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The Drama - Reading Connection
by Mitzi Geffen


In previous "Rag" articles, I have advocated using drama activities in class to improve oral fluency and for testing, but perhaps the most important and convincing argument for using drama, specifically, practicing a script for performance, is because of the magic it works on reading fluency. In this article, I will consider the three reasons why participating in a play improves reading on all levels, and suggest a plan for preparing a simple class production.

1. Rereading improves reading fluency -

As teachers, we all devote a lot of energy and class time to teaching reading comprehension strategies: skimming, scanning, finding the main idea, etc. However, unless the student can not only decode each word, but also read at a fluent enough pace to get meaning out of each sentence, these strategies will remain out of his reach. Fluency depends not only on speed, but also on dividing the text into meaningful groupings of words ("chunking" the text). The reader must understand that "the big, fat, black cat" is one creature, and that "eating pizza" is one activity. He/she must feel the rhythm of the sentence in order to understand it. He/she must know where to pause and which words to emphasize. The question is, what is the most effective way to achieve this fluency?

Judging from the lesson plans and teachers' guides of textbooks that I've seen, many teachers subscribe to the philosophy that the more the student reads, the better reader he will become. Though there is often a skimming or scanning activity before reading the text from start to finish, I have rarely seen the students given a reason for actually reading the same text more than once. It is true that as students learn more vocabulary and are exposed to more and more texts, their ability to comprehend a new passage generally improves. However, it is also true that many students never reach a comfortable level of fluency so as to advance beyond the decoding stage and reach the "chunking" stage. Much research has shown that practiced or repeated reading is very effective in improving reading fluency. The problem, of course, is that once the student has read the passage, however inexpertly, he/she has little or no motivation for reading it again.

Here is where drama comes to the rescue. Having the performance as a goal is the happy reason for investing time in practicing to read the sentences until they are read with the fluency of a native speaker. In the past twenty years of working with groups of students on scripts in English, the willingness of even the very weakest students to spend hours practicing reading a part in a play has never ceased to amaze me. Students will read a sentence aloud again and again until they finally "get it right", experiencing great satisfaction in the accomplishment. Once they have that taste of fluency, it greatly affects how they approach the next line.

A simple thing like learning to say "the same color" instead of "the…same….color" (slightly raising the voice at the end of each word), made a difference in how one student read every "the adjective noun" phrase after that. Similarly, learning to read with dramatic expression affected the way students related to commas and periods in texts that they approached after having worked on their parts until their expression added meaning to their words.

2. Drama experience changes "I can't read" to "I can read!"

Over the years of producing plays with students, there have always been those who wanted to be in the play, but wanted me to know from the outset that they couldn't read. After so much failure, they weren't prepared to try to learn to read, they "just want(ed) a part in the play". At first I would argue that of course they could read, or they could learn to read, only to be met with their insistence that it was impossible. Finally, I learned to say, "OK, I've written that down. You can't read. That's OK. I just need you to recognize these words" - or "be able to say these words when you see them" etc. The students would then happily spend time with me learning each word as a sight word, making flashcards and reconstructing the sentence, reading it again and again until it sounded natural. I know that doing that didn't teach them how to read in general, but it broke the cycle of "I can't", failure, "See, I can't".

3. Drama motivates to read

Try this experiment: Without giving any instruction, hand out a script of a play to the students in your class and watch what happens. If your students are anything like the students in my school, they will immediately start trying to read it aloud, and possibly alternate lines with the person sitting next to them. They recognize the format of a script, they are natural hams and they love to play. The format of a script is also less threatening than a narrative or an article, since the lines are generally much shorter than a typical paragraph in any other kind of text.

Every positive, successful reading experience contributes to higher motivation when approaching the next reading assignment. When reluctant readers see that reading can be entertaining, and not overly difficult, they may indeed change their attitude toward reading.

How to do it -

If you have no experience in producing any kind of play, you may want to start small. One way of doing this is to divide the class into groups of 5 or 6 students and give each group a short script of fairly evenly divided parts. Alternatively, the entire class could work on the same script, divided into five or six scenes. Each group is given a scene to prepare. One very good source of scripts for this type of project is http://www.aaronshep.com/rt/RTE.html, a site devoted to "Readers' Theater". At this site there are free scripts, which take about 10 minutes to perform. These scripts are meant to be performed by dramatic reading in front of an audience (the class, or possibly a parent's night or another class), but you can choose to have your students learn parts by heart and have only the narrators read. Minimal costuming or props can dress up the performance, but are not crucial.

After you hand out a script to each group, invite the students to read the script aloud enough times so that each person has a chance to try each part, before deciding which part he/she will actually perform. The students help each other to understand the words. Additional resources are a dictionary provided to each group and the teacher circulating to help.

As the students work through this stage of the process, the teacher sits with each group briefly to make sure they understand the plot of their script. In my experience, two or three lessons are enough to give everyone a chance to try each part and for the teacher to meet with each group once.

At this point the students should choose parts. If necessary a part can be divided between two students, or actors can read sections of the narrator's part. Flexibility is the key. Once the students have chosen parts, they should take the scripts home and practice reading their parts. I usually devote 3 or 4 more lessons to practicing in groups and sometimes one additional lesson to creating a few props or signs to dress up the performance. During the practicing sessions, I circulate and help the students to improve their expression when reading their lines. Investing more time in rehearsals pays off in a more polished performance and a bigger boost to reading fluency.

Finally, it's time for the performance. Even if the skits are to be performed only for the class, I find that it is very nice to invite an additional guest or two - e.g. the class teacher, the principal, or another staff member. This motivates the students to take their performance more seriously and the class audience to behave more like a proper audience.

The benefits of occasionally doing this kind of project are impressive and long lasting. For every level of English student, participating in a play which requires practicing a script is a great boost to reading fluency. When the play is a bit above the level of English being learned in the textbook, an added benefit is the greatly expanded vocabulary bank and examples of grammar structures the participants acquire.

More information about Readers' Theater and its effectiveness can be found at these sites:

http://www.dpi.state.nc.us/schoolimprovement/effective/briefs/readerstheater

http://teachersnetwork.org/tnli/research/achieve/caluris.htm

http://www.readingrockets.org/article/39

http://teacher.scholastic.com/products/instructor/readerstheater.htm

A plan and tips for putting on a larger, longer production can be found at this URL:

http://www.etni.org.il/etai/pics/mitzi1.rtf

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