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Reader's Theater: A Reason to Read Aloud

The Reader's Theater strategy blends students' desire to perform with their need for oral reading practice. RT offers an entertaining and engaging means of improving fluency and enhancing comprehension. Included: RT tips from the experts!


Characteristics of Reader's Theater

Master teacher Susan Finney shares these characteristics of "Reader's Theater" activities:

* Students do not memorize their parts; they always read from their scripts.
* A stage is unnecessary, student simply stand or sit in a semicircle.
* Scripts ideally are introduced in small groups.
* The script is treated like a new story, in that instructional support may be needed for new vocabulary and understanding of characters.
* For struggling readers who are building fluency, scripts are manageable -- at the students' independent reading level and/or at their instructional reading level.
* Opportunities for practice are provided.

"I love the active involvement part of this approach," Susan Finney told Education World. "It's hard to be a passive observer when you have a script in your hands!"

Finney, a retired educator and author who gives seminars about improving the art of teaching reading, is not alone in singing the praises of a strategy that combines reading practice and performing -- Reader's Theater!

"The first Reader's Theater scripts I saw were shared with me by a veteran first-grade teacher -- a classic case of learning from the teacher next door," 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 rereading -- a key factor in developing fluency."

In Reader's Theater, students "perform" by reading scripts created from grade-level books or stories -- generally without benefit of costumes and props. The goal is to enhance reading skill and confidence through practice with a purpose. Reader's Theater gives students a real reason to read aloud.

"A great deal of fluency research reiterates the need for repeated reading," reported 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."

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

"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 a few more thoughts for teachers new to the Reader's Theater format:

  • 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.
  • 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.
Take 5!

Producing a Reader's Theater script? Peggy Sharp suggests five "script notes."

1. Begin with very easy scripts. It is important at the start that readers do not have to think about how to read the words.
2. Select scripts that involve many readers. I prefer the ones that give more readers fewer words.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. Give the readers the opportunity to read the script to themselves silently, and to read their parts to themselves aloud.

THE "GOOD" SCRIPT

Not reliant on the trappings of some dramatic exercises, Reader's Theater is built upon fine texts used well. 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 dialog," says Dr. Peggy Sharp, a former classroom teacher and library media specialist. "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."

Sharp is a consultant who shares the best of new children's books and strategies for using them in the classroom. "Reader's Theater is a wonderful technique for helping readers learn to read aloud with expression," she explains. "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."

PRESTO! BETTER READING LIKE MAGIC

"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," echoes Judy Freeman, another children's literature consultant. "Hand out a Xeroxed 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."

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.

"LIVING" THEATER

"Reader's Theater allows children the luxury of lingering over a story; acting it out many times so they come to understand all its nuances," Freeman explained. "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."

Freeman's "Five Essential Ingredients"

When choosing a book or chapter to write as a play, Judy Freeman looks for five features:

* Peppy dialogue
* A little action
* Laugh-out-loud parts
* Lively narration
* Enough roles for all

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

"Always perform a Reader's Theater script at least twice," she advises. "The first time, the children will be struggling with words and their meanings, and with making sense of the play. It'll be rough, but who cares? 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."

Canadian television producer/educational publisher Lois Walker, who creates Reader's Theater, choral reading, and puppet play scripts through her company Scripts for Schools, 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."

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES
  • Reader's Theater Archives
    Original scripts from Education World.
  • Aaron Shepard's RT Page
    This site from author Aaron Shepard explains Reader's Theater and includes free scripts and practice sheets.
  • The Power of Reader's Theater
    Read more about the Reader's Theater technique in Jennifer Prescott's article from Scholastic.
  • Playbooks
    Playbooks provides books designed in Reader's Theater format with color-coded text for various roles.
Favorite Scripts

To introduce the concept of Reader's Theater to her seminar audiences, Susan Finney uses a story called The Earthquake God by Aaron Shepard, which she turned into a Reader's Theater script. Other experts also told Education World about their favorite texts for Reader's Theater activities.

"Some of my very favorite plays that I've adapted come from picture books," said Judy Freeman. "They include Matt Novak's Mouse TV, Susan Meddaugh's Martha Walks the Dog, Doreen Cronin's Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type, Margie Palatini's The Web Files, and Shelley Moore Thomas's Get Well, Good Knight. All are endlessly fun to act out, simple without being simplistic, and with lots of bustle and humor."

Peggy Sharp finds Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad stories among the best for Reader's Theater. "Those stories are easy to read, short, full of wonderful natural dialog, and address issues that still resonate with kids," she explained.

For primary readers, Lois Walker recommends her tales Go Home Goldie and The Creaky Door, and for intermediate readers Misery's Tree or Joe and the Button Factory. "Our best selling teen script is based on the life of Alexander Graham Bell," she added. More information is available at Scripts for Schools.


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