Strengthening Reading Skills Through Drama
by Deborah Baldwin
Teaching has its up and downs, but one of the most rewarding experiences of teaching is seeing a student’s eyes light up once some learning connects with them. I like to teach “magically” if I can. I don’t wear a wizard’s robe and pull out a magic wand —I have no idea how that is done. I mean when a student learns something when they don’t think they are doing anything but having fun. Teaching and learning become effortless and almost enchanting! I use many drama games and exercises in my classroom. I’m especially fond of Viola Spolin’s book Improvisation in the Classroom. But that’s not today’s subject…. (my right brained-ness kicked in there for a moment). Sorry.
I find that when I am teaching a concept that a student is focused upon and I am using a particular activity to demonstrate the concept, the learning becomes “like butter”—smooth, enriching, and tasty. (Okay, I do have a fondness for butter I will admit, but you get the point.)
Reading skills can be strengthened through drama. No joke! Sometimes students don’t realize when they enroll in my classes that we will read aloud in class—that’s a given. And we read A LOT. Of course we read the occasional theatre textbook chapter, but mostly we read plays. I mean, obviously we read plays, right? Also, we perform the readings, so the words become memorized easily.
Families can do this at home, too! The benefits of reading plays aloud are varied, but suffice to say that if a group gets together and reads a play, a child’s reading skills will be honed.
Oh my gosh, play dialogue is so fun to read aloud! It’s far better to read a play aloud than to read it silently. That’s because it was created to be spoken. A playwright depends upon his characters’ dialogue to tell a story. That’s the whole point. Playwrights work for months, maybe years, to find and create just the right meaning in a sentence.
Presently, I am preparing to direct a summer youth theater camp production of Tams Witmark’s Music Library version of The Wizard of Oz musical. Here is a tidbit of dialogue from the production:
They’re gone! The ruby slippers! What have you done with them?
Give them back to me, or I’ll—
It’s too late! There they are, and there they’ll stay!
Awesome, don’t you think? The dialogue is precise, rhythmical, and exciting. A playwright’s goal is to express a particular message, right? She wants the audience to continue listening to her play. Her dialogue must be excellent. There can be no excess words, very few challenging words or word pronunciations that an audience member must struggle to understand. Since theatre is live, it is essential that the play is engaging right from the first word. When one is not enjoying a book that she is reading, she can put the book down. But at a play? The confused person might just walk out of the performance. Eeek!
Young readers love to read scripts aloud once they understand the form. It’s a little daunting, you must admit. There are no markers—no “he said” or “she yelled.” In particular moments, emotions are written in for the actor to use. Generally, a playwright leaves it up to the director and actors to convey the required emotion. That’s more interesting for everyone involved. It allows the director to create her own concept of the play—sort of like painting a picture using her own thoughts about the story. That’s more interesting for everyone involved.
Usually, I read aloud the stage directions so the students can create the atmosphere or plot in their minds. The plot of a play must be very clear to understand, although surprises are always welcome. That’s what makes for excellent theatre, I think.
Once when my class of middle school students read aloud the “Tom Sawyer” play, I purposely stopped us at an exciting moment—scary Injun Joe hid behind a tree and overheard Tom and Huck discussing the big bag of money they found. Many of the students were reluctant readers. I heard groans of “Oh man, Mrs. B. can’t we continue reading?” But instead, I handed out paper and pencils and asked them to draw what they thought would occur next. I’m a tricky teacher….
In researching this article, I came upon a tremendous website--Readingrockets.org that says it much better than I can.
1. Listening to others read develops an appreciation for how a story is written and familiarity with book conventions, such as "once upon a time" and "happily ever after."
2. Reading aloud demonstrates the relationship between the printed word and meaning – children understand that print tells a story or conveys information – and invites the listener into a conversation with the author.
3. Listening to others read develops key understanding and skills. Reading aloud demonstrates the relationship between the printed word and meaning – children understand that print tells a story or conveys information – and invites the listener into a conversation with the author (Bredekamp, Copple, & Neuman, 2000).
4. Reading aloud makes complex ideas more accessible and exposes children to vocabulary and language patterns that are not part of everyday speech. It exposes less able readers to the same rich and engaging books that fluent readers read on their own and entices them to become better readers. (Fountas & Pinnell, 1996).
How does a family select the right play to read together? I’d suggest checking out a public library. They have a fountain of plays to read including many versions of classics such as Anne of Green Gables, Peter Pan, Charlotte’s Web, or Huckleberry Finn. If reading an entire play script seems overwhelming, look into reader’s theatre scripts. They are short, concise, edited well and give the “nugget” of the story. They are a great stepping off point for young readers to pique their interest, giving them a feeling of success before they tackle the complete novel.
Children's literature consultant Susie Freeman states, "If you're searching for a way to get your children reading aloud with comprehension, expression, fluency, and joy, reader's theater is a miracle. Hand out a photocopied play script, assign a part to each child, and have them simply read the script aloud and act it out. That's it. And then magic happens."
One of my favorite authors of reader’s theatre scripts is Aaron Shepherd. Check him out at http://www.aaronshep.com/rt/. He has adapted a treasure trove of stories, many multicultural, including original ones of his own. I have used a host of his scripts including Legend of Lightning Larry with an ESL drama club, The Legend of Slappy Hooper with a creative dramatics class, and the beloved Casey at the Bat with an introduction to theatre class plus various other scripts.
So, the next time on a really hot summer day your family is stuck indoors and has exhausted every other avenue of entertainment or learning, pick up a play script! I promise you a magical and great time of reading.
Deborah is a newly retired drama teacher through the Apex Home Enrichment Program in the St. Vrain Valley School District. She has taught all subjects of drama and directed over 250 youth theatre plays for nearly thirty-eight years. This summer, she’ll direct Aladdin, Kids and The Wizard of Oz. She and her husband recently moved to Kansas to be near their family. Her award winning middle grade book, Bumbling Bea can be purchased through Amazon.com. Check out her blog at: Dramamommaspeaks.wordpress.com or her website at: BumblingBea.com.