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Readers' Theater, by Leila E. Uthman

An approach to reading with more than a touch of drama

Leila Uthman and her students

Leila Uthman's students are all smiles after performing the play they adapted from a book they'd read in class.

As any teacher who has been a reading tutor will tell you, motivating at-risk students can be a challenge. I had to deal with this challenge several years ago while tutoring a class of at-risk third grade readers. Although the personalities and ability levels of my students varied – so much so that at times I wondered how I could ever bring them together as a team – I realized that two things they all had in common were (1) a lack of internal motivation and (2) a reluctance to help each other learn.

One day, in an effort to interest the students in a story, we began discussing theater and how it applied to the books we were reading. It was clear that the children were eager to take on the dramatic arts. I was surprised and thrilled that they wanted to do a project that would put them center stage doing the thing they hated and feared most – reading aloud!

Big surprise.
As it turned out, I was in for a big surprise. I couldn't believe the enthusiasm for reading the children displayed. They edited, rewrote and typed a script version of a story they'd read in class. They made the set, created a tape of sound effects and put in hours of extra time to perfect their show.

During rehearsals they discussed characterizations, what the setting would look like and when they'd need to change the background. They talked about what the tone of the entire piece should be and ways that each character could contribute to achieving that tone. They read the script countless times at rehearsals, both silently and out loud. They conquered new words as well as that old nemesis: comprehension. Also, the children were so willing to help each other during rehearsals that they lost much of their anxiety about reading out loud.

I should stress that the students came up with most of these concepts on their own while working as a team. I integrated the curriculum and brought in concepts of environment, culture and even math when appropriate, but the students took on the bulk of the responsibility themselves.

I suggested to the students that they choose a story they'd either be reading in class or had already read in class. We then brainstormed qualities we wanted the story to have. For instance, since all of the students (to my happy surprise) wanted speaking parts, they thought they should choose a story that had enough speaking parts for everyone. The students also decided that they didn't want to role-play animals; they preferred a story that had children as the main characters. The children were unanimous in choosing The Streets Are Free by Kurusa (Annick Press, 1995).

When it came to editing, I gave the students a choice: They could decide on one or two editors and take on the other production jobs (such as typing) or they could share equally in all jobs. They decided to share responsibilities.

Each student was responsible for certain pages of the book. They read those pages at home and came to school with a script. We took turns reading each child's portion of the script and held a final editing session as a democratic group. The children wanted to remain faithful to the text because they genuinely enjoyed the story, but they decided to cut some narrative text as well as some characters who were not important to the story.

Positive results.
You don't have to be a reading tutor to start your own readers' theater, of course. Nor do you have to tutor a class of youngsters with low self-esteem in order to get positive results. Any classroom can become a readers' theater. However, if you do decide to put a little drama into your reading program, here are a few things to keep in mind:

This is extremely important. If students don't want to perform, there's no benefit in forcing them to act. Many important non-acting jobs can serve as alternatives; chief script editor, set designer, secretary of cast/typist and director all require as much reading and preparation as does the job of acting.

I also feel it's important to let the children choose their roles. Some children will feel more comfortable with small roles and will probably learn just as much as the lead characters do.

What happens when two or more children want the same part? I've found that in a structured environment of choice, the children often resolve their own issues with little help from the teacher. You may have to cast the deciding vote, however so be prepared.

Choosing a story to be dramatized also helps to motivate students. But since every story does not lend itself to dramatization, here, too, the teacher will sometimes have the deciding vote.

Student interaction, set and costuming.
Readers' theater provided an excellent opportunity for my students to become special in a positive way. I recruited a few students from outside the group to help with the set and costume design. This not only helped our production, but also helped get the word out about our play as a great event that everyone could enjoy.

In an inner city school, an expensive set and costumes were out of the question, but I never felt this to be a problem. Our set was created with paper, crayons and markers; costumes were created when our "librarian" held a book, our "reporter" carried a pencil and pad, and our "mayor" wore a suit (bought at Goodwill).

Each group in your class can have an opportunity to become an acting company at least once during the school year. You can rotate and monitor each group while other groups are reading silently and proceeding with their normal reading tasks. This is a great chance for you to see how your students are progressing from time to time.

Just how much time it will take to complete a readers' theater project is entirely up to you. For comparison's sake, here's how much time I spent: Choosing the story took about one period, mostly because it was a new process for the students and they were very serious about what they were doing. The editing process took three complete periods and the entire project took two weeks. I'm sure it could be done in less time when students are more familiar with the process.

When you look at this project in the context of the inner city school, where students need hope and confidence just as much as they need academic skills, readers' theater seems to be much more than just a little play. It's an opportunity to let students shine as well as learn – they build confidence as well as reading skills. It also offers students other ways to look at the world and various ways to portray dramatic characters.

But perhaps it's "more than just a little play" wherever you do it. Just give it a whirl. You'll be glad you did. And so will your kids.

Leila Uthman currently teaches ESL at Herberich Primary School in Copley, OH.