Let’s Put On A Show! Reader’s Theater and the Middle-Grade Reader

Are your kids drama queens (or kings?)


All kids love make-believe… so how about combining their passion for making things up with their favorite middle-grade books?

Turns out there’s a name for acting out scenes from books– Reader’s Theater (aka Readers Theater or Readers’ Theater or just plain RT) and it’s been around for decades.

What is Reader’s Theater? It’s a scene from a book dramatized in script form. Players perform by reading the script (no memorization required) using few or no props, stage sets, and sometimes absolutely no rehearsal!

I was first introduced to Reader’s Theater at an American Library Association Convention when a panel of authors read dramatic adaptations of their own work. Pretty neat! But little did I know how magical those scripts could become when child readers take center stage to act out the parts. Reader’s Theater puts the kid INTO the story, inhabiting his favorite hero, villain or sidekick. Words on a page literally come to life when real kids stand up to act out a scene.

Reader’s Theater is an amazingly effective teaching tool.  Studies have shown that second graders who participated in regular Readers Theater productions gained an average of a full year’s growth in reading skills. (See generally The Power of Reader’s Theater  http://teacher.scholastic.com/products/instructor/readerstheater.htm)  But even better than that it’s easy, it’s active, it’s entertaining for actors and audience alike… and IT’S FUN!

Intrigued? Ready to get started? These days there are almost as many teachers guides to creating Reader’s Theater as there are for solving long division (okay maybe that’s an exaggeration!) Some frequently cited resources are Lisa Friedman’s Break a Leg! The Kids’ Guide to Acting and Stagecraft, Sheryl Ann Crawford’s 15 Easy-to-Read Mini-Book Plays, Folk Tale Plays From Around the World That Kids Will Love! By Marci Appelbaum and Readers Theater for Beginning Readers (Grades 1-4) by Suzanne Barchers. Nearly every teacher’s resource cites Aaron Shepard’s Readers On Stage which includes detailed instructions for how to get started, scripts, production suggestions, curriculum connections and more.  There are tips on script writing and reading technique as well as scripts for three stories.

If you are performing Reader’s Theater in the classroom and must conform to curriculum guidelines and standards, with formal performance rubrics and the like, these guides might be the way to go, but personally I think these canned scripts for stories kids have never heard of (Peddler Polly and the Story Stealer????) aren’t nearly as much fun as performing Reader’s Theater for a book your troop, class or group is actually reading.

Scenes from plenty of wonderful middle-grade novels have been translated into Readers Theater scripts. Are your kids Shannon Hale fans? Then how about Shannon’s script from Rapunzel’s Revenge, downloadable free from her website?    Scholastic has great supporting materials for one of my favorite middle-grade novels Because of Winn-Dixie, including a terrific free Reader’s Theater script.

Closer to home, Mixed-Up Files member Sarah Aronson is kindly offering readers of this blog an EXCLUSIVE downloadable script for her terrific novel Beyond Lucky. Reader’s Theater Beyond Lucky downloadable pdf

And I’ve created a Readers Theater for The Map Of Me you can download, too. It’s only available here, for readers of From The Mixed-Up Files. I’d love to hear about your performances!   Reader’s Theater- THE MAP OF ME

So how do you start with a Readers Theater script taken from an actual middle-grade novel? Combine RT performances with book club reading or after lunch read alouds. Give your readers a taste of the book first- the first five chapters, perhaps, then spice things up with a Reader’s Theater performance. Or use Reader’s Theater to introduce your readers to a new book- play first then read the real thing. Once they get a taste of the book by acting the parts they won’t be able to wait to hear (and read!) the rest of the story.

I prefer to keep the actual “performance” loose- I’m encouraging readers, not training the next Sir Laurence Olivier. Choose parts, clear an area of the room as a “stage”, grab a hat or a cup if you must as a prop, and everybody read. It really can be that simple. If you want  you can practice and perform for other classes or groups, but it’s not the performance that matters most. It’s all about the experience of living inside a character’s skin- becoming that character- if only for a minute or five.

Obviously “experiencing the book” by acting the scenes is a great way to engage reluctant readers, but I’d argue it’s even better as a way to enhance an avid reader’s love of novels. “Living” inside a book is the ultimate reader experience and Reader’s Theater models this enhanced appreciation for young readers.

Dozens of authors have created Reader’s Theater pieces for their novels yet I found no complete (or even short) list of actual author or publisher created scripts. This could be a fantastic resource for an eager librarian or teacher blogger to create! In the meantime, I suggest prowling your favorite authors’ websites. If you don’t find a script there don’t despair. Many authors haven’t had the opportunity (or idea) of uploading that script they prepared for a particular conference or school visit. If you don’t find a script right away just contact the author directly and ask if he or she has written an RT script. You may be rewarded with a nearly unique piece of Reader’s Theater—and a new relationship with one of your favorite authors.

Thinking of writing your own script based on a published book that’s special to you and your kids? Sounds like a great classroom or backyard activity… but there are some complicated issues to consider before you tackle a project like this, and I’m not talking about the challenges of script writing. Characters, plots, and dialog are an author’s intellectual property. If you use that work and give credit to the author that’s not technically plagariam… but it’s still appropriation of their work and it’s not okay. Teachers and others have a “fair use” right to use works of art, particularly for educational purposes, but the exact limits of where fair use ends and stealing begins is hazy. School Library Journal tackled this issue in an article here  http://www.schoollibraryjournal.com/article/CA6673566.html

My feeling is that this kind of imitation is NOT NECESSARILY the most sincere form of flattery.  Nearly every author is accessible by email or contact form these days. If you’re interested in adapting a chapter or scene of their work for Readers Theater to be used only by your class or youth group ask the author if it’s okay. Most will be happy to have readers appreciate their work by performing it. But if it bothers the author aren’t you better off choosing another book to work on that defying an author’s wishes?

Other than that I say GO FOR IT! Places everyone! Lights! Camera! READ!

Have you seen any fab Reader’s Theater performances? How about great script sources? Best of all what scenes would you like to see played out in Reader’s Theater?

Tami Lewis Brown will present an un-rehearsed, spur of the moment, hopefully wonderful(!) Reader’s Theater performance with kids from the audience acting out a scene from THE MAP OF ME at the Gaithersburg Book Festival in Gaithersburg, MD this Saturday morning. Learn more here.

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