A study of readers theater in eighth grade: Issues of fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary

Keehn, S., Harmon, J., & Shoho, A. (2008). A study of readers theater in eighth grade: Issues of fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 24(4), 335-362.

Abstract:

Researchers examined the effects of Readers Theater (performance reading) on the reading achievement and motivation of struggling eight grade students in a low socioeconomic neighborhood in a large metropolitan area in south Texas. Researchers used two intact eighth grade classrooms as the treatment and control groups, both working with the same six stories. The treatment group read, rehearsed, and performed Readers Theater versions of the stories over six week’s time while the control group participated in traditional reading-based activities using the original versions of the stories. Researchers administered pre- and post-tests for reading ability level, fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary, the latter of which they also tested periodically throughout the study. Researchers also administered interviews to the treatment group at the conclusion of the study. Results showed that the students in the Readers Theater group outperformed students in the control group on gains in reading ability level, reading fluency, and vocabulary. Interview results also suggested that participation in Readers Theater was motivating for many students and helped build their reading confidence.

Key Findings:

Results of the Ekwall/Shanker Reading Inventory showed that students in the Readers Theater group outperformed students in the control group on gains in reading level from pre-test to posttest. Students in the Readers Theater group outperformed students in the control group on gains in reading fluency. Though there is a strong correlation between fluency and comprehension, researchers did not find a statistically significant difference between the treatment and control groups in comprehension.

Vocabulary: Students in the Readers Theater group outperformed students in the control group on gains in vocabulary, with the Readers Theater group nearly doubling the vocabulary acquisition of their peers in the comparison group.

Motivation: Students in the Readers Theater group reported in interviews that they made gains in confidence, the ability to express themselves, and in voice projection. Several students mentioned improved reading as an outcome. Students also shared that they liked the stories that were chosen, the story performances, and the feeling of being engaged.

Significance of the Findings:

These findings suggest that teachers may be able to expedite literacy development for middle school students who continue to read below grade level through the use of Readers Theater, particularly in the areas of reading level, fluency, and vocabulary.

Methodology:

Researchers used two intact reading classrooms in a Title I middle school located in Texas for the control and treatment groups in the six-week long study. The sample consisted of a total of 36 eighth grade students, 60% of whom were Hispanic and 33% of whom were black. The treatment group consisted of sixteen students, including nine identified as special education students while the control group was comprised of twenty students, none of whom were identified as special education students. Leven’s test of equality confirmed that the groups were statistically equivalent based on reading level at the start of the study.

A single teacher with eight years of experience and knowledge of Readers Theater taught both groups, with some assistance from the researchers with the Readers Theater group at the beginning of the study.

At the beginning and ending of the intervention period, the researchers administered the Ekwall/Shanker Reading Inventory to measure reading growth and comprehension and the NAEP Fluency Rating Scale and Diagnostic Fluency Scale to measure changes in oral reading. They also administered vocabulary tests throughout the course of the study. Researchers compared gains made from pretest to posttest between the two groups.

After the intervention phase, students in the Readers Theater group answered open-ended interview questions about their experience, which were taped, transcribed, and subsequently analyzed by the researchers.

Limitations of the Research:

The study is weakened through its use of intact classrooms rather than random assignment of students to treatment and control groups. Moreover, although the groups were shown through Leven’s test to be reading on average at the same level at the start of the study, the presence of a sizeable number of special education students in one group only (the treatment group) suggests the possibility that the two groups were not equal and that the final results may reflect more than participation in a particular reading method. Likewise, the difference in time each group spent engaged with each story (five days for the treatment group and two days for the control group) and the fact that the researchers worked initially with the Readers Theater group but not with the control group may have influenced results. Without the use of randomly-assigned or otherwise equivalent groups that receive similar experiences, the Readers Theater intervention cannot be isolated as the only independent variable affecting results.

Questions to Guide New Research:

This study suggests that Readers Theater may be beneficial in improving literacy outcomes for adolescents; however, lack of stringency in some portions of the study design raises some questions with respect to the validity and reliability of results. In the future, researchers should attempt to replicate this study while employing tighter controls (i.e., exposing both groups to the stories for the same length of time and through random assignment or at least more similar intact classrooms) to see if the results remain the same.