Reader's Theater: Oral Language Enrichment and Literacy Development for ELLs
Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.
— Alfred Hitchcock
One of my favorite movies is The Princess Bride, which is based on the novel by William Goldman. For those of you haven't experienced this classic, the movie begins with a little boy who is sick and home from school, and his grandfather, who offers to read the boy a fairy tale that he had enjoyed when he was young. The boy isn't very interested at first, but soon realizes that he has nothing better to do, and agrees to at least hear the beginning. The story that follows, of course, is an enchanting tale filled with unforgettable characters and exciting plot twists. Despite his best efforts to resist getting drawn in, by the end, the boy is begging his grandfather to finish the story and even admits that he would be ready to hear it all over again if his grandfather returns with the book the next day.
What resonates with me in the movie is the experience of a child falling in love with a good story. While that experience is magical in its own right, it's also an important part of becoming a strong reader. Engagement is a critical piece of building reading and comprehension skills and plays an important part in reading motivation as well.
- they lack the background knowledge to understand the plot, setting, and characters
- they have not had much practice "putting themselves in the story"
- they only get one or two opportunities to read a text before the class moves on to something new.
ELLs can benefit greatly from having opportunities to read a text many times because this helps them develop fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. One way to reread a text while keeping it interesting for students is through Readers' Theater. In a Readers' Theater activity, students read stories that have been scripted like a play, and they act out the story together. Students may practice their parts several times before acting the story out in front of the class, which gets them thinking about their characters and the plot in a focused way. Rather than using elaborate props, costumes, or scenery, students can be encouraged to use vocal, facial, and physical expression to engage with the script and their character.
As students continue their repeated readings of the script, they are improving their reading skills and comprehension. They also will have the opportunity to practice speaking skills, such as pronunciation, inflection, expression, and varied volume. Since the activity is meant to practice reading, students don't need to memorize their lines, which keeps the spotlight on the reading practice, not the performance.
Reader's Theater offers ELLs an opportunity to completely immerse themselves in a story, and it gives students the chance to think about how engaged readers interact with print, such as by seeing pictures in their heads — very similar to watching a movie or play. Teachers can help ELLs make this connection by explaining how they can visualize the plot in their heads while they read and as they practice bringing stories to life.
Reader's Theater has something for all students, regardless of their language level. Beginning English speakers can have a small role with one or two short sentences, or if the student is at the "silent period," he or she can be assigned a non-speaking role such as an animal character. The more advanced a student's speaking skills are, the more the student can focus on improving expression and clarity in their role.
How to Get ELLs Started with Reader's Theater
Take a look at the way Amber Prentice uses a concept sort for teaching vocabulary before starting a Reader's Theater activity based on The Great Kapok Tree!
One of my colleagues in the St. Paul Public School District, Amber Prentice, frequently uses Reader's Theater with her seventh- and eighth-grade ESL students. She explained to me how she does it from start to finish.
When she first introduces Reader's Theater to her students at the beginning of the school year, she talks a little bit about what to expect and explains that this activity is meant to help them improve their reading and speaking abilities.
Amber tends to get her scripts from Reader's Theater books or websites. She notes that it can be difficult to find stories with enough parts for all students in a class; while some teachers may choose different stories for different groups of students, Amber uses the same story for the entire class. If only a few roles are available in the story she has chosen, she breaks the class down into separate "casts" so that all students have a part.
Amber thinks this is helpful for her ELL students because it provides them with maximum exposure to the plot. Students will understand the story very well by the end of the activity, and they will be able to laugh at all the right lines and be more involved in other groups' performances.
After she has chosen a story, Amber goes through it and selects the vocabulary words students will need to know in order to understand the plot. She then previews the vocabulary with a variety of activities until she is confident that they have mastered the definitions.
Next, Amber reads the whole play out loud to her students and asks comprehension questions to make sure they understand the story.
She then assigns roles or allows students to choose parts in the play, depending on the level of the students. She makes sure students know how to read the script by highlighting their parts and helping them understand that reading cues such as "Narrator" or "Woman enters the room" should not be read.
Amber gives her students ample time to practice their play and read their parts. She circulates through the room and gives feedback to students as they read. If students are reading without expression, she prompts them to try the line with more feeling. If students are stumbling with pronunciation, she models the correct pronunciation for them.
Before students do their performance for their classmates, they practice the staging and create any simple props they think will be helpful to the story.
Before the performance, Amber explains how the students will be graded. She reviews each element in the following list, making sure that students understand what each part means and showing examples of what she wants to see from the students as they are reading.
- clarity of pronunciation
- eye contact
As students become more proficient at Reader's Theater, they can use the list to evaluate each other, as well as give helpful feedback.
Once the students have practiced their lines, prepared simple props, and understand how they will be evaluated, they are ready to perform! Each group presents its version of the story, which also gives students an opportunity to compare how each group's interpretation is similar or different.
Amber has found that students approach Reader's Theater in a variety of ways. She had a group of boys that she thought might not like the activity because they would be afraid to look silly. Instead, the boys were very enthusiastic, found costumes, made masks, and gave animated performances to make the story a true dramatic success. Other students have taken Reader's Theater a little more slowly and want specific instructions as to how to put their story together.
Benefits of Reader's Theater
From the start of the activity to the finish, students read through the story about 15 times. Amber acknowledges that her students would never want to read a story so many times if it weren't for Reader's Theater. Within the context of this engaging activity, however, it has proven to be popular with the students, and she has seen noticeable improvements for her students as a result of repeated exposure to the text. They begin to develop fluency and comprehension because they become very familiar with the text and the plot structure. They also improve their pronunciation and presentation skills because they have so much practice reading and listening to the stories. Finally, the students begin to show more self-confidence while reading out loud and getting up in front of the class.
Since it's an activity she uses on a fairly regular basis, her students now know what to expect, and they can jump right into new scripts as soon as they receive them. Amber noted, too, that there is a lot of potential for using Reader's Theater to bring history and science to life, as well as narrative stories.
Variations on Reader's Theater for English Language Learners
Rather than using prepared scripts, students can write a script on a topic of their choosing, or they can summarize a book by using the Language Experience Approach to re-tell the main parts of the story. The teacher then works with the students to create dialogue that makes sense for the parts of the story and formats it into a script that students can use that for their performance.
This exercise can be used to reinforce content-area concepts. For example, in history class, students can re-enact an event such as the Boston Tea Party by making up dialog to match what happened. In a science class, if the students are learning how a vaccine works, they may want to create a script about the development of vaccines, with characters who discuss how vaccines are created and used. They may wish to cast famous scientists as the main characters of the play.
Memorization for Beginners
For ELLs with emerging literacy skills, it may be easier for teachers to repeat lines verbally to help students memorize them. Also, it may be appropriate for students to first do the play in their native language, and then again in English. This helps reinforce their understanding of the story and allows them to transfer the confidence they feel from their native language performance into their English language performance.
Another way to practice the read-through is to pair students as they are rehearsing their parts with another student who can model and support the fluency of the ELL.
Diversity in Subject Matter
Teachers should try to find scripts that represent a variety of cultures, including folk tales that ELLs can relate to. Students may be able to tell the class stories that they grew up with. For example, many cultures have different versions of stories like Cinderella that students will find familiar.
Teachers may want to create opportunities for ELLs to perform for audiences other than their classmates. This is especially beneficial if there are younger grades the ELLs can visit. For example, after performing the piece in class, ELLs can perform it for a younger child or class of children. After practicing in class, students should be comfortable performing the story in a different setting.
I believe that one of the most important things we can do as teachers is to help our students fall in love with reading. Reader's Theater is a wonderful way to engage ELLs and get them excited about great stories. Please see the Hotlinks section for more information on how to use Reader's Theater in your classroom. You'll find links to websites that offer free scripts for learners, as well as instructions for using Readers' Theater effectively. Happy teaching and happy acting!
Classroom Video: Concept Sort
Take a look at the way Amber Prentice uses a concept sort for teaching vocabulary before starting a readers' theater activity based on The Great Kapok Tree. You can see more strategies from Amber's classroom and her complete interview in our Meet the Experts section.