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Reader's Theater: Giving Students a Reason to Read Aloud

By: Cara Bafile
The reader's theater strategy blends students' desire to perform with their need for oral reading practice. Reader's Theater offers an entertaining and engaging means of improving fluency and enhancing comprehension.

What is reader's theater? It's a way to involve students in reading aloud. In reader's theater, students "perform" by reading scripts created from grade-level books or stories. Usually they do so without costumes or props.

Reader's theater is a strategy that combines reading practice and performing. Its goal is to enhance students' reading skills and confidence by having them practice reading with a purpose. Reader's theater gives students a real reason to read aloud.

"I love the active involvement in this approach," said Susan Finney, a retired educator and author who gives seminars about improving reading instruction. "It's hard for a child to be a passive observer when you have a script in your hands."

Reader's theater motivates reluctant readers and provides fluent readers the opportunity to explore genre and characterization.

"The first reader's theater scripts I saw were shared with me by a veteran first-grade teacher," Finney explained. "She would send small groups of her beginning readers around the school to perform in different classrooms. It was a brilliant idea. The children never knew that they were being tricked into re-reading — a key factor in developing fluency."

Re-reading to develop fluency

"A great deal of fluency research reiterates the need for repeated reading," said Finney. "Without fluency, there is little comprehension. The value of reader's theater is increased tenfold when used as a strategy for increasing understanding of what is being read."

Dr. Peggy Sharp, a former classroom teacher and library media specialist, noted, "Reader's theater is a wonderful technique for helping readers learn to read aloud with expression. I especially like to perform reader's theater without props so the readers learn that the expression in their voices needs to provide much of the drama of the story."

Said Judy Freeman, a children's literature consultant, "If you're searching for a way to get your children reading aloud with comprehension, expression, fluency, and joy, reader's theater is a miracle. Hand out a photocopied play script, assign a part to each child, and have them simply read the script aloud and act it out. That's it. And then magic happens."

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What reader's theater looks like

Freeman's "magic" occurs when the students get to be on stage — even if that stage is the floor of the classroom or library. Shy kids blossom, and students develop a strong sense of community.

"Some of our students are hams — they just don't know it until they get up in front of the group," Finney observed. "In reader's theater, there is no risk, because there's no memorization required. There's enough opportunity for practice, so struggling readers are not put on the spot."

Finney offered the following pointers for teachers new to reader's theater:

  • Choose only scripts that are fun to do with lots of good dialogue. Boring scripts are no better than boring stories.
  • Start slowly and spend the time necessary so students feel comfortable in the performance mode. Provide opportunities for students to practice. Students do not memorize their parts; they always read from their scripts.
  • A stage is unnecessary. Students simply stand or sit in a semicircle.
  • Model each character's part and match roles to readers.
  • Combine parts if there are too many, and cut out scenes and characters that aren't important. Scripts are not sacrosanct. Change them if they work better another way.
  • Work with small groups, not with the whole class, whenever possible.
  • Provide instructional support for new vocabulary and for understanding the different characters.

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Choosing a script

In her own classroom, Finney found that reader's theater was most successful when her students were "crazy about the script." She hunts for texts that have fun characters, clear plots, and comfortable language.

"I look for scripts that have lots of natural dialogue," concurred Peggy Sharp. "I also look for scripts in which each speaker does not have too many lines at once. Reader's theater is more effective when one person is not reading too many lines while the others wait."

Scripts for reader's theater can be purchased, although many teachers choose to create their own out of an existing children's book or chapter. When looking for material to adapt into a play, look for peppy dialogue, a little action, laugh-out-loud parts, lively narration, and enough roles for all students.

Sharp suggests the following:

  • Begin with very easy scripts. It is important at the start that students do not have to think about how to read the words.
  • Select scripts that involve many readers. I prefer the ones that give more readers fewer words.
  • Short scripts are best in the beginning. Students need to learn to listen to the reader's theater script just as much as they need to learn to read the script.
  • Provide each reader with a separate script, highlighting his or her part with yellow (or another appropriate color). I like to put the scripts in folders for a more "professional" look.
  • Give the readers the opportunity to read the script to themselves silently, and to read their parts to themselves aloud.

If the script is adapted from a children's book, Freeman suggests that teachers read it aloud first so students can enjoy it and can listen to expression and phrasing. Then scripts can be distributed, and students can practice sounding out difficult words and getting a sense of their lines.

"Always perform a reader's theater script at least twice," she advised. "The first time, the children will be struggling with words and their meanings, and with making sense of the play. The second time, they'll be able to focus on enjoying the performance and their parts in it. You can, if you wish, carry it further, adding props, costumes, and scenery; memorizing lines; or even putting on the play for other groups. You don't have to, though. It's the process that's important here, not a finished product."

Educational publisher Lois Walker believes that a good script can transcend reading levels. She explained, "A sensitive teacher who knows the capabilities and reading levels of his or her students will be careful to assign the proper reading parts to the proper readers so everyone can have fun and succeed."

Freeman added, "Reader's theater allows children the luxury of lingering over a story; acting it out many times so they come to understand all of its nuances. Too often, children read a story and only understand it at its most superficial literal level. With reader's theater, they're not just reading a story; they're living it."

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Adapted from Education World's "Reader's Theater: A Reason to Read Aloud"

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