contributed by Kathrina O’Connell, Assistant Professor in Vocational Education, Bemidji State University
Last summer, my school’s literacy academy in the middle of school suddenly switched to distance education 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 became silent about how we would teach our reading classes online. In particular, how would we learn the highly engaging reader’s theater class? It was our students’ favorite activity because they enjoyed reading the screenplays, creating their own costumes, going out with each other and performing in front of an audience.
How can we possibly repeat this experience online?
What is Reader’s Theater?
Reader’s Theater is a collaborative literacy activity for all ages, which includes reading, writing, speaking and listening. Students read scripts aloud several times to improve the accuracy, rate, and expression of reading. After 3-4 class sessions, the students perform the script for an audience.
Lines are not memorized because the emphasis is on reading fluency. Once students are familiar with the theater activity of the reader, teachers can guide students to create their own texts using texts such as picture books or news articles. Students can also create and perform their own original stories.
It was quickly decided to go ahead and do our best to continue this literacy doctrine. On the first day, the teachers projected the texts so that all students could see them on their screens, and then they read the texts while conveying accuracy, tempo and prosody (with the attitude and speech patterns the author intended). The students then decided which roles they would accept.
For the next three days, the students and teachers worked in their breakout groups to rehearse the text and prepare for a final performance at the end of the week. Since there was no personal audience, the students performed online throughout the week, and the teachers recorded the performances to share with students’ families.
The benefits of Reader’s Theater
Researchers such as Young, Stokes, and Rasinski (in their 2017 Reader’s Theater Plus Comprehension and Word Study) note that this five-day timeline for reading practice improves students’ reading fluency, vocabulary, ability, and confidence. The scripts can also be adapted to meet the diverse learning needs of students. Lines are not memorized and costumes are not needed.
Although the costumes have always magically appeared at the academy for summer literacy! This relaxed tone encourages students to participate creatively in the activity without the stress of achievement perfection. Reader’s theater also provides opportunities for success and increases student motivation.
The plays were performed online without any hitch. In one group, the teacher played classical organ music in the background while students read the text aloud Casey by Bat. In another group, students made posters and signs and wore homemade costumes for the story. Who’s first?
When I interviewed the students at the end of the summer, each group declared the readers’ theater as their favorite class for literacy academy. Each group. Even when reading theater was offered online. One student said that “I like reading theater online because I’m terrible at … performing in front of people.”
Once students understand the purpose and routine of reading theater, teachers can also provide opportunities to include writing practice. For example, students (yes, even older students) can read a picture book story and write a theatrical writing of a reader based on that story. Students work together to create the dialogue, designate the speaking roles and coordinate the execution.
Students can also use a non-fiction article or a book to create an information story. One student especially liked this because he said, “You find an article that interests you and you can turn the information you have learned into a story.” Graphic novels, newspapers and magazines are excellent resources for reading theater writers.
Of all the options, students of the academy for literacy in the summer prefer to write their own text. As one student cheerfully remarked, “We like to play it out and just get into the stories … that we made.”
Using Reader’s Theater for Distance Learning
Teachers are currently looking for ways to engage their students online in meaningful and academic ways. Reader’s Theater offers engagement and academic learning. It is a research-based best practice for fluency and comprehension for all ages. It also motivates students who struggle with reading and offers the extra reading exercise that is beneficial to English learners.
Although the pandemic has shifted reading and writing instruction for so many students and teachers online, there are ways to provide positive and enjoyable literacy experiences at 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, reading theater can be just as enjoyable online as it is personal.