Taking It to the Stage With Readers Theater

Readers Theater gets kids up on their feet and learning—and it's lots of fun.
Illustration by Roger Chouiuard

Illustration by Roger Chouiuard

At American Library Association (ALA) conferences, librarians expect to see famous authors like M.T. Anderson, Shannon Hale, Linda Sue Park, and Eric Rohmann talk about their latest books. But some years ago, I observed these four authors sharing one stage in a way I hadn’t seen before. They weren’t talking about their books—they were performing them: reading from theatrical scripts adapted from their novels, and speaking as if they were actors in a play. Moderator/host Elizabeth Poe called it “Readers Theater.”

I was transfixed and vowed to replicate it at my library—with kids “performing” books as a group. For the last seven years, I’ve done just that. Children have performed everything from Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (Harper & Row, 1963) to Mo Willems’s The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog! (Disney/Hyperion, 2004), plus poetry and adapted easy readers.

Readers Theater is fun, and it has also gathered attention from educators—who note its connections to everything from the Common Core State Standards to an increase in literacy skills and self-esteem. It has even helped turn nonreaders into avid bookworms.


Children at the Sachem Public Library compare book and script of Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith’s Squids Will Be Quids (above); rehearsing (center below); and performing (bottom).
Photos courtesy of Sachem Public Library.

Building confidence and fluency

Readers Theater, a shared, live experience, has a completely different dynamic than reading a book aloud. Slight changes in language, along with facial and physical gestures, distill the story and make it come alive. Readers Theater doesn’t have to incorporate costumes, props, music, or sound effects. It’s inexpensive and easy to replicate—that rare program whose minimal cost yields immeasurable results.

Librarians and educators across the country are putting their own spins on Readers Theater, seeing how it builds confidence, reading skills, and teamwork. At Sachem Public Library (Holbrook, NY), where I work, I do Readers Theater with fourth and fifth graders. Other libraries include community members, staff, and entire families.

“Readers Theater fosters camraderie among children—it helps them build the skills to work as a team for a shared result,” says Rebecca Pollino, youth services coordinator at Cambria County Library in Johnstown, PA, where families with kids of all ages participate in a one-day Readers Theater event. During one session, “the youngest child was in preschool…He didn’t use a script, but relied on the older children in the performance to cue him for his line. Not only did this guide the younger child, but it also gave the older children a sense of directorship.”

SLJ1504-ReadersTheatre-pic1Readers Theater also heightens an awareness of plot and language nuance. “If students can ‘be’ a character—own the dialogue—it’s a natural way for them to understand and intuitively begin to feel how a plot develops,” says children’s author Margie Palatini, who provides free Readers Theater scripts of some of her books on her website. “Dialogue becomes not just words or a funny one-liner—but purposeful language that moves the story and builds character.”

“There is something positive in getting kids out of their chairs and in front of an audience,” adds Palatini. “Communication skills and natural self-assurance are valuable assets that our children need as they move through their school years and beyond.”

I’ve seen many times how it builds kids’ self confidence. In the first session of one of my programs, I had one boy participant and 10 girls. “He’ll never come back,” I thought. But he did, choosing to read a script for Jack Prelutsky’s poem “Homework! Oh, Homework!” and performing like a champ. He said, “Once we started reading together, it didn’t really matter” that he was the only boy. His mother added happily, “I never thought I’d see my son enjoy reading poetry.”

SLJ1504-ReadersTheatre-pic2Struggling readers “shine”

School librarians use Readers Theater to create strong community partnerships. Sue Abrahamson, a youth librarian at Waupaca Area (WI) Public Library, collaborates with teachers looking for ways to enhance a curriculum topic. She suggests age-appropriate picture books and works with the teacher to write scripts and stage programs.

“Teachers tell us they are always blown away by at least one student who they see as a struggling reader, but when the performance of the Readers Theater allows him or her to shine, the child’s confidence is boosted and he or she can take the next step to liking reading better,” says Abrahamson.

Jim Jeske, children’s librarian at the San Francisco Public Library, uses Readers Theater scripts to boost children’s reading and comprehensions skills during his monthly visits to a community school. “We try to pay attention to the difference between exposition and dialogue—read one straight, give the other a bit of personality,” he says. This “allow[s] them to better hear and comprehend what’s on the printed page.”

“Sometimes it takes a teacher and a good script to get kids…the attention and the moment in the limelight they so desperately need and deserve,” notes Cynthia Rand, drama instructor at Newton-Conover (NC) City School, in a quote on the website of Aaron Shepard, author of Readers on Stage (Shepard Publications, 2004). She cites the example of a small, quiet boy who played “a tough cowboy” in a Readers Theater script. “He was so with it—so together, so loud with his lines, so big with his walk, so clear with his character’s expressions.”

A script adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where the WIld Things Are.

A script adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where the WIld Things Are.

Common Core connections

“The Common Core Standards emphasize training ‘students who are college- and career-ready in reading, writing, speaking, listening, and language,’” says children’s literature consultant Judy Freeman, author, with Caroline Feller Bauer, of The Handbook for Storytellers (ALA Editions, 2015). “Readers Theater is the closest thing to a silver bullet that we have to help make that happen, and it doesn’t involve high-stakes testing or drill-and-kill worksheets. It’s so ridiculously easy to implement, it’s a wonder it hasn’t become part of every classroom’s curriculum.”

“As a learning tool, the main value of Readers Theater is that it’s fun,” adds Shepard, whose Readers on Stage has recently been designated a central text in the New York State Common Core curriculum. “I’ve heard over and over again how much kids—even reluctant readers—enjoy performing the scripts and work hard to do it well. Part of the magic comes from it being a team effort, meaning each student is supported and encouraged in reading by peers.” Shepard shares free Readers Theater scripts online, and I use his “tips on reading” with my kids. His site is also a reliable source for large-group (as many as 22 readers) scripts. “Peddler Polly and the Story Stealer” and “More Than a Match” are among his many offerings with humor and cross-gender appeal.

“The clever part is that children don’t realize they’re doing something that’s good for them,” Freeman adds. They are “practicing reading aloud with expression, fluency, comprehension, and the one thing that the ubiquitous standardized tests don’t assess—though it’s the most important thing of all—the sheer joy of it.”

My Readers Theater program

At Sachem Public Library, I limit my registration to 15 fourth and fifth graders per event. The kids perform two scripts: one in a small group, and another as a full cast.

I like to develop the performances in one-hour sessions over three consecutive days. During the first hour, children form their own groups of two to five readers for their small-group performance, and I give them scripts to choose from. We designate roles for the full-cast script by pulling part names from a hat (and switch later if kids don’t like their roles). I photocopy and highlight each child’s scripts, making a set for myself and extras in case kids forget theirs on performance day.

I also create a playbill listing performers’ names and book titles. I put the scripts in folders, along with tip sheets with suggestions such as: If you make a mistake, pretend you didn’t and keep going; hold your script low enough so the audience can see your face; and audiences love a ham—emote!

In the second hour, we rehearse in the room where children will perform. They practice introducing themselves, announcing their script title, and taking a bow. We talk about the performing tips, and the kids offer each other encouragement.

SLJ1504-ReadersPullQuoteHour three is the performance, and family and friends are invited to watch. If a child doesn’t show, I ask for a volunteer among the kids to read the additional part. I give a brief introduction, and then the first group introduces themselves and the fun begins, with all the unpredictability and energy rush of a live performance. After the final reading, families mingle, enjoying refreshments and lavishing praise on the young stars of the day.

Great titles for adaption

There are two approaches to scripts: have children write them or use pre-written ones. Poe, the author of From Children’s Literature to Readers Theatre (ALA Editions, 2013), advocates for a “bottom-up, reader-centered” approach, involving kids in all aspects of the experience, as opposed to a “top-down, theater-centered” one with pre-written scripts. A school library may be an ideal setting for Poe’s recommendation—for instance, to culminate a Drop Everything and Read event, or a family reading initiative. In my public library experience, children don’t always come to all of the meetings they need to write their own scripts, so I usually use existing ones or those I’ve adapted. Some of my online sources for scripts include the sites “Teaching Heart: Readers Theater Scripts and Plays” (teachingheart.net/readerstheater.htm) and “Timeless Teacher Stuff” (timelessteacherstuff.com).

Picture books and easy readers readily lend themselves to scripts, because they provide a brief, complete story arc. Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith’s Squids Will Be Squids (Viking, 1998) and Kevin O’Malley’s Once Upon a Cool Motorcycle Dude (Walker, 2005) were among the first I adapted. In addition, dialogue-rich texts with a few characters, such as Lauren Child’s I Will Never Not Ever Eat a Tomato (Candlewick, 2003) and Arnold Lobel’s “Frog and Toad” series (HarperCollins), work well. Humorous titles are usually big hits. It’s not always necessary to rewrite a text, but it is important to create separate speaking parts, including a narrator role to supplement the dialogue if needed.

As for poetry, Mary Ann Hoberman’s book You Read to Me, I’ll Read to You: Very Short Stories to Read Together (Little, Brown 2001) is a favorite in my department. Written for two voices, these poems need no adapting for a pair of readers. Other reliable poetry books include Shel Silverstein’s Falling Up (HarperCollins, 1996)—kids love reading “Furniture Bash”—and Jack Prelutsky’s The New Kid on the Block (Greenwillow, 1984), with the very popular “Homework! Oh, Homework!”

In a large-cast performance, make sure that the number of speaking lines is evenly distributed. That may require retooling if you’re using a pre-written script, but remember—each family in the audience came to see their young star shine. Finally, a word on copyright: Copyright laws consider it fair use to adapt or excerpt from books used in a school or library for educational purposes, so long as admission isn’t charged.

My next Readers Theater event is Peter Pan, part of a weeklong community celebration honoring Maude Adams, a town resident who starred in the 1905 Broadway production. I can’t wait to get started!

Readers Theater Resources

ONLINE MATERIALS  There are no fees to use information from these sites. Aaron Shepard's RT page Scripts and general information Teaching Heart's Scripts and general information. Margie Palatini's the author's own Readers Theater scripts. http://www.timelessteacherstuff.com/ Scripts and general information. PBS Kids Zoom Playhouse Plays and scripts. Scholastic Readers Theater page Explanation of Readers Theater and resources. Dr. Young's Reading Room Suggested scripts. Teachingbooks.net Readers Theater Meet-the-Author Program Video of Avi, Sharon Creech, Walter Dean Myers, Sarah Weeks) in performance and discussing Reader's Theater.   PROFESSIONAL WORKS Fredericks, Anthony D. Tadpole Tales and Other Totally Terrific Tales for Readers Theatre (Teachers Ideas Press,1997) Fredericks, Anthony D. Silly Salamanders and Other Slightly Stupid Stuff for Readers Theatre (Teacher Ideas Press, 2000) Fredericks, Anthony D. MORE Frantic Frogs and Other Frankly Fractured Fairy Tales for Readers Theatre. (Teacher Ideas Press, 2008) Fredericks, Anthony D. Fairy Tale Readers Theatre (Libraries Unlimited, 2009) Freeman, Judy. Once Upon a Time: Using Storytelling, Creative Drama, and Reader's Theater with Children in Grades PreK-6  (Libraries Unlimited, 2007) Freeman, Judy and Bauer, Caroline Feller. The Handbook for Storytellers (ALA Editions, 2015) Freeman, Judy and Bauer, Caroline Feller. The Handbook for Storytime Programs. (ALA Editions, 2015) Poe, Elizabeth. From Children's Literature to Readers Theatre  (ALA Editions, 2013) Shepard, Aaron. Readers on Stage: Resources for Reader's Theater with Tips, Play Scripts,and Worksheets  (Shepard Publications, c2004) Shepard, Aaron. Stories on Stage: Children's Plays for Readers' Theater (Shepard Publications, 2005) Shepard, Aaron. Folktales on Stage: Children's Plays for Readers Theater with 16 Play Scripts from World Folk and Fairy Tales (Shepard Publications, 2004)   BOOKS I'VE REWRITTEN AS READERS THEATER SCRIPTS Agee, Jon. Milo's Hat Trick (Hyperion, 2001) Agee, Jon. The Retired Kid (Hyperion, 2008) Child, Lauren. I Will Never Not Ever Eat a Tomato (Candlewick, 2000) Cronin, Doreen. Click, Clack, Moo Cows That Type (Simon and Schuster, 2000) O'Malley, Kevin. Once Upon a Cool Motorcycle Dude (Walker & Co., 2005) Hartman, Bob. The Wolf Who Cried Boy (G.P Putnam's Sons, 2002) Hoberman, Mary Ann. You Read to Me, I'll Read to You: Very Short Scary Tales. (Little, Brown, 2007) “Scaredy Cats.” “Goblins, Gremlins, Demons and Devils” Lobel, Arnold. Frog and Toad Together  (HarperCollins, 1971) “Cookies.” Marshall, James. The Cut-Ups (Viking Kestral, 1984) Marshall, James. George and Martha: One Fine Day (Houghton Mifflin, 1978) Novak, Matt. The Everything Machine (Roaring Brook, 2009) Palatini, Margie. Sweet Tooth (Simon and Schuster, 2004) Pilkey, Dav. Kat Kong (Harcourt Brace, 1993) Prelutsky, Jack. The New Kid on the Block: Poems (Greenwillow Books, 1984). “Be Glad Your Nose is on Your Face,” “Homework, Oh Homework” Sciezska, Jon. Squids Will Be Squids: Fresh Morals; Beastly Fables (Viking, 1998).  “Straw and    Matches,”  “Grasshopper Logic.” Sendak, Maurice. Where the Wild Things Are  (Harper & Row, 1963) Shields, Carol Diggory. Someone Used My Toothbrush and Other Bathroom Poems (Dutton, 2010) “Bellowing in the Bathroom,” “Pretty,” “Soaked.” Silverstein, Shel.  Falling Up: Poems and Drawings  (HarperCollins, 1996).  “Furniture Bash,”     “Snowball,” “My Robot,” “Yuck,” “No Thank You,” “Mirror, Mirror.” Silverstein, Shel. Where the Sidewalk Ends: the Poems and Drawings of Shel Silverstein  (HarperCollins, 1974).  “Pirate Captain Jim.” Walton, Rick. A Very Hairy Scary Story (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2004) Willems, Mo. The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog (Hyperion, 2004)

Marybeth Kozikowski is a children’s librarian at Sachem Public Library in Holbrook, NY. She is a member of the 2015 May Hill Arbuthnot Honor Lecture Committee and a mentor in the ALSC Mentoring Program.

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Debbie Dadey

Hope you'll check out more Reader's Theater (Vampires Don't Wear Polka Dots and Mermaids Don't Run Track) here: http://www.debbiedadey.com/Teachers/index.php?gid=63

Posted : Apr 13, 2015 11:37

Nancy Goodrich

I heard about Readers Theater, while attending a Summer Institute at Longwood University with Dr. Audrey Church. I have reading classes and library class students do Readers Theater throughout the school year. Students love Readers Theater. I haven't thought about having students create scripts from picture books that is a great idea. Love the article, will share with my colleagues.

Posted : Apr 10, 2015 06:22

Teresa Garrett

In Texas check out the Texas Library Association site - Reading Lists for Reader's Theater Scripts that correlate to the books on the Texas Bluebonnet List. https://texasbluebonnetaward2016.wordpress.com

Posted : Apr 10, 2015 04:39



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