Reader's Theater

Page No.: 
Diane L. Massey, Fujimura Girls' Junior and Senior High School

Key Words: Reading, Literature
Learner English Level: Intermediate to Advanced
Learner Maturity Level: High School to Adult
Preparation Time: 5 minutes to copy sample script
Activity Time: 90 to 120 minutes

Reader's Theater challenges your students to create and perform a short skit based on a student-selected text. This is an excellent activity for classes using literature groups or extensive reading. Reader's Theater requires a small group of students all working with the same text. This text could be an excerpt from a novel, a graded reader, a short story, or a textbook. The text should be selected by the students and should include an even mix of dialog and narrative.

The purpose

The main purpose for Reader's Theater is not for students to improve memorization or pronunciation skills. Instead, Reader's Theater focuses students on key events in a plot, the purpose underlying an author's writing, and the dramatic emotions and actions of the characters. Your students interpret a text, first by recreating it in a condensed form, and then by dramatizing the actions and emotions within the text.

The process

In Reader's Theater, students work in small teams of four to six people. Each team is responsible for (a) choosing a text that describes a scene or event, (b) determining how many characters and narrators there are in the scene, (c) writing a script of the text, (d) practicing their script and adding Reader's Theater gestures to enhance the drama, and (e) performing the scene in front of the class. Two ground rules for script writing are (a) there should be one narrator for each character; and (b) students may delete words from the text, but may never add words to the text.

The steps of writing a Reader's Theater script are

  1. Note the main events of the text.
  2. Determine the author's purpose.
  3. Identify the most important words the author wrote.
  4. Delete the words that are not crucial to the story's progression or outcome.

Condensing a text into a script is as much about writing as it is about reading: Each Reader's Theater group will want their script to remain true to the full version of the story, and thus will have to pay close attention to the writing process. The final stage of creating a Reader's Theater script focuses on identifying and adding appropriate gestures and emotions to the reading of the script. This stage of practicing and acting out the script, using drama to reach an audience, arguably brings authenticity to the students' speaking. Students performing a Reader's Theater script enter into the text at a personal level as they assume roles of characters and narrators. Again, the objective is not to memorize the script (though that might occur at some level); the objective is to make a text more real or authentic for your class, through their creative interpretation of it.

Demonstrating the activity to students

The Appendix gives a sample Reader's Theater script. The script is adapted from "Little Things" by Raymond Carter, a poignant short story perfect for demonstrating Reader's Theater scripting. You might want to write your own sample script based on a reading or a book used in class.

Before class, make copies of your script (one for each speaking part) and give them to some student volunteers to practice. Encourage these students to think of good gestures and emotions to add to the script. As a part of your explanation of the activity to the class, these students will demonstrate reading the script. Make it clear to them that they should not memorize the script.

During class, provide handouts of the sample script, and also provide the original text of the short story to the students. Explain the purpose and process of Reader's Theater according to the steps described above. Have the volunteers perform the script for the class. Discuss what happened in the story. Then, have students compare the original story with the script, bringing attention to those phrases deleted as well as kept. Ask the class how they might change the script further by adding or deleting more of the author's words. Model this on the board.

Tips on finishing the project

After students choose their own texts to script, give them time in class to write and practice. Seeing teams caught up in the creative process will motivate other teams in their own writing and acting, and you, as the teacher, will be able to monitor the development of your students' projects. Encourage students away from using props and costumes; instead, focus them on motion and expression to tell their story. For the performance itself, have teams place their narrators next to the "stage" rather than on it, so that the characters have more range for movement and are obviously separate from the narrators. Students should not be given time to memorize their scripts as this is not the purpose of this activity. However, they should hold their scripts well below their faces during the performance, so that the audience can appreciate all of their expressions and gestures.


Reader's Theater is an entertaining way to literally bring a text to life. It encourages students to interact with their text at a personal level. Reader's Theater also compliments extensive reading projects and literature studies courses: It offers an energetic approach to students demonstrating their knowledge of literary elements such as plot, character, and purpose.

Appendix: Sample script

Copies may be made for classroom use.

"Little Things"

by Raymond Carver

Characters Narrators
M = Man N1 = Narrator 1 (for Man)
W = Woman N2 = Narrator 2 (for Woman)
Nl: He was in the bedroom pushing clothes into a suitcase when N1: but he reached across and tightened his hands on the baby.
N2: She came to the door. M: Let go of him.
W: I'm glad you're leaving! I'm glad you're leaving! W: Get away, get away!
Nl: He kept putting things into the suitcase. N1: He held on to the baby and pushed with all his weight.
W: Son of a bitch! I'm so glad you're leaving! M: Let go of him.
N2: She began to cry. W: Don't. You're hurting the baby.
Nl: He looked at her. M: I'm not hurting the baby.
N2: She wiped her eyes and stared at him. N1: He gripped the screaming baby up under an arm near the shoulder.
W: Just get your things and get out. N2: She felt the baby going from her.
N1: He did not answer. He fastened his suit case, put on his coat, and looked around the bedroom. W: No!
N2: She stood in the doorway, holding the baby. N2: She grabbed for the baby's other arm. She caught the baby around the wrist and leaned back,
M: I want the baby. N1: but he would not let go. He pulled back very hard.
W: Are you crazy?

N1 and N2: The issue was decided.

M: No, but I want the baby.  
W: You're not touching this baby!  
M: I want the baby.  
W: Get out of here!  
N2: She turned and tried to hold the baby over in a corner,