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March 1, 2012
Vol. 69
No. 6

Using Readers Theater to Reach Older Readers

My struggling readers were on the verge of giving up—until this creative strategy boosted their fluency and confidence.

I sat in my chair while Kenya cried. As tears streamed down her face, she choked out, "I can't do it. I'll never be able to read." I wanted to tell Kenya that this wasn't true, that I could help her reach her reading benchmark. But the truth was that, as a 5th grader reading far below grade level, Kenya's odds of catching up to her peers were slim.
As I sat with Kenya analyzing the results of our latest progress monitoring, I felt frustrated and helpless. After Kenya went back to her own classroom, I wrote six words in my journal: How can I improve Kenya's fluency?
As a reading interventionist in an elementary school that primarily serves low-income, minority learners, I have my hands full. Nearly 30 percent of the 400 students in our school have been identified as high-risk based on their scores on the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS). These students meet in small groups for daily help from me and three other specialists. Although we occasionally celebrate when a student tests out of this program, the vast majority of our "intervention kids" keep coming for help year after year, demonstrating progress, but never reaching grade level.
Like many of my students, Kenya was bright, inquisitive, and motivated. The reading problems she faced last fall didn't stem from poor behavior, and she had good reading comprehension during group read alouds. As I reviewed Kenya's DIBELS scores and running record assessments, I concluded that her fluency problems resulted from a lack of vocabulary knowledge and poor decoding skills. The 5th grade reading curriculum, however, focused almost entirely on comprehension skills. To compound the situation, Kenya had come to see herself as a bad reader who would never reach grade level, no matter how hard she tried.

In Search of an Apt Intervention

As I considered Kenya's predicament in the context of the Response to Intervention process our school was implementing, I asked myself, What's the point of using Response to Intervention if the intervention being used doesn't address the specific needs of the students we're serving?
Response to Intervention (RTI) is a relatively new process for identifying students with learning disabilities. The idea behind RTI is to avoid prematurely labeling students as learning disabled and to give all students extra instruction in areas in which they need help (Mesmer & Mesmer, 2008; Reynolds & Shaywitz, 2009). Students who struggle with learning particular content or skills through whole-group instruction (first-tier instruction in RTI terminology) receive additional (second-tier) instructional interventions. If these students demonstrate progress after such supplemental instruction, their response to intervention is considered good; teachers continue to monitor their progress until these learners have reached grade-level expectations. Students who continue to struggle after receiving research-based interventions are flagged as possibly having a learning disability and receive more targeted interventions.
According to the legislation authorizing RTI, interventions must be both appropriate and research-based. Mesmer and Mesmer (2008) note that, "appropriate refers to instruction … that matches a student's skill level [and] research-based indicates that the interventions should be based on practices that have produced verifiable results through research studies" (p. 281).
Reflecting on the interventions I was providing 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade students like Kenya, I determined that, although the program I'd been using was considered research-based, the overwhelming focus on comprehension strategies was not appropriate for these struggling readers. Successful comprehension depends on having adequate background knowledge, vocabulary, and fluency—three areas in which my students faced serious deficits (Tompkins, 2010). I began to search for research-based strategies that would be more effective in increasing the fluency of struggling readers in upper elementary grades.

"I Think I Can, I Think I Can … "

Besides questioning how to strengthen my readers' fluency, I wondered whether increasing their sense of self-efficacy—their belief in their own ability to read successfully—might positively affect their performance. According to psychologist Albert Bandura (1986), "People's level of motivations, affective states, and actions are based more on what they believe than on what is objectively true" (p. 2). In other words, what students believe about their ability to perform a task is more important to their success than their actual ability. Think of Kenya's words: I can't do it. I'll never be able to read. What if I could somehow convince Kenya that she could do it?
Bandura claims that self-efficacy is improved through experiences of success and undermined by experiences of failure. I reasoned that combining an appropriate intervention to boost fluency with a focus on increasing self-efficacy could help my kids defy the odds and bring their reading skills up to grade level, even after they reached 3rd grade. This became my goal.

Cue Readers Theater

To pursue this goal, I incorporated readers theater into my reading groups, with a focus on developing students' vocabulary. With readers theater, students together write a script for a short play based on a text they have read together or heard read aloud. They then choose (or are assigned) parts and engage in dramatic readings of their script. These practice readings often culminate in a performance before an audience, with students reading their parts rather than memorizing them.
Readers theater is an ideal way to coax students to reread familiar texts. Reading experts Young and Rasinski (2009) claim that "repeated reading lead[s] to improvements in fluency on texts … that also generalizes to new texts" (p. 4). One of my greatest struggles in teaching reading to upper elementary students is getting them to reread text that they've already read aloud. There's a stigma attached to being asked to reread something because of the implication that the first reading wasn't good enough. In readers theater, however, students have to rehearse a script multiple times in preparation for a performance. The stigma evaporates, and repeated readings become fun.
I began by having a small group of 5th graders all read The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, following a guided reading format. While reading this short chapter book, we concentrated on decoding and defining new vocabulary. At the beginning of each lesson, we engaged in word talk: We pulled words from our new vocabulary list and discussed strategies for decoding these words, such as breaking a word into chunks or looking for parts of the word that students knew.
I asked students questions whose answers required an understanding of certain words. For example, as students entered the room I might ask each one, "Do you feel disconsolate or jaunty today?" Each learner would then reply, explaining why he or she felt either way. By the end of the book, students had become comfortable using these previously unfamiliar words, both in conversations and in writing.
After completing the book, we created a script based on the story, which describes how a Polish immigrant girl is taunted in her American school and how two of her classmates react. Students brainstormed to identify the most important parts of the book, synthesized and summarized the story into five distinct scenes, and created dialogue for the characters we decided to feature in the script.
I then typed and printed the students' script exactly as written, including misspellings and grammatical errors. Each student got a rough copy and a red pen. First individually and then as a group, we edited the script and found appropriate places to insert the vocabulary words we'd learned. Once our editing was completed, I typed the final copy and students began rehearsing their lines. I was amazed at their enthusiasm and commitment to the project.

"Action"—and Success

When the day arrived for the performance, five 5th graders proudly entered a 3rd grade classroom where, perhaps for the first time ever, they were the star readers. Using minimal props, movement, and costumes, they read from their scripts expressively. Reading difficult text with fluency and expression (rather than memorizing their lines), my "intervention kids" performed the entire script for The Hundred Dresses flawlessly. When it was over, they left triumphantly, amid applause and demands for autographs.
I couldn't have been prouder of my students' performance, and I could tell they felt the same way. Their hard work had let them experience the joy of being recognized as good readers. Satisfied, we left for the weekend.
On Monday, I sat down with each student to catch up on their progress monitoring. One by one, the students joined me at the table and read the passage set before them, a DIBELS passage that they had never seen before. At first, the results didn't register in my mind. Later, when I was driving home, it hit me that all five students in my group had increased their DIBELS scores by more than 20 words per minute. Thinking it must be a fluke, I redid the tests on Tuesday with a different passage—and achieved similar results. My students' fluency had increased dramatically. Although they were still reading below grade level, these students had made remarkable gains in a short time. Including Kenya.

To Be Continued

After that first successful experience, I've continued to incorporate readers theater into my reading instruction. I continue to be astounded by the improvements I see in my students' fluency and attitudes. Recently, as Kenya successfully finished reading a particularly tricky section of a play we were working on, she sat back in her chair, smiling, and said, "That felt good."
I'm not sure what made the biggest difference for Kenya—all that repeat reading, the intense focus on vocabulary, or her increased self-efficacy as a reader, which gave her the ability to perform beyond her previous skill level. Probably it was a combination of all of the above, in addition to her ongoing literacy experiences with teachers outside my reading group.
In any case, this was one of the more encouraging moments I've had as a reading interventionist. I intend to have many more like it.

Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Mesmer, E. M., & Mesmer, H. A. E. (2008). Response to intervention (RTI): What teachers of reading need to know. The Reading Teacher, 62(4), 280–290.

Reynolds, C. R., & Shaywitz, S. E. (2009). Response to Intervention: Ready or not? or, from wait-to-fail to watch-them-fail. School Psychology Quarterly, 24(2), 130–145.

Tompkins, G. E. (2010). Literacy for the 21st century: A balanced approach. Boston, MA: Pearson.

Young, C., & Rasinski, T. (2009). Implementing readers theatre as an approach to classroom fluency instruction. The Reading Teacher, 63(1), 4–13.

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