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Reader’s Theater for Reading Improvement

Cindy McPhail describes how she helped a class of bilingual sixth graders significantly improve their reading comprehension and become more willing to speak in front of the class. SeeAyanna Cooper's References & Resources review of Reading A-Z, Essential Teacher, September 2008.

Reading aloud in class is often quite stressful for students, especially those who aren't given an opportunity to preread the passages. Peers may pay attention, but perhaps only to be able to catch the reader's errors and correct them. As a result, readers pay much more attention to the correct calling out of words rather than whether the reader is reading with expression. In my experience, this careful sounding out is accompanied by a monotonous tone, a lack of attention to sentence phrasing and punctuation, and little sense of meaning. "Children who are not fluent read either in a word-by-word manner or by grouping words in ways that deviate from the phrasing that occurs naturally in oral language" (Morrow, Gambrell, & Pressley, 2003, p. 131). Oral reading becomes an onerous task for English language learners, one that is more likely to elicit groans than excitement. This need not be the case.

Oral reading success is often measured by reading rate (Rasinski, 2001), but speed is not the answer. Many students can successfully say words, but have little comprehension (Carrasquillo & Rodriguez, 1996). Placing an emphasis on expressive reading can make all the difference. To read with expression, a student must be able to accurately interpret an author's meaning. A great place to start is by using dialogues found in authentic literature.

Planning for Improvement

I recently had an opportunity to implement a modified reader's theater strategy with a class of bilingual sixth graders for 11 weeks. The average reading level for the class was mid third grade. Rather than using preconstructed scripts devoid of the writing conventions of narrative texts, instruction started with overhead projector displays of dialogues that had been photocopied from a book that the class was reading: Time Warp Trio: Knights of the Kitchen Table (Scieszka, 1991; this technique was later applied to books by Mohr, 1979, and Sachar, 1998). As a whole group, we read through the dialogue, circling quotation marks and highlighting the words that were spoken by each character. This was done in an effort to answer the question: How do we know who the speakers are and what they are saying?

Next, the class was divided into small groups. I narrated all portions of the text that weren't spoken by a character. Like an orchestra conductor, I then signaled to the groups to start reading aloud, with each group reading portions of the text associated with a particular character. The opportunity to preread the passages and the choral reading provided a safety net for reluctant readers. It also proved that we needed an answer to the question: When we read aloud together, what are some ways to help us stay together? This naturally led to the need to pay attention to punctuation and phrasing in order to have the groups appropriately start, stop, and pause while reading aloud together.

We then worked on responding to another question: What are some clues that the author gives us for how to use our voices when we read aloud? Drama exercises helped illustrate how the use of tone, volume, stress, and rate of speech can change depending on situational context. Students then highlighted punctuation marks (e.g., exclamation points, question marks) and italics while focusing on the context so that they could determine appropriate expression when reading passages aloud.

Eventually, the class was divided into smaller ensemble groups in which each student individually read the dialogue for a particular character in an assigned passage of the text. Students underlined their own character's speech and analyzed how they would read the words aloud. They used context and writing conventions to identify the speakers in a text and found that a speaker might utter more than one sentence in a paragraph. Students needed to use inference and careful analysis to determine who was speaking and how the speech might sound.

From Choral to Individual

By the end of the 11 weeks, students had moved from whole-group choral readings, to small-group readings, and finally to independently reading self-selected passages from the texts. Over the course of the instruction, they received feedback in a variety of ways. Small-group and individual readings were recorded and played back so that students could hear themselves. They were encouraged to perform their readings for their classmates, who would then provide positive feedback, noting which sections were particularly well read and why. This positive critique provided an excellent feedback loop for students with both modeling and analysis of what constituted effective, expressive reading.

Making a Difference

To determine whether the instruction made a difference, before and after recordings were made of students' oral readings. The readings were rated using rubrics modified from those by Zutell and Rasinski (1991). The modified rubrics assessed phrasing/smoothness and expression, with scores ranging from 1 to 7. The ratings significantly improved from the earlier to the later readings.

Students' reading comprehension was assessed in a pre- and poststudy manner via Developmental Reading Assessments 4-8 (DRAs) that were routinely administered three times a year at the school. The DRA calculates a holistic score indicating the grade level of a student's reading abilities. Not only was the growth in students' scores significant (15.59 points, which is an improvement of approximately a grade and a half in reading levels), the growth was significantly higher than the same teacher's class from the previous year. Both groups had been comparatively the same at the start of the school year. But the previous class had increased by 8.4 points (or approximately four-fifths of one year's reading level), which was significantly less than this year's growth. The classroom teacher laughingly told the story of how the principal called her down to his office to ask, "What did you do?" She told him that she attributed the difference to the focused attention on expressive reading.

Curiously, the reading rate (as defined in its simplest form: speed) did not change over time. This leads to the conclusion that educators should be cautious about interpreting reading rate as an indicator of meaningfully fluent reading. Rather than focusing on speed, placing emphasis on making reading an expressive, dynamic, and socially interactive experience leads to more meaningful interpretations of text, which in turn encourages greater comprehension.

Perhaps the most meaningful result from implementing the modified reader's theater technique was the students' willingness to speak in front of the class. The classroom teacher indicated that at the start of the year the group had been particularly quiet and reluctant to speak, especially in front of a group. But after their positive experiences with the modified reader's theater technique, laughter and applause welcomed students to try out their newfound voices.


Carrasquillo, A., & Rodriguez, V. (1996). Language minority students in the mainstream classroom. Philadelphia: Multilingual Matters.

Mohr, N. (1979). Felita. New York: Penguin.

Morrow, L., Gambrell, L., & Pressley, M. (2003). Best practices in literacy instruction (2nd ed.). New York: Guilford Press.

Rasinski, T. (2001). From phonics to fluency: Effective teaching of decoding and reading fluency in the elementary school. New York: Longman.

Sachar, L. (1998). Holes. New York: Yearling.

Scieszka, J. (1991). Time warp trio: Knights of the kitchen table. New York: Penguin.

Zutell, J., & Rasinski, T. V. (1991). Training teachers to attend to their students’ oral reading fluency. Theory Into Practice, 30, 211–217.

Cindy McPhail ( is an associate professor and chair of the Language, Literacy, and Technology Department at Nazareth College, in Rochester, New York, in the United States.