Strategies From the Dramatic Arts Can Enhance Student Engagement
When students explore content using dramatic scripts, they can make gains in reading fluency and comprehension, while having fun.
These days, many teachers struggle when their tried-and-true pedagogy, developed and refined over years of practice, doesn’t translate to distance learning. Many are embracing the disruption brought about by online learning to familiarize themselves with flexible methodologies that work well in that context, including arts integration strategies. Those that borrow from the dramatic arts, such as readers theater and teacher in role, can be particularly effective.
These engaging approaches have been around a long time, and they encourage interaction and collaboration and make content accessible for multiple levels of learners, from emerging readers through high school seniors. They can also inject a much-needed dose of fun into online lessons.
Student Engagement With Readers Theater
Readers theater includes the following elements:
- Actors/readers use scripts in presentation, and memorization is not prioritized.
- Actors/readers are stationary and do not use theatrical devices (e.g., no staging, scenery, props, lighting, or costumes).
- Nuances of the story are communicated primarily through vocal expression.
- Scripts are prepublished, widely available, and intended for repetitive use.
By following a script, students are in a constant state of decoding, and as members of an interdependent ensemble, they are responsible for following their script closely and anticipating their own speaking role, thus increasing focus and engagement.
Readers theater scripts are designed to be read and reread multiple times, making their use in the online classroom particularly beneficial for second language learners or other students working on decoding and fluency. Repetition increases retention for all student participants.
In many ways, readers theater is an ideal arts integration distance learning strategy because it’s not constrained by the trappings of a typical theater performance (props, costumes, memorization, and the like), and many students’ home learning space can become a stage.
For example, I recently worked with the teachers of rising first graders who were in virtual summer school; there were serious concerns that for these students, the last months of kindergarten had been so challenging that they were losing interest in or even regressing in reading. We created a short readers theater script that delivered content about the happy face spider (Theridion grallator, native to Hawaii). The script included a solo speaking line for each student, opportunities for gestures that physicalized their understanding and were visible from the cameras, and humor.
Over the course of several weeks, students performed the script multiple times, building retention of the content and reading fluency. A final Zoom performance demonstrated the students’ advances in their reading levels, as well as their joy and confidence in what they had learned.
The literacy benefits of readers theater are many: Students read more quickly and with greater fluency, and demonstrate greater reading comprehension. There are also indicators that students who participate show increased focus and motivation in school, a greater sense of purpose in their learning, a more positive attitude toward reading, and increased confidence—all of which translate to happier students and more joyful learning environments.
One of the greatest strengths of readers theater as an online teaching strategy is its adaptability. Chances are, no matter what you’re teaching and at what level, there’s a script available; shared online teacher resources often include scripts and templates. A quick internet search for “readers theater scripts” and a grade level will yield free resources, too. Many educational publishers also offer scripts (see this guide).
For teachers looking to take readers theater to the next level, writing their own scripts is an option. By authoring a script, a teacher can tailor a differentiated line for each student participant, crafted to meet their reading level or to include sight words. Reluctant readers can be paired with a partner to build confidence and fluency, and the content of a script can be adapted as student understanding grows. Students can also be taught to write their own scripts and thereby build their writing skills.
Educators Invite Participation by Teaching in Role
Teacher in role is a similarly engaging instructional strategy that has long been used in educational theater but is becoming mainstream. With in-role teaching, a teacher/facilitator assumes the role of a character in a story or of an expert on a given subject.
Students research a story or subject and are invited to participate in a conversation with the teacher/facilitator, asking questions born of their research. While participating in the conversation with their teacher/facilitator, students are also placed in-role as researchers, thus upping their investment in the drama.
Teachers can enhance the online learning experience by using a simple prop or costume if they like, but the primary objective is to remain faithful to their role and while in conversation with students.
An example: Eighth-grade students are immersed in a unit on the American Civil War; they assume the role of historians invited to a function where they hear a talk given by Gertie, Harriet Tubman’s adopted daughter, played by the teacher. She shares a firsthand account of her mother’s life, and the historians ask her questions.
When you deliver instruction in a novel way, as with readers theater and teaching in role, students can become more engaged and experience an esprit de corps: Likely they will be proud that they collaborated to understand an idea or concept through the entertaining conversation, dialogue, and interviewing.
As with most new skills, the more you live with these integration strategies, the more a part of you they become. In the end, whether you decide to try readers theater or teaching in role, the goals are the same: catching the attention of your online learners and making your life as a teacher more joyful.