In an activity based on the Readers’ Theatre strategy, groups of students are assigned a text excerpt to present to their peers. As opposed to presenting skits of the plot, a readers’ theatre asks students to create a performance that reveals a message, theme, or conflict represented by the text. As students practice this activity, they become more proficient at using the words of the text to depict concepts and ideas. This is an effective way to help students process dilemmas experienced by characters in a text.
1/ Select Excerpts
Depending on how many students are in your class, you will likely need to identify four or five excerpts or “scenes” for this activity. Typically, groups of four to six students are assigned different sections of a text to interpret, although it is certainly possible to have groups interpret the same excerpt. When selecting excerpts for use in a reader’s theatre activity, keep in mind these suggestions:
Shorter excerpts allow students to look more deeply at specific language than longer excerpts do. Often excerpts are only a few paragraphs long.
Use excerpts that contain one main action or decision-making point.
Excerpts should address an important theme in the text; they should represent more than just the plotline.
2/ Students Read Excerpts
Before groups are assigned scenes to interpret, give students the opportunity to read the selections silently and aloud. This step familiarizes students with the language of the text. After the text is read aloud, invite students to ask clarifying questions about the vocabulary or plot. That way, students can begin their group work ready to interpret their assigned scene.
3/ Groups Prepare for Performance
Assign scenes (excerpts) to groups.
In their small groups, students read their assigned scenes aloud again. As they read, students should pay attention to theme, language, and tone. You might ask students to highlight or underline the words that stand out to them. Groups may choose to read their scenes two or three times and then to have a conversation about the words and phrases they have highlighted.
Then groups discuss the scene. At the end of this discussion, students should agree on the words, theme, or message represented in this excerpt that they would most like to share with the class. To help structure the groups’ conversations, you might provide them with a series of questions to answer. The following are examples: What conflict is expressed in this excerpt? What theme is represented? What words or phrases are most important? What is the message of this text? What is most important or interesting about the words or ideas in this excerpt?
Now students are ready to prepare their performance. Students should be reminded that the goal is not to perform a skit of their scene but to use specific language (words and phrases) to represent the conflict, theme, and/or underlying message of that excerpt. Performances can be silent, or they can use voice in creative ways, such as by composing a choral reading that emphasizes key phrases. Students can use movement, or they can hold their body positions to create an image frozen in time, much like a photograph. It often helps to give students a list of guidelines or suggestions to follow when preparing their presentations, such as these:
Repeat key words, phrases, or sentences.
Read some or all of your selection as a group, as part of a group, or as individuals.
Alter the order of the text.
Position yourselves around the room as you see fit.
You may not use props, but you can use body positioning to achieve a certain effect.
Everyone has to participate.
4/ Groups Perform
There are many ways to structure performances. Some teachers ask students to take notes while all groups perform. Then students use their notes to guide their reactions to the performances. Alternatively, teachers might ask students to comment immediately after each performance. It is best if students’ comments are phrased in the form of positive feedback rather than in the form of a critique (e.g., “It would have been better if…”). Before debriefing performances, you can go over the types of comments that are appropriate and inappropriate, or you can provide students with “starters” they could use when phrasing their feedback. The following are examples of starters that frame positive feedback:
It was powerful for me when…
The performance that helped me understand the text in a new way is…because…
It was interesting how…
One performance that stood out to me is…because…
I was surprised when…because…
5/ Students Reflect
After presenting and debriefing performances, give students the opportunity to reflect on their learning and participation in this activity. How did it feel to present? To receive feedback? What would they do differently next time? Students can answer these questions in their journals, and then you can allow volunteers to share ideas or questions from what they wrote.