When it comes to preparing courses and lessons, we all know we need to provide learners with a healthy diet of nutritious classroom activities that promote practice, improvement, and achievement.
In this sense, Readers Theater (RT) is a superfood, an activity chock full of nutrients that every learner needs, including Vitamin R (which supports reading fluency) and Vitamin V (for a healthy vocabulary), while providing differentiated learning opportunities for students of varying abilities.
But RT is also a great source of P-Complex vitamins that support improvement in pronunciation, and in the video excerpts I present below, we’ll see how RT supports those oh-so-important suprasegmental skills: stress, vowel reduction, rhythm, linking, and intonation.
What Is Readers Theater?
It’s worth noting that RT is an authentic social activity. That’s right: People do this for fun, much in the way you might sing in a community choir or participate in community theater.
When brought into the ESL/EFL classroom, RT provides every learner with something that they need: reading fluency for one, vocabulary development for another, schemata for all.
Unlike conventional theater, RT participants do not aim to memorize lines or parts; rather, they practice and deliver the written script while holding their scripts formally in one or both hands, much in the way singers in a chorus might. Also unlike regular theater, RT takes place without the use of sets, staging or props, relying solely on the participants’ voices to convey the message or story.
A Taste of Readers Theater…
A few years back, I had the pleasure of teaching a 15-week-long ESL Readers Theater course for adult ESL students. We met each Friday for 3 hours, and the course was open to all levels. Drama games and vocal warm-ups served as appetizers, with RT as the main dish each day.
We nibbled on Shel Silverstein poems for the first few weeks, noticing rhythm and rhyme and enjoying the humor. We then settled in on Chicka Chicka 1-2-3 (Martin & Sampson, 2004), a rhythm-rich children’s story written, in my opinion, for inspired adult reading. Conveniently, the story’s main characters are the numbers one through twenty, and as I had about 20 students, it wasn’t hard to divide the text into lines that became our script.
In the video below, a small group of students work with the script to produce the rhythm of the story. Notice the student on the left: a native speaker of Japanese, she is exploring the stress-timed rhythm of English, nodding her head so that she can literally feel the rhythm.
In all, we spent about 8 weeks preparing this script. Practice and preparation took the form of bite-size activities that we layered upon one another in various parts of the script:
- Highlighting content words:
- nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and negatives
- Drawing a line through function words
- articles, prepositions, pronouns, and modal verbs
- Marking the stress in content words and phrases
- numbers, apple tree, a free for all
- Categorizing the peak vowel sound in stressed words using the Color Vowel Chart (Taylor & Thomson, 1999)
- numbers = a CUP of MUSTARD, apple tree = BLACK CAT, a free for all = GREEN TEA
- Drawing intonation contours at each important turn in the story
- Rising intonation to indicate that the phrase will continue, falling intonation at the end of each sentence.
At the end of the semester, the feast was ready: we invited classmates, ESL volunteers, and family members to watch students demonstrate their favorite drama games and perform Chicka Chicka 1-2-3, excerpted here:
“A spoon full of RT helps the medicine go down…”
Mary Poppins may have invested her faith in sugar, but students in my course agreed that gaining confidence in their oral skills had everything to do with the complex nutrients found in RT, and that the activities we used as learning routines were in fact delicious. Have you tried RT? Share your experiences and insights in the Comments section below.
Steps for Getting Started
- Watch my 2013 webinar: “An introduction to Readers Theater for EFL classrooms,” which includes examples of my pronunciation mark-up activities as well as video examples of RT from around the world.
- Read this detailed article by Kristina Robertson (2009) on using RT with young English learners. It includes several video examples as well.
- Browse this extensive inventory of free, ready-to-go Readers Theater scripts collected by Dr. Chase Young.
- If you’re looking for good research, read Ann Daly’s 2009 study, Teaching Prosody through Readers Theatre (PDF). It’s a wonderful read that inspires.
- For more, browse my collection of RT links on delicious.com
Daly, A. (2009). “Teaching prosody through readers theatre“: A capstone project submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in English as a Second Language. Hamline University, St. Paul Minnesota.
Martin, B., & Sampson, M. (2004). Chicka chicka 1-2-3. Simon & Schuster Books.
Robertson, K. (2009). Reader’s theater: Oral language enrichment and literacy development for ELLs. Retrieved from http://www.colorincolorado.org/article/30104/.
Taylor, K., & Thompson, S. (1999, 2015). The color vowel chart. Santa Fe NM: English Language Training Solutions. Retrieved from http://colorvowelchart.org.