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Words flow like music from Lorraine Griffith's classroom. It's not unusual to hear a chorus of sound coming from her students. These fifth graders are reading aloud... a lot. Griffith is helping each child to discover that reading is enjoyable and that each of them can do it well. She is guiding each young reader to remarkable gains in overall reading proficiency. She has a precise plan, and it begins with reader's theater.
Why reader's theater? A great deal of research and Griffith's own classroom experience show that making reader's theater a regular part of a balanced, instructional plan builds fluency. Fluency is, of course, essential to readng comprehension. She explains it to her students this way: "It takes a lot of brain power to decode the words AND to understand what you're reading. If you're spending all your brain power on just figuring out the words, you don't have much brain power left over to understand what you've read." First you read fluently. Then and only then can a reader comprehend text independently.
Griffith recalls that a few years ago, as a fourth grade teacher, she had a student who was struggling. The student received a great deal of extra support, including with phonics and critical thinking skills. When the time came for final testing, the student was flummoxed. Though the child was bright and had made incredible progress with decoding and comprehension, the student wasn't able to read fluently and this made it impossible for her to demonstrate all the wonderful skills she DID possess. Griffith realized that fluency was the missing piece. She learned the following summer about other educators' achievements with reader's theater, and she began to use this new approach liberally and enthusiastically.
Over the next three years, she witnessed students gaining as much as three years of reading progress in a single year. She would introduce new reader's theater scripts at the start of each week and students would perform at week's end. This was not the kind of round robin reading that had worried readers, filling with dread about what would happen when it was their turn. Reader's theater provided a tool for repeated reading, for practice of short passages... and because the point was to interpret and perform, students understood that reading with feeling was a natural goal. Suddenly, reading became a social activity and a highly enjoyable one. Each student, even the struggling readers, had a way to feel successful. Griffith speaks about her results with great conviction. "The light comes on for kids who never had anyone enjoy their reading. That round robin style of reading and the dread they would feel anticipating their turn is all in the past. Now these kids are finding their voices!"
Griffith began by finding short scripts that were free or inexpensive. Over time, she also wrote some of the scripts and later still, she had students write some of their own. In one instance, she had students write scripts explaining what had happened to the Lost Colony of North Carolina... using different perspectives. This was a lesson in social studies, a lesson in fluency, a lesson in writing and a lesson in creative thinking... all in one. Maybe most importantly, because students were so engaged, she recalls that it was possibly the most effective language arts lesson she'd ever taught on literary point of view.
Griffith praises reader's theater because of the simplicity. You don't memorize the lines. It's about reading and re-reading to become more expressive, to reflect a deep understanding of what is happening in the story. Props and costumes are not needed. It's just the reader and the words and the classroom becomes the stage.
More than ten years after her first foray into the realm of reader's theater, it is still a regular part of her instruction. It's foundational, in many ways. But she has helped her students to stretch in their approach to interpretive reading. They read, write and perform poetry, for example. They read and re-read short stories to cull deeper meaning and to make the language truly sing. They select short passages from great children's literature...practicing and then performing in ways that illustrate they have a connection with the characters and they understand the narrative purpose. "We want kids to identify with the the character, and they don't get the character or the conflict until they can read with that character's voice. That's when we know that they understand." Again, Griffith cites the regular, integrated use of reader's theater as a major factor in getting students to a high level of comprehension and reading enjoyment. "They learn to read that way because of reader's theater."
Griffith sees all her students becoming more passionate readers and improving in measureable ways, but she notes special benefits for those who come to her having had limited reading success. Reader's theater works wonders for those students. The engagement and the repetition helps make difficult text more accessible for them. And though the lower level readers may not get the most challenging parts, they still get exposure. Griffith says, "That's why reader's theater is so good, because even the lowest student is benefitting because they're tracking all the words. It's almost like a tutoring program. Just like in a choir, you're learning the Latin parts even if you're not the one singing the Latin parts."
Fluency expert Tim Rasinski, learning of Griffith's breakthroughs, has teamed up with her to write a number of books on fluency and reader's theater. Interestingly, both of these educators have a background in music. Griffith suggests there is more than a small correlation between music and fluency. In both genres, the goal is to connect in a way that allows you to feel something and to share what you've felt, what you've grown to understand. In reading a great speech, for example, "it starts to move them," she says. "They're internalizing the language. It moves them! They're experiencing the words in context instead of memorizing a vocabulary list."
As Lorraine Griffith expands her teaching repertoire and her expertise as an educator, she is becoming more interested in content-area learning... and in finding and making the most of opportunities for fluency and comprehension beyond the reader's theater experience. But she says reader's theater is as central in her quest for language arts excellence as it's ever been. As a method, it has proven its merit, especially in helping once-frustrated readers to reach new heights. "They come as struggling readers and leave with a certain confidence... almost an aura about them when they walk out the door." The difference, you might say, is dramatic.
Lorraine Griffith has been an elementary classroom teacher for more than 20 years. She currently teaches 5th grade at West Buncombe Elementary in Asheville, North Carolina. She wrote about her three years of charting students' fluency progress in a 2004 article for The Reading Teacher. She has collaborated with Tim Rasinski on more than a dozen books and a professional development program, as well. She is currently working with Common Core, an organization created to promote a rich and comprehensive learning experience for all students... one that goes beyond basic instruction and helps to create life-long learners.
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