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Effectiveness of Reader’s Theatre to Enhance Reading Fluency with Comprehension and Motivation towards Reading for the Struggling Readers

Reading skill, Image source: Picpedia
Reading skill, Image source: Picpedia
Fharia Tilat Loba
Written by Fharia Tilat Loba

Enhancing reading fluency is one of the major challenges in literacy arena for the struggling readers and ability to read fluently with accurate comprehension is one of the most important skills a child can acquire (Gummere, 2004).

Besides fluency, two of the other problems usually are a lack of comprehension and reading motivation (Rasinski, 2000). However, 90% chance that a poor reader at the end of grade 1 will continue to be a poor reader at the end of grade 5, in addition to if children cannot read well, they fall behind in everything else and they usually develop negative attitudes about reading and school (Jhingran, 2011). Students who struggle with reading over several years often develop such a strong resistance to reading that even under most favourable conditions, voluntary reading is the last activities in which they choose to engage (Quandt & Selznick, 1984 in Worthy, Patterson, Salas, Prater & Turner, 2002, p. 180).

Therefore, it is important to implement an effective instructional strategy which may enhance reading fluency with comprehension and motivation towards reading of struggling readers. Teachers need to use such instructional strategy that will make a difference in their students reading development. The focus of this literature review is to study the effectiveness of reader’s theatre in enhancing reading fluency with comprehension of struggling readers and their motivation towards reading.

This literature review is divided into following manners. First, oral reading fluency is defined and its importance in reading is argued. Second, the connection between oral reading fluency and comprehension is considered basing on various research studies.  Third, it describes what reader’s theatre is. Then the literature review focuses on the theories behind reader’s theatre and some empirical researches that support this instructional strategy. After that it looks into, how reader’s theatre contributes to enhance reading fluency with comprehension and how reader’s theatre keeps impact on motivation towards reading of struggling readers. Next the effectiveness of reader’s theatre from teachers’ perspective is discussed. Finally, the implication in different context (in regular schools of developing country like Bangladesh), generalization issue and further research area on reader’s theatre are argued.

Reading fluency and its importance in reading

Kuhn, Schwanenflugel and Meisinger (2010) have stated that many literacy educators (e.g., Rasinski, Blachowicz, & Lems, 2006; Samuels & Farstrup, 2006) consider fluency to be a critical component of reading development. Automatic word recognition is central to the construct of fluency and fluency’s role in the comprehension of text (Samuels, 2006). Thus when considering mature and fluent readers, it is likely that they have strong decoding skill and they do not have to labour over individual words, the way a beginning or struggling reader does (Gummere, 2004). Moreover, lack of fluency is characterized by slow, halting pace, frequent mistakes, poor phrasing and inadequate expression (Samuels, 2004 in Carrick, 2006, p. 209). According to Kuhn et al (2010), fluency is defined as combination of accuracy, automaticity, and oral reading prosody, which, taken together, facilitate the reader’s construction of meaning.

As per theory of automaticity (Samuels, 1994), readers who struggle with their word recognition skill may lack ‘automaticity’ that is used to describe those processes which require little conscious attention. Accordingly, if one wants to become a competent reader, word recognition is one process that needs to become automatic (Gummere, 2004). So, such instructional strategy is required for enhancing reading fluency which will help the students to develop the skill of ‘automaticity’.

Connection between reading fluency and comprehension

Tyler and Chard (2000) have stated that some (e.g., Anderson, Wilkinson & Mason, 1991; Hoffman, & Isaacs, 1991) told that fluency is the result of good comprehension and other researchers (e.g., Deno, 1985; Reutzel & Hollingsworth, 1993; Stayter & Allington, 1991) counter that increasing fluency leads to deeper comprehension (p. 164). Rizopoulos (2004), states that some researchers (Armbruster, Lehr, & Osborne, 2001; NAEP Study, 2000; Chall, 1983) found that fluent reading is highly correlated with measures of reading comprehension (p. 25). Strecker, Roser and Martinez (1998) also agreed that there is undoubtedly a reciprocal relationship between reading fluency and reading comprehension. The empirical study of Fuchs, Fuchs, Hosp and Jenkins (2001), indicates strong relationships between oral reading fluency and performance on more traditional measures of reading comprehension. Thus the relation between reading fluency and reading comprehension is evident.

Reader’s theatre

Readers theatre is considered as one of the best evidence based practices for enhancing reading fluency, with sight word recognition and proper expression as according to Worthy and Prater (2002 in Garrett & O’Connor, 2010, p. 7), Reader’s theatre is an instructional method that connects quality literature, oral reading, drama and several research – based practices. In addition, readers’ theatre is an instructional strategy that utilizes students’ thoughts and actions fully in selecting the text as well as in developing and performing the script (Allington, 2001). It is different from traditional theatres and conventional plays as the readers (or performers) do not have to memorize lines but read directly from the scripts, costumes, scenery, props are rarely used and it can take place in any setting (Moran, 2006, p. 318). Readers use their voices, facial expressions and bodies to interpret the emotions feelings and attitude. There remains a narrator, who “paints a picture” by communicating the story setting and action and provides the commentary necessary for transition between scenes (Carrick, 2001).

Theories and researches supporting reader’s theatre

Theory of automaticity (Samuels, 1979), prosodic cuing (Schreiber, 1980), transactional theory (Rosenblatt, 1978), multiple intelligences (Gardener, 1993) and cooperative learning (Johnson & Johnson, 1985; Slavin, 1987) – all these theories and paradigms support reader’s theatre approach (Carrick, 2006, p. 211). Vygotsky’s (1978) socio cultural theory states that student construct their knowledge from interaction with other students in social context. As Readers theatre provides immense opportunity for effective interaction with the peers while practicing the script and performing the text. Gardener’s (1993) theory of multiple intelligences also supports reader’s theatre approach as the theory encourages to support each student’s multiple intelligences. By using reader’s theatre scripts, teachers encourage students to read with expression and to practice important fluency attributes, such as pausing, inflection, and intonation (Rizopoulos, 2004, p. 27). As it plays an important role to read with proper expression, pausing and intonation, theory of prosodic cuing (Schreiber, 1980 in Carrick, 2006) supports Readers theatre strategy.

Numerous observational claims have supported the value of reader’s theatre, an interpretive activity in which students repeatedly read a script as a vehicle for oral reading practice (Keehn, 2003, p. 43). Martinez, Roser and Strecker’s study (1999) in second grade classrooms provided empirical evidence that reader’s theatre promotes gains in oral reading fluency, as well as growth in overall reading proficiency. Another study (Corcoran & Davis, 2005, p. 110) on second and third grade students of diverse skill levels has revealed that reader’s theatre program has positive impact on reading attitudes and confidence level of second third grade students. Millin and Rinehart (1999) also reported the benefits of reader’s theatre for Title I students and found that readers theatre participants exhibit a positive change in attitude toward reading and their own confidence as readers. Other studies also demonstrate positive effects of readers’ theatre on fluency, comprehension, attitude toward reading and appreciation of literature when used in whole-class and/ or small group instruction (Carrick, 2000; Maberry, 1975, Millin, 1996 cited in Carrick, 2006, p. 211).

Effectiveness of reader’s theatre to enhance fluency and comprehension of struggling readers

Different conceptions about reading fluency have led to experiment with different instructional practices to promote fluency (Keehn, 2003, p. 42).Readers theatre’s combination of text and performance maximizes its potential for developing fluency, appropriate use of intonation, stress and pauses to group words into phrases that reflex the author’s syntax and are expressive of the feeling, tone or characterization of the text (National Centre for Education Statistics, 1996).

Fluency is assessed through reading aloud and requires the combination of sight word recognition, comprehension and verbal expression; and these all are prerequisites for effective reader’s theatre presentation (Moran, 2006, p. 318). Fluency is associated with reader’s theatre participation (Millin & Rinehart, 1999) as reader’s theatre demands practice and practice requires repeated readings. Rereading increases rate, accuracy and comprehension (Rinehart, 1999; Tyler, & Chard, 2000; Worthy & Prater, 2002; Moran, 2006).

Once fluency is mastered, students can focus on making connections with the text and their background knowledge instead of exerting cognitive energy on decoding (Rizopoulos, 2004, p. 23). Furthermore, many other studies revealed that students achieve considerable gains in comprehension when using a repeated reading procedure (Chomsky, 1976; LaBerge, & Samuels 1974; O’Shea, Sindelar & O’Shea, 1985 cited in Carrick, 2006). Carrick (2001), studied the effectiveness of reader’s theatre on fluency and comprehension as whole class interaction with fifth grade students in regular education classroom and when compared with the group using traditional method of reading instruction, reader’s theatre group showed higher gains in fluency, including reading rate and comprehension. Same result was found by Millin (1996) when readers theatre approach applied into small – group instruction in a pull out program with second graders. Moreover, in readers theatre readers learned to respond each other not only as actor to actor but also character to character, with a spontaneous response (Wolf, 1993, p. 544) that helps the students to communicate with others with proper expression and intonation.

The teachers can involve students from diverse skill levels because children read different part within a script and roles can be assigned based on both reading skill level and interest (Moran, 2006). Tanner (1993 cited in Garrett & O’Connor, 2010, p. 8) illustrated that the flexibility of reader’s theatre allows it to be used with a variety of learners with varying levels of reading ability. Not only that, it enhance fluency by engaging students with repeated interactions with each other as well as with the text. Thus readers theatre provides an avenue for meeting the learning and social needs of students in special education, in addition to their specific literacy needs (Garrett & O’Connor, 2010, p. 7). It is an interactive process in which students are actively involved in responding to and interpreting literature. It reinforces the social nature of reading, provides an occasion for students to work together in a cooperative learning environment and enhances students’ ability to understand and transform text. Thus, the effectiveness of readers theatre on developing comprehension skill for struggling readers is evident through numerous researches.

Effectiveness of reader’s theatre as a motivational instructional strategy

Research studies on building students’ reading motivation are often grounded firmly in Vygotsky’s social constructivist theory (1978). Vygotsky believed that cognitive development mostly depends on social interaction. Worthy et al (2002) emphasized Vygotsky’s beliefs in the value of social interaction in developing motivation, highlighting that students’ interactions with others influence students’ reading motivation and interest in pleasure reading.

Struggling readers at all levels need highly motivating opportunities to engage in reading on a daily basis. Reader’s theatre motivates even struggling and reluctant readers to reread a text (Moran, 2006, p. 318). According to Worthy and Prater (2002), it is an inherently meaningful, purposeful vehicle for repeated reading. Reader’s theatre scripts are play-like scripts that provide practice in oral reading, fluent delivery and correct expression through characterization (Rizopoulos, 2004, p. 27). When children know that they are going to perform readers theatre, the desire to put on a great performance is more intrinsically motivating than simply requiring that a story be reread a prescribed number of times (Moran, 2006, p. 319).

Prescott (2003 cited in Garrett & O’Connor, 2010, p. 8) reported that reader’s theatre provides a legitimate reason to reread a text and practice fluency. Rinehart (1999) also agreed that it gives authentic grounds to repeated reading of text. It is appealing to children for a number of reasons, since they are carried out in a cooperative format with peers, the student does not feel isolated and alone as he or she read (Tyler & Chard, 2000). Even struggling and resistant readers eagerly practice for reader’s theatre performance, reading and rereading scripts numerous times (Worthy & Prater, 2002). Furthermore, children who participate in reader’s theatre are more likely to associate practice with good reading and be motivated to practice consistently (Millin & Rinehart, 1999). Thus, Readers Theatre can be a viable and effective means of motivating children to read a text several times and thereby reap the proven benefits of the repeated reading strategy (Tyler & Chard, 2000).

Effectiveness of reader’s theatre apart from teachers’ perspective

Now a days, a class teacher needs to do a lot of thing within a very limited time. The need to meet district, state, and federal standards for all students is coupled with the pressure of maximizing the quality teaching time (Garrett & O’ Connor, 2010, p. 8). Classroom teachers are faced with the challenge of “finding time” in the daily schedule to teach all subjects (Carrick, 2006, p. 210). So, it has become very difficult to provide individual instruction to students on a regular basis to enhance reading fluency who are struggling readers.  In that case, it is one of the best solutions to this dilemma is to integrate language arts and a content area subject matter into one activity or experience (Rasinski et al., 2006). So, through reader’s theatre a teacher can save time and can involve a number of students of diverse skills within same period of time as reader’s theatre scripts can be used to teach a variety of concepts and skills (Carrick, 2006). Carrick (2006) has shown some examples how it can be associated with mathematics, social studies and Hosier (2009) revealed that students’ science content knowledge, specifically of electricity can improve with the implementation of reader’s theatre (p.78). Reader’s theatre provides educators with an opportunity to develop both reading fluency and reader dispositions or attitudes and beliefs about reading (Martinez et al., 1999; Rasinski et al., 2006; Worthy & Prater, 2002).

Since performance can take place in any setting from classrooms to the outdoors and use virtually any text from letters, to poems, to tall tales, to children’s self-created stories (Moran, 2006, p. 318), it is an easy instructional strategy to be followed as well as implemented by the teachers. Teachers can also add their innovative ideas in story developing or can seek students help to make it more participating and interactive process of learning. Thus, the teachers can find this instructional strategy more interesting and motivating for themselves as well. 

Implication of reader’s theatre in the contexts of developing countries and further research area

As the author is an inhabitant of one of the developing countries of the world (Bangladesh), reader’s theatre is considered as a very effective instructional strategy for various reasons for her country context. For a variety of reasons, children from lower socioeconomic communities lag behind their counterparts on vocabulary and literacy skills (Evans, 2004). This is partly due to less responsive and sophisticated adult communication and less time being read storybooks or hearing new stories in the preschool years. This is particularly problematic in countries such as Bangladesh where books are not available in rural areas and many parents are not literate themselves (Aboud, 2007).

Under these conditions, primary school teachers must provide the reading stimulation necessary to develop children’s literacy skills. In a study by Jhingran (2011) on primary level students of Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and India, has found that in South Asia (not Sri Lanka) a majority of students are not learning to read even simple sentences by grade 2 and In no country do children reach grade level expectations. Therefore, it can be an effective instructional strategy for enhancing reading fluency as well as communication of the students with diverse skill levels in Bangladesh context.

However, in Bangladesh as there is no provision of teacher aide or any support services in regular school, the regular teacher is to look after all the students with different needs within same class room in limited time. In addition, Government schools do not prioritize small classes; often student to teacher ratios are as high as 60 to 1 (Kabeer, 2003 in Ardt, Hastings, Hopkins, Knebel, Loh, & Woods, 2005). Classrooms are even unable to properly accommodate or seat all students (Ardt et al., 2005). So, it is very difficult to provide individual support to each student with different reading difficulty on regular basis.  In most of the studies (Garrett and O’ Connor, 2010; Corcoran & Davis, 2008, Keehn, Harmon, & Shoho, 2005, Keehn, 2003; Millin & Rinehart, 1999) reader’s theatre program has been applied on small size of classrooms consisting 15-20 students or very small sample size and the results of the studies also revealed the effects or impact of the program basing on these limited number of students. Therefore, it is very difficult to articulate how readers’ theatre can be implemented in contexts like Bangladesh where one classroom consists of 60 or more students and facilitated by one regular teacher. So, it can be investigated through further researches.

However, it will be difficult to involve the students with profound Autism in Readers’ theatre as some of them may not be comfortable to perform in front of others and may prefer independent reading than this approach. In addition, the application of this strategy on students with high support needs such as, students with deaf-blindness, profound speech disorder, cerebral palsy is also not persuaded. So, the issue of generalization of this instructional strategy should take in to consideration due to these dilemmas.

Considering above mentioned discussion, it can be said that reader’s theatre is one of the evidence based practices and it is an effective approach for the struggling readers to enhance reading fluency with comprehension skill and motivation to read. Most importantly, readers theatre can give all students a chance to successfully participate in a repeatedly enjoyable literacy experience (Garrett & O’Connor, 2010, p. 13), thus the students are expected to have a positive attitude towards reading and their own confidence through reader’s theatre.


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About the author

Fharia Tilat Loba

Fharia Tilat Loba

Fharia Tilat Loba is a development worker and education professional.

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