What is Readers’ Theater?

When I read Ben Slavic’s description of Jason Fritz doing Reader’s Theater, I immediately wanted to try it. All you need is a text that you have studied with your students that has dialog in it.

As CI teachers we know that for students to acquire language they need lots of repetition of familiar structures. The trick is to keep them engaged so that the repetition doesn’t become boring. Reader’s Theater is a way of “revisiting” a familiar text that makes it fun and compelling. (Thank you, Robert Harrell, for the expression “revisiting”. Love it!)

Begin by choosing a scene from a book you are reading with your students. Look for action, interaction between the characters, emotions and brief speeches. You can spice it up by preparing props, but you can also make do with your students’ imagination.

After you have read the text with your students, checked for comprehension and brought all the vocabulary in bounds, you are ready to assign roles. Each character in the scene is played by a student. Try to choose scenes where everyone has a role. If you have large classes, you might want to look for a crowd scene, or imagine characters who can speak up and give their opinion even if they are not written into the scene. A crowd shouting “Yes! Yes!” or “No! No!” can make any text dynamic.

I like to give my students papers with the scene that they can write on. First we find all the dialog and highlight it in one color. Then we look for actions and highlight them in another color. Then we look for emotions and highlight them in a third color. Some emotions may not be written into the scene and we can have an interesting discussion about how we think the characters feel, what emotions the actors should manifest. If not everyone agrees, so much the better.

Then we create the physical setting in the classroom and again this is an opportunity for more discussion. Where is the door? Where is the sofa? What objects are mentioned in the text and where are they placed?

Then we begin walking through the scene. The actors have their scripts in hand and can read their lines. A prompter comes in very handy here. The teacher is the director and you should be very exacting, making sure the actors are coordinating gestures with words, with movements around the set and with appropriate emotions. You may be tempted to let them off the hook with sloppy acting, but asking them to redo their lines is how you get the repetitions that are the real reason for doing Readers’ Theater. Keep rehearsing, line by line, until you’re satisfied with the production. Remember that it should be fun and if an actor fumbles his lines or misses a cue, you should be laughing and not scolding. When you finish, applaud their effort and congratulate them.

Once you’ve tried Readers’ Theater, I’m sure you and your students will want to do it again and again.

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