the groups. Following that, new scripts were read each week and the students were given the opportunity to choose the script and role they were most interested in performing. I hoped that by having choice, motivation would increase.

Students were placed into groups from two to six (mixed ability) so that fluency could be modeled for the less fluent readers by the stronger ones. Students initially practiced their lines at school, and then they took the script home to practice, with an emphasis on fluency (prosody and accuracy). I observed how and when they chose to practice at school and they wrote in their home reading logs how many times they practiced their script (appendix E). I also watched to see if their motivation for reading transferred into other texts that they read throughout the day in various settings.

Practicing with their groups was possible during the school hours. Copies of the script were sent home at the beginning of the week, and a copy remained at school. This enabled the students to practice in the classroom throughout the week. The following was my plan for each week. This was my plan, but as I got further into my research, plans changed and I discuss how it actually unfolded in my findings.

Performing for an audience was a key component of the success of RT. Rasinski and Padak state that, “If we care about doing well, we are more likely to try to do well” (2000, p. 38). Knowing that they were practicing for a purpose, to perform for other classes or their parents, I hoped that students would be more motivated. On performance days, students sat on stools, or stood in front of the audience. Expression was their only prop. Following each performance feedback from the audience was elicited. After all the groups had performed, students wrote in their reflection journals or recorded their feelings about the experience. They also videotaped their comprehension of the script they performed occasionally. Using all the data I acquired, I better understood the effects that RT had on my students, and used the information to adapt instruction to best benefit the students and their motivation, fluency, and comprehension across the curriculum.