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What Is Reader’s Theater? Using Literacy For Online Student Engagement

contributed by Kathrina O’Connell, Assistant Professor of Professional Education, Bemidji State University

Last summer my school’s middle-school literacy academy abruptly shifted to distance learning due to COVID-19.

With smiles on our faces, we told our students how excited we were to see them online the next day. With fear in our hearts, we quietly worried how we would teach our reading classes online. In particular, how would we teach the highly engaging reader’s theater class? That was our students’ favorite activity because they enjoyed reading the scripts, creating their own costumes, interacting with each other, and performing in front of an audience.

How could we possibly replicate that experience online?

What Is Reader’s Theater?

Reader’s theater is a collaborative literacy activity, for all ages, that incorporates reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Students read scripts aloud multiple times to improve reading accuracy, rate, and expression. After 3-4 class sessions, students perform the script for an audience.

Lines are not memorized as the emphasis is placed on reading fluency. Once students are familiar with the reader’s theater activity, teachers can guide students to create their own scripts using texts such as picture books or news articles. Students can also create and perform their own original stories.

It was quickly decided that we would forge ahead and do the best that we could to continue this literacy learning. On the first day, the teachers projected the scripts so that all students could see them on their screens, then they read aloud the scripts while modeling accuracy, rate, and prosody (conveying the attitude and speech patterns the author intended). Next, the students decided which roles they would assume.

For the following three days, the students and teachers worked in their breakout groups to practice the scripts and prepare for a final performance at the end of the week. Since there was no in-person audience, the students performed online as they had all week, and the teachers recorded the performances to share with students’ families.

The Benefits Of Reader’s Theater

Researchers like Young, Stokes, and Rasinski (in their 2017 Reader’s Theater Plus Comprehension and Word Study) note that this five-day timeline for practicing reading improves students’ reading fluency, vocabulary, competence, and confidence. The scripts can be also adapted to fit the diverse learning needs of students. Lines are not memorized and costumes are not needed.

Although the costumes always magically appeared at the summer literacy academy! This relaxed tone encourages students to creatively engage in the activity without the stress of performance perfection. Reader’s theater also provides opportunities for success and increases students’ motivation.

The plays were performed online without a hitch. In one group, the teacher played classic organ music in the background as students read the script to Casey at Bat. In another group, students created posters and signs and wore homemade costumes for the story, Who’s on First?

When I interviewed the students at the end of the summer, every group proclaimed reader’s theater their favorite literacy academy class. Every group. Even when reader’s theater was conducted online. One student stated that “I like reader’s theater online because I’m terrible at…performing in front of people.”

Once students understand the purpose and routine of reader’s theater, teachers can provide opportunities to include writing practice as well. For example, students (yes, even older students) can read a picture book story and write a reader’s theater script based on that story. Students work together to create the dialog, designate the speaking roles, and coordinate the performance.

Students can also use a nonfiction article or book to create an informational story script. One student especially liked this because he said that “you find an article that interests you and you can take that information that you learned and make it into kind of a story.” Graphic novels, newspapers, and magazines are all great resources for reader’s theater writing.

Of all the options, students from the summer literacy academy preferred writing their own scripts. As one student cheerfully noted, “We actually like acting it out and just getting into the stories…that we made.”

Using Reader’s Theater For Remote Teaching

Teachers are currently searching for ways to engage their students in meaningful and academic ways online. Reader’s theater provides that engagement and academic learning. It’s a research-based best practice for fluency and comprehension for all ages. It also motivates students who struggle with reading and provides the extra reading practice that is beneficial for English learners.

Even though the pandemic has shifted reading and writing instruction online for so many students and teachers, there are ways to provide positive and enjoyable literacy experiences from a distance. Reader’s theater provides the creativity, collaboration, and flexibility needed to engage students, no matter where the learning takes place. As my students discovered this summer, reader’s theater can be just as fun online as it is in-person.