Drama-based reading comprehension program

iStock_000008233708XSmallCognitive theories suggest that imagery is a powerful tool for learning and an important component of memory. The core of reading comprehension is the ability to store and retrieve information from written texts. Strong readers can visualize
the details of a story assembled as a whole rather than trying to remember individual parts separately. It is thought that imagery may increase the capacity of working memory during reading by assimilating details into larger chunks.

Imagery also seems to be involved in making comparisons and analogies. It may function as an organizing tool for coding and storing meaning from reading. Imagery-based information seems to be remembered more easily than text-only information. Theoretically, if reading instruction can be made less dependent on memory of text and can focus instead on
visual images described in the story, then readers are likely to store, retain, and recall more about what they read.

There have been many studies of programs that link drama and language arts learning. But a meta-analysis of these studies reveals few studies with adequate research methods. Attempting to overcome the inadequacies of previous studies, Dale S. Rose and Michaela Parks, Berkeley, California; Karl Androes, Chicago, Illinois; and Susan D. McMahon, DePaul University, designed a rigorously controlled experiment to assess the impact of drama-based instruction on students’ reading comprehension scores. Rose et al. used a randomized pretest/posttest control-group design, employed a program developed with a solid theoretical background, and measured results with a nationally normed standardized test of reading comprehension (Iowa Test of Basic Skills – ITBS).

A Chicago-based nonprofit arts education organization named Whirlwind designed Reading Comprehension through Drama (RCD), a reading program that employs drama techniques consistent with the research on imagery and memory. Researchers at the 3-D Group in Berkeley, California, used an experimental design to evaluate the impact of this program on fourth-grade students’ reading comprehension. For 10 weeks, students in the experimental classes were taught reading using drama-based instructional methods, while control classes received the standard reading textbook- and worksheet-based curriculum. At the end of the study, researchers compared the reading comprehension gains of the experimental and control groups.


Two fourth-grade classrooms in each of four Chicago public schools were randomly selected to participate in the study, (classes with predominantly special education students were excluded from the drawing). Classes were randomly assigned to either the control or the experimental group.

The first participating school had a nearly 100 percent Hispanic population of 1200 students, with more than 98 percent coming from low-income homes and one-quarter with limited English-language skills. The second school was 90 percent African American and 80 percent of the children were low-income. The entire population of the third school was African American and poor. The fourth school’s students were about 50 percent Hispanic, 30 percent Caucasian and the remaining 20 percent African American or Asian. About 90 percent of these students came from low-income homes.

Reading Comprehension through Drama

During the 10-week program, students in experimental classes worked with a drama teacher for one hour twice a week. In each one-hour session students dramatized a scene from a story. Stories involved between two and four characters, occurred in one location, and required one prop. All stories were written at about the third-grade level so that a maximum number of students would be able to read the material, focus on creating images and remember the story.

The program had four stages, each emphasizing different story elements. Five days were devoted to each stage. In all stages the students silently read a story, and then the teacher read the story aloud. In the first stage, students created images for the “what, who and where” elements of the story and used these to retell the story to another student.

The second stage involved students in retelling the story in sequence, using a three-panel drawing to illustrate the beginning, middle and end. Stage three focused on the sense elements (sight, smell, taste, hearing and touch) of the story. Students retold the story by acting out scenes that highlighted the sensations the characters might have experienced.

In the final stage, students explored critical, interpretive and opinion-based elements. Students were interviewed as if
they were one of the characters in the story. Students responded to questions by inferring the character’s likely response according to what they had read about his/her motivations, actions and personality.

Test Results

Students’ growth in reading comprehension was measured by the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. In addition, a performance assessment was developed to measure the extent to which students improved both their reading comprehension and their drama skills during the study. This assessment measured both factual and inferential verbal skills. This performance assessment provided a measure of reading comprehension immediately before and after the program and also functioned to determine whether differences in ITBS scores could be reasonably attributed to students’ increasing skill at dramatizing a story.

Grade-equivalent reading scores on the ITBS for students in both groups were compared from the end of their third-grade year to the end of their fourth-grade year. The overall reading improvement rates for the two groups revealed that RCD students’ scores increased significantly more (30% more) than control students’ scores. Like the IBTS, the performance assessment showed that experimental-group students improved their scores significantly more from the pretest to the
posttest than did the control students. The researchers concluded from this that the RCD program significantly
enhanced overall reading comprehension.

Limitations and Conclusions

Because this study included only a small number of teachers, the influence of individual teacher effects cannot be ruled out. However, all teachers were randomly assigned and were basically unaware of the details of the study until the study was completed. It is possible that the mere fact of changing a teaching method can produce a temporarily positive effect on students’ performance. These researchers suggest that a follow-up assessment be carried out to determine the stability of the program effects. Finally, the positive results might be limited to certain populations. The children in this study were drawn almost exclusively from low-income, urban, minority populations. It is possible that similar results might not be found with wealthier populations in rural or suburban settings.

Despite these limitations, this study used a rigorous research design with a nationally normed standardized test in regular public-school classrooms and found significant results for drama-based teaching methods. Using a control group of “kids down the hall” as a comparison, it demonstrates that drama-based instruction appears to be a highly effective method for teaching reading comprehension.

“Imagery-Based Learning: Improving Elementary Students’ Reading Comprehension with Drama Techniques” The Journal of Educational Research Volume 94, Number 1, October 2000 Pp. 55-63.

Published in ERN November 2000 Volume 13 Number 8

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