From Children’s Literature to Readers Theatre
Five 2nd-graders stand before a group of 20 preschool children sitting on the rug in the library’s story area. Each of them is holding a hardback copy of Eric Rohmann’s picture book A Kitten Tale (Knopf, 2008).
After the name and author of the book have been announced, the children begin to read:
(Nar): Once there were four kittens who had never seen snow.
(1st Kitten): “Snow scares me!”
(Nar): Said the first kitten.
(1st Kitten): “When winter comes, the snow will fall and fall and we’ll all be cold!”
(2nd Kitten): “Freezing cold!”
(Nar): Said the second kitten.
(3rd Kitten): “Cold to the tips of our tails!”
(Nar): Said the third kitten. The fourth kitten said,
(4th Kitten): “I can’t wait.”
The 2nd-graders continue through the book, reading their designated parts. When the readers finish, they bow and sit down on the rug. The preschoolers clap enthusiastically and rush to the older children, wanting to see the pictures in the books they hold. The teachers and librarian, used to channeling the children’s energy and curiosity, quickly organize the children into five small groups, with a 2nd-grader in each. The 2nd-graders agree to read the books with the children as they look at the pictures and discuss the story.
Comments like: ”Oh, the fourth kitten is striped like my cat at home”; “I love it when it snows”; “I was afraid to swim in the ocean until my mother went in with me last summer”; and “We have new kittens at our house!” fill the room. Several preschoolers pretend to be kittens, and soon one group is acting out A Kitten Tale. They particularly love shouting, “I can’t wait,” and pretending to roll in the snow.
In this room abuzz with literature-inspired conversation and dramatic play, the librarian and teachers look at one another and smile. The Readers Theatre performance has clearly been a success. The preschoolers’ energetic response to the initial reading and their subsequent interest in hearing the book read repeatedly, drawing pictures of the four kittens, and eventually putting on A Kitten Tale puppet show all speak to the power of hearing older children give a Readers Theatre performance.
But the preschool audience members are not the only ones to benefit from the performance. The 2nd-graders, who participated in the project from inception to execution, experienced a variety of personal, social, and intellectual gains. They had fun working together to prepare the performance, and they had fun reading to and interacting with the preschoolers. They developed literary appreciation for a masterfully written and illustrated picture book. They improved their reading fluency and public speaking skills. And, in addition to experiencing the satisfaction that comes from helping others, they felt increased self-confidence by virtue of doing something well.
But all these benefits did not occur without a lot of hard work by the readers who volunteered for the project and the adults who want to help children develop a love for literature. The adults in this scenario care deeply about nurturing and empowering children. Helping children create a Readers Theatre in the library is one way to accomplish these goals.
As the opening scenario demonstrates, Readers Theatre is a staged reading of literature that emphasizes the importance of text by using limited action, suggested characterization, no costumes, and no props. Sometimes called minimalist theatre, it is a dramatic form, originally developed for performing in theatrical settings, in which participants read from scripts taken directly from a literary work.
Educators have embraced this dramatic form for its myriad educational benefits and adapted it for a variety of purposes. Many teachers and reading specialists, who regard it as a tool for teaching reading skills, have students read from prefabricated scripts. This activity is widely lauded as an effective means for increasing reading fluency as students practice reading aloud with others for the sake of a performance. It can also familiarize students with a literary text and deepen their comprehension of the text because successful reading aloud generally involves understanding what one is reading. It follows that understanding what is being read can lead to reading expressively. Educators with these goals in mind frequently rely upon the array of commercially produced scripts available to them.
Language arts teachers may have additional reasons for using Readers Theatre in libraries and classrooms. They may seek to deepen students’ literary experience with a book, encourage language appreciation, provide a means for sharing books read in small groups, or offer an option for a group response to a book. These educators achieve their goals by encouraging students to create their own Readers Theatre scripts.
Creativity enhances learning
While my approach to Readers Theatre encompasses the goals of both reading and language arts teachers, it stresses the use of reader-created scripts. When readers create and perform their own scripts, they not only improve their reading skills but also enhance their literary appreciation, thereby increasing their chances for developing a love of literature and becoming lifelong readers. I base this statement on John Dewey’s philosophy of experiential education, Louise Rosenblatt’s theory of reader response, and my 30-plus years’ experience as an educator.
As Dewey observed in Experience and Education (Macmillan, 1938), learning takes place most profoundly when children are involved in the creation of the learning experience. In our opening scenario, the children were highly involved in all stages of their Readers Theater production. They first volunteered to be part of the project. Then they spent several afternoons perusing a stack of picture books suggested by the librarian. They talked with the preschool teachers about what the children might enjoy. After conferring with one another, they selected the book they wanted to use.
The next step was to prepare the script. They read and reread the story. Because there were six of them, the children decided that four would be the kittens, one would be the narrator (a term the librarian supplied for the person who would say everything the kittens didn’t), and one would be the director (another term supplied by the librarian when the children quickly recognized that someone needed to be in charge). At the librarian’s urging, they discussed whether the words told the story without the pictures. After deciding they did in all but one instance, the children collaborated to compose the additional words to insert into the script. The librarian helped the director type the script on the computer, with reading roles labeled A, B, C, D, E. They glued each reader’s parts to large sticky notes, which they stuck over the original text on the appropriate pages of the books.
The director assigned parts, and the practicing began. The group rehearsed several afternoons until each member felt confident reading his or her part. During the practices, they discussed the kittens’ different personalities and how this might affect the way their words were read. They practiced reading expressively, using consistent voices for each character. The librarian suggested a bit of work on rhythm and pacing.
The performance was a success, and it inspired the preschoolers to become involved in their own learning and love of books. The possible gains for the 2nd-graders are numerous. Certainly they improved their reading skills, but they went beyond that to increase their understanding of and appreciation for literature. Their work selecting the text meant they had to read many books closely and choose one suited for the audience. This required careful consideration of the books’ subject matter and use of language.
Writing the script, in this situation, did not necessitate making many changes. There was only one place where they had to imitate the writer’s style to invent a line for the narrator to read when the text did not explain that the fourth kitten leaped out into the snow while the other kittens hid in the house. They did, however, come away with an important understanding concerning the relationship between illustrations and text in picture books. They also learned the term narrator and how this literary device functions in literature. They gained a sense of characterization as they delved into the personalities of the four kittens. In addition, they experienced firsthand the exhilarating effect sharing a good book can have on a group of listeners. In one way or another, each of the children involved in this project had a rich, satisfying experience with a literary text.
In her book Literature as Exploration (Appleton-Century, 1938), Louise Rosenblatt built on Dewey’s philosophy of experiential education, which deals with learning in general, to develop a theory of reader response primarily concerned with the nature of literary experiences. According to Rosenblatt, every literary experience involves a reader who comes to the printed word, or the text, with a unique set of characteristics, or experiences, which creates a transaction resulting in the reader’s evocation of meaning from the text. Because we are all individuals, each reader’s response to a text is unique, its meaning special to him or her.
In the case of A Kitten Tale, several readers had different interpretations of the kittens’ personalities, and that interpretation influenced how he or she thought a particular kitten’s lines should be read. Different interpretations were respected, even celebrated, but group negotiations were needed to ensure the integrity of the performance. The children decided that each reader could read his or her kitten’s lines the way he or she wanted as long as the voice was consistent and the kittens sounded different from one another. Negotiations such as these are an important part of learning to express one’s response to a literary work, developing necessary collaboration skills, and understanding the process of creating a successful Readers Theatre experience. The audience’s responses were also considered as the 2nd-graders talked with the preschoolers about how the book related to them and the teachers nurtured their desire to act out, draw, and perform their own responses to the story.
As a teacher educator and children’s/young adult literature specialist, I advocate using this child-centered approach to Readers Theatre as a pleasurable way of sharing stories that also has a wealth of secondary benefits. I used it for many years in my university-level children’s literature, young adult literature, and teaching methods courses. My hope is that when pre-service teachers and librarians actually participate in a Readers Theatre experience, they will be more likely to use this activity in their own classrooms and libraries. It has been my pleasure to observe numerous reader-created Readers Theatre performances given by students of all educational levels in a variety of venues, both inside and outside of school settings. I have also had students and adults give Readers Theatre demonstrations in conjunction with sessions I have conducted on the topic at professional conferences.
For the past eight years, I have been working with groups of children’s authors giving Readers Theatre performances at professional conferences. I have organized Readers Theatre sessions at national conferences in Florida, Nevada, Texas, Illinois, Washington, D.C., and California, as well as at international conferences in South Africa, Denmark, New Zealand, and Spain. Since I believe the library to be a perfect setting for children and teens to encounter Readers Theatre, whether as reading participants or audience members, the sessions at ALA Annual Conferences in Washington, D.C., and Anaheim, California, were particularly rewarding to me because the librarians seemed deeply interested in organizing opportunities for children and teens to create Readers Theatre experiences in their libraries.
For the past eight years, children’s and young adult literature consultant Elizabeth A. Poe has organized Readers Theatre performances with authors at professional conferences across the U.S. and around the world. This article is excerpted from her book From Children’s Literature to Readers Theatre, to be published this fall by ALA Editions.