Readers theater improves reading fluency

In a recent 10-week study, Readers Theater, an interpretive reading activity, significantly improved second graders’ oral reading fluency. Researchers at three Texas universities compared classes of students using Readers Theater with classes reading the same stories but not preparing and giving oral readings of the stories before a live audience.

Readers Theater takes stories at students’ instructional reading levels and adapts them as reading scripts with a narrator. The students’ goal is to use their voices to bring characters to life, enabling the audience to visualize the action. These researchers studied the effectiveness of this activity in improving reading fluency, which they defined as reading at an appropriate rate with accuracy, correct phrasing and expression.

They report that selecting an appropriate story is an important factor in building fluency. Straightforward plots that present characters grappling with dilemmas requiring thought and talk are most easily adapted for oral readings; humor is helpful, too. These researchers state that the texts must be within a reader’s reach — which means that several different texts must be used in a classroom.

When selections are appropriate, students’ reading speed increases with practice and they are able to devote more attention to finding meaning and interpreting it through phrasing and expressiveness. In this study with second graders, lower-level readers read James Marshall’s Fox series, while more average readers read stories from Marc Brown’s Arthur series. Using books from a series is helpful because students get to know the main characters well. Researchers found it difficult to find a series for higher readers, so they chose a set of related books: tongue-in-cheek fairy tales adapted by James Marshall.

Daily sessions

Second-grade classrooms from inner-city school districts participated in this study. One class of largely Hispanic children from low socioeconomic backgrounds, and another class of more ethnically and economically diverse students used Readers Theater for 30 minutes each day. (Two similar second-grade classrooms served as controls and read the same series but did not participate in Readers Theater.

Highly motivated students

Throughout the 10 weeks of the study, students in experimental Readers Theater classes continued to be highly motivated to practice during the week and excited to perform before a variety of audiences on Friday. On Monday, the teacher read three new stories aloud and conducted mini-lessons highlighting some aspect of fluent reading. Children were assigned to a repertory group at an appropriate reading level.

In every group, two copies of the week’s script were made for each child. The first copy went home so that children could practice all the speaking parts throughout the week. The second script was used at school, and each had one character’s speaking part highlighted with neon marker.

On Monday and Tuesday, children took turns reading all the parts, passing the highlighted scripts around the circle. On Wednesday rereadings continued, but students negotiated which part they would play in the performance. As it became clear that everyone would play every role as the story series was continued for many weeks, students learned to assign roles and take turns quite routinely.

On Thursday, students spent the session working together reading their roles, making character labels and deciding where characters would stand for the performance. Every Friday each repertory group within the class performed before a live audience after having read their story a total of 15-20 times.

The audience varied; as well as their parents, the librarian, the counselor, the principal and other classes were sometimes invited. The audience effect was very important and there was a lot of anticipation as to who the week’s audience would be.

Gains in Reading Rates and Accuracy

Over the 10-week study, nearly all the students showed significant gains in their reading rate. The average increase was 17 words per minute more than the pretest, compared to an average increase of 6.9 words per minute in the classrooms that did not participate in Readers Theater. Seventy-eight words per minute is the expected rate for second graders.

Although 76 percent of the students in the experimental group fell below that standard at the beginning of the study, 75 percent were close to or exceeded the standard 10 weeks later.

There were also gains in accuracy. Students in Readers Theater classes showed significantly greater reading-level gains than comparison classes. In only 10 weeks, almost a third gained two years in reading level, and half gained a full year. Reading fluency improved in all but four students.

One of the teachers in the study concluded, “I see two reasons why Readers Theater helped my students so much. The first is the comprehension that results from having to become the characters and understand their feelings, and the second is the repetition and practice.” Preparing a reading for an audience is a powerful incentive for reading practice. “They never seemed to tire of perfecting their craft,” she added.

Editor’s Note: Book suggestions and a five-day instructional plan for Readers Theater are described in this article.


“‘I Never Thought I Could Be A Star’: A Readers Theatre Ticket to Fluency” The Reading Teacher Volume 52, Number 4, December 1998 pp. 326-334.

Published in ERN March 1999 Volume 12 Number 3

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