Bears don't need phonics: An examination of the role of drama in laying the foundations for critical thinking in the reading process

Montgomerie, D., & Ferguson, J. (1999). Bears don't need phonics: An examination of the role of drama in laying the foundations for critical thinking in the reading process. Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance, 4(1), 11 - 20.

Abstract:

The researchers use a case study approach to discover whether and how educators’ use of process drama contributes to the development of critical literacy skills for four- to eight-year-old students, some who speak another language in addition to English. The researchers used a six-week intervention program in inner-city sections of the United Kingdom, which focused on the joint use of process drama and standard reading activities. The drama program utilized a range of picture books that met the needs of the children and the requirements of the teachers. The books and reading exercises were used as a jumping off point for the process drama portion of the program, making use of gaps and unresolved issues in the narrative to encourage critical thinking in reading through a balance of engagement and content knowledge or understanding.

The researchers selected two stories to use as their case studies. Through the process drama activities, students explored multiple viewpoints, identified and attempted to solve problems, and applied their own logic, competencies necessary in critical reading (challenging the text). Additionally, process drama activities provided a catalyst for English language learners to access and use their language skills in a safe environment.

Key Findings:

By using process drama as part of the reading curriculum, educators were able to elicit competencies needed for critical thinking. Specifically, students became aware of and explored multiple and alternative viewpoints in addition to those presented in the text. Also, the use of process drama provided a rich context for language development including the construction of argument and adoption of different ways of speaking depending on circumstances.

The process drama program also offered English language learners the opportunity to access and use their language skills. In one case, an Arabic student applied his linguistic competence and experiences in being misunderstood to assess the language barriers between characters in the drama, and to build a scaffolding mechanism to bridge the gaps in understanding between characters. This type of communication success exemplifies the type of skills and competencies necessary for critical reading and language development.

Significance of the Findings:

This research suggests that through the inclusion of process drama in the reading curriculum, elementary teachers may be able to help students develop both basic and higher level, cognitively demanding literacy and language skills. The study serves as a foundation for future, more structured, and experimentally designed research studies that could confirm the viability of drama as a method for teaching critical reading and language skills.

Methodology:

For six weeks, researchers and teachers participated in and observed sessions of a process drama reading intervention held in selected classrooms located in inner-city areas of the United Kingdom. Students in these classrooms ranged from four to eight years of age and spoke another language in addition to English. Each classroom involved participated in two or three half-day sessions. Researchers reviewed observations from these sessions in order to identify literacy events that occurred.

Limitations of the Research:

These findings apply to a specific setting and sample and thus may not generalize to other groups. Also, although the researchers suggest that the literacy and language developments seen in their findings are not isolated cases, it remains unclear whether such instances would continue to occur over longer periods of time. The study is further limited in its exclusion of pre-and post-test assessments to gauge the changes in critical reading ability of students participating in the program. The inclusion of a control group in which students do not participate in process drama during the reading lessons could serve as a comparison and strengthen the findings attributed to process drama.

Questions to Guide New Research:

Students of what ages and backgrounds and in what contexts benefit from teachers’ use of process drama supplemented reading instruction and to what extent do they benefit? What are the long-term outcomes of process drama reading instruction? Further research is needed to look at fine-grain elements of critical reading and how each of these competencies is or is not affected by drama and what specific elements of drama participation contribute most to critical reading and language arts development.