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Readers Theater for Reading Improvement

Cindy McPhail describes how she helped a class of bilingual sixth graders significantly improve their
reading comprehension and become more willing to speak in front of the class. See Ayanna Cooper's
eferences ! esources review of Reading A-Z, Essential Teacher, September "##$.
Reading aloud in class is often quite stressful for students, especially those who aren't given an
opportunity to preread the passages. Peers ay pay attention, !ut perhaps only to !e a!le to catch
the reader's errors and correct the. As a result, readers pay uch ore attention to the correct
calling out of words rather than whether the reader is reading with e"pression. #n y e"perience, this
careful sounding out is accopanied !y a onotonous tone, a lac$ of attention to sentence phrasing
and punctuation, and little sense of eaning. %&hildren who are not fluent read either in a word-!y-
word anner or !y grouping words in ways that deviate fro the phrasing that occurs naturally in oral
language% '(orrow, )a!rell, * Pressley, +,,-, p. .-./. 0ral reading !ecoes an onerous tas$ for
English language learners, one that is ore li$ely to elicit groans than e"citeent. This need not !e
the case.
0ral reading success is often easured !y reading rate 'Rasins$i, +,,./, !ut speed is not the answer.
(any students can successfully say words, !ut have little coprehension '&arrasquillo * Rodrigue1,
.223/. Placing an ephasis on e"pressive reading can a$e all the difference. To read with
e"pression, a student ust !e a!le to accurately interpret an author's eaning. A great place to start
is !y using dialogues found in authentic literature.
Planning for Improvement
# recently had an opportunity to ipleent a odified reader's theater strategy with a class of
!ilingual si"th graders for .. wee$s. The average reading level for the class was id third grade.
Rather than using preconstructed scripts devoid of the writing conventions of narrative te"ts,
instruction started with overhead pro4ector displays of dialogues that had !een photocopied fro a
!oo$ that the class was reading5 %ime &arp %rio' (nights of the (itchen %able '6cies1$a, .22.7 this
technique was later applied to !oo$s !y (ohr, .282, and 6achar, .229/. As a whole group, we read
through the dialogue, circling quotation ar$s and highlighting the words that were spo$en !y each
character. This was done in an effort to answer the question5 :ow do we $now who the spea$ers are
and what they are saying;
<e"t, the class was divided into sall groups. # narrated all portions of the te"t that weren't spo$en !y
a character. =i$e an orchestra conductor, # then signaled to the groups to start reading aloud, with
each group reading portions of the te"t associated with a particular character. The opportunity to
preread the passages and the choral reading provided a safety net for reluctant readers. #t also proved
that we needed an answer to the question5 >hen we read aloud together, what are soe ways to help
us stay together; This naturally led to the need to pay attention to punctuation and phrasing in order
to have the groups appropriately start, stop, and pause while reading aloud together.
>e then wor$ed on responding to another question5 >hat are soe clues that the author gives us for
how to use our voices when we read aloud; ?raa e"ercises helped illustrate how the use of tone,
volue, stress, and rate of speech can change depending on situational conte"t. 6tudents then
highlighted punctuation ar$s 'e.g., e"claation points, question ar$s/ and italics while focusing on
the conte"t so that they could deterine appropriate e"pression when reading passages aloud.
Eventually, the class was divided into saller ense!le groups in which each student individually read
the dialogue for a particular character in an assigned passage of the te"t. 6tudents underlined their
own character's speech and analy1ed how they would read the words aloud. They used conte"t and
writing conventions to identify the spea$ers in a te"t and found that a spea$er ight utter ore than
one sentence in a paragraph. 6tudents needed to use inference and careful analysis to deterine who
was spea$ing and how the speech ight sound.
From Choral to Individual
@y the end of the .. wee$s, students had oved fro whole-group choral readings, to sall-group
readings, and finally to independently reading self-selected passages fro the te"ts. 0ver the course
of the instruction, they received feed!ac$ in a variety of ways. 6all-group and individual readings
were recorded and played !ac$ so that students could hear theselves. They were encouraged to
perfor their readings for their classates, who would then provide positive feed!ac$, noting which
sections were particularly well read and why. This positive critique provided an e"cellent feed!ac$ loop
for students with !oth odeling and analysis of what constituted effective, e"pressive reading.
Making a Difference
To deterine whether the instruction ade a difference, !efore and after recordings were ade of
students' oral readings. The readings were rated using ru!rics odified fro those !y Zutell and
Rasins$i '.22./. The odified ru!rics assessed phrasingAsoothness and e"pression, with scores
ranging fro . to 8. The ratings significantly iproved fro the earlier to the later readings.
6tudents' reading coprehension was assessed in a pre- and poststudy anner via ?evelopental
Reading Assessents B-9 '?RAs/ that were routinely adinistered three ties a year at the school.
The ?RA calculates a holistic score indicating the grade level of a student's reading a!ilities. <ot only
was the growth in students' scores significant '.C.C2 points, which is an iproveent of
appro"iately a grade and a half in reading levels/, the growth was significantly higher than the sae
teacher's class fro the previous year. @oth groups had !een coparatively the sae at the start of
the school year. @ut the previous class had increased !y 9.B points 'or appro"iately four-fifths of one
year's reading level/, which was significantly less than this year's growth. The classroo teacher
laughingly told the story of how the principal called her down to his office to as$, %>hat did you do;%
6he told hi that she attri!uted the difference to the focused attention on e"pressive reading.
&uriously, the reading rate 'as defined in its siplest for5 speed/ did not change over tie. This
leads to the conclusion that educators should !e cautious a!out interpreting reading rate as an
indicator of eaningfully fluent reading. Rather than focusing on speed, placing ephasis on a$ing
reading an e"pressive, dynaic, and socially interactive e"perience leads to ore eaningful
interpretations of te"t, which in turn encourages greater coprehension.
Perhaps the ost eaningful result fro ipleenting the odified reader's theater technique was
the students' willingness to spea$ in front of the class. The classroo teacher indicated that at the
start of the year the group had !een particularly quiet and reluctant to spea$, especially in front of a
group. @ut after their positive e"periences with the odified reader's theater technique, laughter and
applause welcoed students to try out their newfound voices.
&arrasquillo, A., * Rodrigue1, D. '.223/. )anguage minority students in the mainstream classroom.
Philadelphia5 (ultilingual (atters.
(ohr, <. '.282/. *elita. <ew Eor$5 Penguin.
(orrow, =., )a!rell, =., * Pressley, (. '+,,-/. +est practices in literacy instruction '+nd ed./. <ew
Eor$5 )uilford Press.
Rasins$i, T. '+,,./. *rom phonics to fluency' ,ffective teaching of decoding and reading fluency in the
elementary school. <ew Eor$5 =ongan.
6achar, =. '.229/. -oles. <ew Eor$5 Eearling.
6cies1$a, F. '.22./. %ime warp trio' (nights of the kitchen table. <ew Eor$5 Penguin.
Zutell, F., * Rasins$i, T. D. '.22./. Training teachers to attend to their studentsGH oral reading fluency.
%heory .nto Practice/ 0#/ +..GI+.8.
Cindy McPhail 1cmcphai"2na3.edu4 is an associate professor and chair of the )anguage/ )iteracy/ and
%echnology 5epartment at 6a3areth College/ in ochester/ 6ew 7ork/ in the 8nited States.