Key Words in Instruction
School Library Monthly/Volume XXVII, Number 4/January 2011
Building Literacy Bridges with Readers Theatre
by Anthony D. Fredericks
Anthony D. Fredericks is an award-winning author of 120 books, including fourteen readers theatre books (e.g., More Frantic Frogs and Other Frankly Fractured Folktales for Readers Theatre) and more than three dozen celebrated children’s books (e.g., Under One Rock, A Is for Anaconda). He is also a professor of education at York College, York, PA, where he teaches elementary methods courses. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
For me, one of the most incredible educational experiences that can take place in any classroom or library is the magic of storytelling! To watch the gleam of excitement in childrens' eyes while sharing a new book, to observe the look of recognition when presenting a familiar tale, or to see kids' faces light up when embellishing a piece of literature or a timeless tale are professional "perks" that go far beyond my role as an educator or children's author. After nearly forty years of writing and teaching, I never tire of sharing a story with a group of youngsters—it is part of my raison d'être, as I hope it will be for them.
Visions and Possibilities
Storytelling conjures up all sorts of visions and possibilities—faraway lands, magnificent adventures, beautiful princesses, evil wizards, wicked witches, a few dragons and demons, looming castles, a mysterious forest or two, and tales of mystery and adventure. These are stories of tradition and timelessness; tales that enchant, mystify, and excite through a marvelous weaving of characters, settings, and plots. These are stories that continue to enrapture audiences with their delightful blending of good over evil, patience over greed, and right over might. Our senses are stimulated, our mental images energized, and our experiences fortified through the magic of storytelling.
Storytelling and Readers Theatre
Readers theatre is a powerful activity that promotes positive reading habits and actively engages youngsters in the dynamics of storytelling. Simply stated, it is an oral interpretation of a piece of literature read in a dramatic style (Fredericks 2008a). In essence, readers theatre is an opportunity to share, a time to creatively interact with others, and a personal interpretation of what can be or could be. In fact, readers theatre holds the promise of helping children appreciate the richness of words, the interpretation of stories, and the power of language as a vehicle for the comprehension and appreciation of literature. Readers theatre provides numerous opportunities for youngsters to make stories come alive and pulsate with their own unique brand of perception and vision.
One of the positive consequences of readers theatre is that children begin to understand that storytelling is a natural human activity. Witness the excitement of primary-level students returning from a trip or holiday vacation as they eagerly share their stories with the teacher or other members of the class. Here, the energy level is at an all-time high as family episodes, shared tales, and personal experiences are exchanged back and forth. Indeed, youngsters soon learn that we are all storytellers—all with something to share.
When children are provided with regular opportunities in the classroom and library to become storytellers—to participate in readers theatre—they develop a personal stake in the literature shared. They also begin to cultivate personal interpretations of that literature—interpretations that lead to higher levels of appreciation and comprehension. Practicing and performing readers theatre scripts is an involvement endeavor—one that demonstrates and utilizes numerous languaging activities.
With that in mind, I’d like to share some of the many values I see in readers theatre:
- Readers theatre allows children to experience stories in a supportive and nonthreatening format that underscores their active involvement. This is particularly beneficial for those students who are struggling with reading. Struggling readers often envision reading as something "done to a text" rather than as something "done with a text." This shift in perspective is often a critical factor in the success youngsters can eventually enjoy in reading.
- Since readers theatre allows children many different interpretations of the same story, it facilitates the development of critical and creative thinking. There is no such thing as a right or wrong interpretation of a story readers theatre validates that assumption.
- Readers theatre helps students focus on the integration of all of the language arts—reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Children begin to see that effective communication and the comprehension of text are inexorably intertwined. In other words, literacy growth is not just growth in reading; it is the development of reading in concert with the other language arts.
- Readers theatre can be used to introduce children to good literature. After performing a readers theatre script, children will be stimulated to read the original source, not to compare, but rather to extend their learning opportunities. In short, readers theatre can proceed the reading of a related book or it can be used as a stimulating follow-up to the reading (oral or silent) of a good book.
- The central goal of reading instruction is comprehension. Comprehension is based on one's ability to make sense of printed materials. It goes beyond one's ability to remember details or recall factual information from text. Readers theatre provides students with rich opportunities to become active comprehenders in a learning environment that is both supportive and engaged. Giving meaning to print is one of the major results of readers theatre, just as it is one of the major results of comprehension instruction.
- Since it is the performance that drives readers theatre, children are given more opportunities to invest themselves and their personalities in the production of a readers theatre script. As such, children learn that readers theatre can be explored in a host of ways and a plethora of possibilities.
- Readers theatre is fun! It is delightful and stimulating, encouraging and fascinating, relevant and personal. Indeed, try as I might, I have not been able to locate a single instance (or group of children) in which (or for whom) readers theatre would not be an appropriate learning activity. It is a strategy filled with a cornucopia of imaginative ventures.
Readers Theatre and Fluency
According to A Dictionary of Reading and Related Terms, "fluency" is "the ability to read smoothly, easily, and readily with freedom from word recognition problems" (Harris and Hodges 1995). This implies that when students are able to decode print accurately and effortlessly, they are able to concentrate on the ultimate goal of reading text: comprehension. For this reason, getting meaning from text is directly related to fluency. In short, fluent readers are readers who understand more of what they read.
Several researchers have referred to fluency as the missing ingredient in reading programs (Allington 1983). Consequently, the report of the National Reading Panel indicated that fluency should be a key component of effective literacy instruction (2000).
Fluent readers are those who are able to decode and recognize words automatically while reading accurately, quickly, and smoothly—all with the right intonation and expression (Fredericks 2008c). It is not just about sounding good when reading aloud, but it implies that the reader is comfortable with the complexity of the material and equally comfortable with his or her ability to comprehend and/or interpret that material. Fluent reading takes concentration, thought, and effort; a fluent reader is a practiced reader—someone who has had multiple exposures to text and multiple opportunities to share that text in an expressive manner.
According to Rasinski, reading fluency is the ability of readers to read quickly, effortlessly, and efficiently with good, meaningful expression (2003). He goes on to explain that fluency means much more than mere accuracy in reading. While many readers can decode words accurately they may not be fluent (or automatic) in their word recognition. These readers tend to expend a lot of mental energy on figuring out the pronunciation of unknown words—energy that takes away from the more important task of getting to the text’s overall meaning. As a result, a lack of fluency is often associated with poor comprehension.
Briefly stated, readers theatre is fluency in action! It is reading with a purpose and reading that is motivational and productive. Students have multiple opportunities to hear fluent reading in a variety of contexts; so too are students able to interpret and read texts with expression and with comprehension. Most importantly, students have authentic opportunities to hear and practice fluent reading in a rich and supportive environment.
Teachers and Librarians: The Dynamic Duo
What both classroom teachers and school librarians have long known intuitively—and what has been validated with a significant body of research—is the fact that the literature shared in both classroom and library has wide-ranging and long-lasting implications for the educational and social development of children (Fredericks 2008b; Fredericks 2007). More important, however, is the unassailable fact that when teachers and librarians join together to promote literature collaboratively they are opening incredible windows that expand the influence of that literature and extend the learning opportunities for youngsters as never before.
Having had the honor of writing several readers theatre books, I have discovered that the "collaboration factor" between teachers and librarians has had a significant influence on the ultimate success of readers theatre. A substantial level of cooperation between the classroom teacher and the school librarian is essential if readers theatre is to be made a successful element and a dynamic feature of any language arts curriculum.
When teachers and school librarians work together great things happen. When they do so as an essential ingredient of the reading/language arts curriculum, then fantastic things happen! What follows is a listing of the ways in which teachers and librarians can develop a partnership that is mutually supportive, educationally sound, and dynamically oriented towards a coordinated approach to readers theatre:
- Teachers can invite the school librarian into their classrooms to introduce readers theatre along with any relevant literature.
- Librarians can invite classroom teachers into the library to introduce readers theatre (to their classes) along with any relevant literature.
- Teachers can provide the school librarian with a list of language arts topics and assignments to be tackled throughout the year. Teachers can then work with the librarian on possibilities regarding available resources—specifically readers theatre.
- Teachers and school librarians can develop joint projects in which selected literature is introduced in the library and followed up with specific instructional activities (i.e., readers theatre) in the classroom.
- Teachers and school librarians can develop joint projects in which selected literature is introduced in the classroom and followed up with specific instructional activities (i.e., readers theatre) in the library.
- School librarians can introduce students to specific literature selections with appropriate follow-up activities (i.e., readers theatre) for use in the classroom.
- Teachers can introduce students to specific literature selections with appropriate follow-up activities (i.e., readers theatre) for use in the library.
- Students can be invited to create and write their own readers theatre scripts after reading selected (or assigned) books in the library.
The possibilities for a coordinated approach to readers theatre—between school librarians and classroom teachers—are astronomical! Students are provided with engaging opportunities to enhance their fluency, teachers have multiple ways of sharing the vitality of language arts, and librarians can promote literature far beyond the walls of the school library. When teachers and school librarians work together, the educational benefits of readers theatre mushroom exponentially. Wow!
Allington, R.L. "Fluency: the Neglected Reading Goal." The Reading Teacher 36 (1983): 556-561.
Fredericks, A. D. African Legends, Myths, and Folktales for Readers Theatre. Teacher Ideas Press, 2008a.
Fredericks, A. D. American Folklore, Legends, and Tall Tales for Readers Theatre. Teacher Ideas Press, 2008b.
Fredericks, A. D. Building Fluency with Readers Theatre. Teacher Ideas Press, 2008c.
Fredericks, A. D. Mother Goose Readers Theatre for Beginning Readers. Teacher Ideas Press, 2007.
Harris, T., and R. Hodges, eds. The Literacy Dictionary: The Vocabulary of Reading and Writing. International Reading Association, 1995.
National Reading Panel. Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-Based Assessment of Scientific Research Literature on Reading and Its Implications for Reading Instruction. National Institutes of Health, 2000.
Rasinski, T. V. The Fluent Reader: Oral Reading Strategies for Building Word Recognition, Fluency, and Comprehension. Scholastic, 2003.