Have you always had this desire to do theater in your classroom but felt daunted by all the labor that would involve? Worry no more. There is an easy way you can enjoy doing theater without the overhead: readers theater! So, let’s start with a definition of readers theater, and what makes it different from conventional theater. In conventional theater, the goal is to create an illusion of reality on the stage: the audience watches as the action unfolds, while the actors are in a simulated world of their own, separated from the audience by an invisible wall. In readers theater, by contrast, the performers speak directly to the audience, acting with their voices to bring the scenes to life in the audience’s imagination. Readers theater is thus a theater of words, which makes it perfectly suited to the language classroom. If performers use their bodies in readers theater—for example, to mime handing something to another performer—they do so facing the audience: one performer extends their hand, miming the act of giving something, and the other performer reaches out a hand and then pulls it back, miming the act of taking, all while facing the audience. There is no invisible wall, as in conventional theater; in readers theater, the performers are connected to the audience in a shared experience of reading aloud and actively listening.
As a theater of words, readers theater has much in common with old-fashioned radio drama, which thrived in the 1930s and 1940s before the advent of television. You can also find some audiobooks that feature a full cast of readers, with the multiplicity of voices creating an effect very similar to that of readers theater. Unlike radio drama and audiobooks, however, readers theater is performed for a live audience, which means that the audience becomes part of the event by listening and even engaging in the performance through call-and-response, singing along if there are songs in the story, etc.
Readers theater offers students an enjoyable interactive learning experience suitable for a range of ages and reading skills, from children to adults, and from beginning to advanced readers. There is a broad spectrum of performance in readers theater, ranging from informal to formal. At the informal end of the spectrum, readers theater can be a classroom (or Zoom) experience with or without advance preparation by the students. At the formal end of the spectrum, readers theater can be a fully elaborated stage performance, although with much less production overhead than traditional theater. In this article, we will focus on readers theater for the language classroom.
GETTING STARTED: READERS THEATER SCRIPTS
The most common type of readers theater is dramatic, as in conventional theater, but with one major difference: a readers theater script usually has one or more narrators who describe the action that is taking place, along with descriptions of the characters and setting as needed. In conventional theater, the audience watches characters carrying out actions with props against a backdrop of scenery, but in readers theater, the audience imagines the setting and action based on what the narrator(s) tell them. Here’s an example from the beginning of Rabbit and Bobcat, a Native American tale Laura adapted for readers theater:
NARRATOR: Rabbit was running for his life, with Bobcat close behind.
RABBIT: (panting) I’ve got to get away!
BOBCAT: I’ve almost got you, Rabbit! Almost! Almost!
RABBIT: (panting harder) Got to… got to find a place to hide!
NARRATOR: Then, to Rabbit’s delight, he saw a hollow tree ahead, and jumped right inside. The hole was big enough for Rabbit to squeeze through, but not Bobcat. So Bobcat skidded to a stop in front of the tree, growling and snarling.
There are three basic ways you can obtain a usable readers theater script: you can 1) modify plays originally written for conventional theater, 2) use and/or adapt scripts written for readers theater, or 3) write your own scripts. Concerning topics and language level, it’s a good idea to choose topics according to your learners’ interests and make sure that the language level of the script is a little more advanced than the students’ current reading level (link).
Adapting conventional scripts. To adapt a conventional script for readers theater, add the narrator(s) and remove the stage directions. This allows students to perform the play with a focus on the reading, dispensing with the complexities of conventional theater performance (memorizing lines, staging, costumes, make-up, etc.). When the narrator has a lot to say, you can break up the narrator’s role into multiple parts, thus involving more students in the performance. You can also develop the narrator in creative ways, such as having the narrator engage in dialogue with the characters and/or engaging in question-and-answer with the audience, etc.
Scripts written for readers theater. There are many books of readers theater scripts for students of all ages; see the resources below for suggestions. Laura also has a growing collection of Creative-Commons-licensed readers theater scripts inspired by world folktales which are available at Scripts.LauraGibbs.net. There are currently 31 scripts available, many with audio recordings to help students with pronunciation. The Creative Commons license allows teachers and students to adapt the plays in whatever way they want, making the plays longer or shorter, for example, and adjusting the language to match the students’ reading level(s), etc.
Writing your own scripts. For even more fun, you can create your own readers theater scripts, tailoring the scripts to the language level(s) of your students, as well as their interests and passions. You can also draft scripts in collaboration with your students: If you write out the narrator parts of the script covering the characters and action, your students can write the dialogue, bringing the play to life in their own words. There’s no need to start writing a story from scratch, as there are literally thousands of books of myths, legends, fairy tales, and folktales in the public domain, stories that are just waiting to be retold in new ways. (You can find out more about that at Duke University’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain.)
Poetic and expository scripts. Readers theater can also be used to perform poetry and expository texts such as essays, historical documents, diaries, journalistic writing, etc. Instead of a narrator and dramatic characters, these readers theater scripts are built around the interplay of different voices, a “symphony of voices” with different portions of the text spoken by different performers. Here’s a lovely example of a group of children interpreting Shel Silverstein’s poem Sick: the text itself and the readers theater performance. Having the students themselves divide up a poem or an essay into different voices is both an analytical and creative practice, bringing the meaning of the text to life by designating the portions for each voice.
INTERPRETATION, PRACTICE, AND PERFORMANCE
Once the script is ready for your students, you can think about activities that will motivate them to engage with the text and with the collaborative readers theater experience. Activities might focus on the theme(s) in the script, reading comprehension, and/or target vocabulary.
Oral interpretation. Developing readers need time to familiarize themselves with the whole script and to interpret their individual lines. In addition to making sure they feel confident about the meaning and pronunciation of each word, they also need to think about the prosody, i.e., the way that meaning is conveyed by stress and intonation.
Just which word(s) are emphasized in a sentence depends on the dramatic context:
- Did you steal the giant’s harp? (or not?)
- Did you steal the giant’s harp? (you, of all people!)
- Did you steal the giant’s harp? (i.e., you didn’t buy it, find it, etc.)
- Did you steal the giant’s harp? (we all know about that harp!)
- Did you steal the giant’s harp? (as opposed to someone else’s harp)
- Did you steal the giant’s harp? (you were supposed to steal his drum!)
As students interpret each line, they can mark up their copy of the script for performance. In readers theater, performers hold their script when performing, much as orchestra musicians have their sheet music with them on stage, and marking up the script is an important part of how readers prepare for their performance.
In addition to intonation, performers need to think about how softly or loudly they will be speaking each line, along with the speed at which they speak, whether they will speak boldly or hesitantly, etc. There are also the non-verbal parts of speaking: sighs, pauses, laughs, groans, and so on. Don’t pass over the importance of these seemingly minor aspects of language. One of the deficits of the way we teach language is that we remove it from show of emotion and nonverbal communication, often creating verbal robots instead of real-world communicators. You can encourage students to turn their critical attention to the TV shows and movies that they watch so they can start to consciously pay attention to those oral performances and learn from them.
Practice and feedback. When working alone, students can record themselves reading their lines and then listen to the recording to reflect metacognitively on their current strengths and weaknesses, setting goals for aspects they want to improve. Students also need to practice together, learning to listen to the other readers carefully in order to weave their lines in at the right time. After practicing with others, students can give each other feedback, orally and/or in writing, and they can also continue to reflect on their own performance. In addition, the teacher can also give feedback by listening to practice sessions in the classroom and/or by listening to recordings that the students provide.
Performance and assessment. After students have practiced their roles, they will be ready to perform. That might mean a formal performance in the classroom for their fellow students, or perhaps a performance for another teacher’s class. Performances can be recorded as audio or video to share with a virtual audience, such as the students’ families and friends. It is also possible to develop readers theater as an actual stage performance in the school theater or auditorium, and some speech and drama competitions also include readers theater (e.g., link).
Performances provide an opportunity to assess students’ work and their progress. After considering which specific skills your students have been working on, you can create your own assessment rubric or adapt existing ones. Here are three examples found on the internet: holistic rubric, discrete skills rubric, simple discrete skills rubric (on slide 30). Tanner’s Readers Theatre Fundamentals (see resources below) also contains rubrics for every aspect of the readers theater process from initial concept development through the formal stage production.
CLOSING THE CURTAINS
NARRATOR: In Laura’s study, Heather and Laura are hunched over Laura’s computer, hard at work on this article. Yes, the one you are reading right now! Completely fed up, one of Laura’s cats decides it’s time to jump on the keyboard.
CAT: Meow! Finish writing your article and play with me!
HEATHER: (laughing) Any last thoughts for our readers?
LAURA: Readers theater is a fun, creative, and interactive way . . .
HEATHER: For students to work on reading fluency,
LAURA: Oral fluency,
HEATHER: Active listening,
LAURA: And even writing.
CAT: Purrrfect for language learners!
NARRATOR: Laura and Heather dash off the last few sentences of their article, shut down the computer, and give the cat some well-deserved attention. And this narrator thanks you, human readers, for taking the time to read our article. We hope it inspires you to try out readers theater with your students!
Some prolific authors of readers theater scripts include:
- Suzanne Barchers. Her books include From Atalanta to Zeus: Readers Theatre from Greek Mythology, Multicultural Folktales: Readers Theatre, Scary Readers Theatre, and more.
- Anthony Fredericks. His books include African Legends, Myths, and Folktales for Readers Theatre; American Folklore, Legends, and Tall Tales for Readers Theatre; Frantic Frogs and Other Frankly Fractured Folktales for Readers Theatre, and more.
- Aaron Shepard. See the scripts at his website, along with his books: Folktales on Stage, Readers on Stage, and Stories on Stage.
You can find detailed advice about the staging of readers theater in Fran Averett Tanner‘s Readers Theater Fundamentals and in Leslie Coger and Melvin White‘s Readers Theatre Handbook. Both of those books include abundant photographs of readers theater productions that can inspire your own productions. You can also see readers theater productions featuring performers of all ages on YouTube, for example, here.
Research and Practical Teaching Tips
Bafile, C. (2021). Reader’s Theater: Giving students a reason to read aloud. Reading Rockets. https://www.readingrockets.org/article/reader-s-theater-giving-students-reason-read-aloud
Carrick, L. U. (n.d.). Readers theatre strategy guide. Read Write Think. https://www.readwritethink.org/professional-development/strategy-guides/readers-theatre#research-basis
Nfor, S. (2022). Implementing readers’ theater for a project-based advanced English course. Journal of Multilingual Pedagogy and Practice, 2, 160-170. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/371538816_Implementing_Readers’_Theater_for_a_Project-Based_Advanced_English_course
Tanner, M. W. & Chugg, A. (2018). Empowering adult ELL’s fluency and pronunciation skills through readers theater. Brigham Young University Faculty Publications. 5956. https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/facpub/5956/
Taylor de Caballero, K. (2018). Introduction to Reader’s Theater for EFL Classrooms. English Language Teaching Methodology: Shaping the Way We Teach English Webinars. [YouTube]. https://youtu.be/utWd8TF_kwQ?si=ymfJRmxWeJSo7SKA
Laura Gibbs (Ph.D.) recently retired from 20+ years of teaching courses in mythology and folklore at the University of Oklahoma. She is the author of the Creative-Commons-licensed “Tiny Tales” folktale book series, along with folktale scripts for readers theater, which are available free online at LauraGibbs.net.
Heather Kretschmer has been teaching English for over 20 years, primarily in Germany. She earned degrees in German (BA & MA) and TESL (MA) from Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Currently, she has the privilege of working with Business English students at the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, Germany.