Imagery-based learning: Improving elementary students’ reading comprehension with drama techniques

Rose, D. S., Parks, M., Androes, K., & McMahon, S.D. (2000). Imagery-based learning: Improving elementary students’ reading comprehension with drama techniques. Journal of Educational Research, 94(1), 55-63.


This study examines the relationship between drama-based reading instruction and reading comprehension among fourth-grade students. The researchers used a randomized pretest-posttest control-group design to compare student outcomes from a drama-based reading program to those of a traditional reading program. Students in the drama-based reading program (the experimental group) participated in 10-weeks of theory-driven, research-based reading comprehension instruction that used drama techniques emphasizing imagery, elaboration, and story element segmentation. Students in the traditional reading program (the control group) received a traditional text-based reading curriculum. The researchers compared the group’s reading comprehension subtest scores on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS) and on a performance assessment (PA), which they developed.

Results showed that the drama-instruction group significantly improved their reading comprehension skills in comparison to the control group. These findings provide evidence for a causal link between drama-based instruction and improved reading comprehension, and suggest that drama-based reading instruction may be more effective than traditional approaches in improving students’ reading skills.

Key Findings:

  • The researchers found that overall reading scores on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS) increased significantly more for the RCD students than for the control students, even after controlling for pretest differences.
  • RCD students also improved significantly more than control students on the Factual Comprehension subscale of the ITBS. No differences were found on the Inferential Comprehension subscale of the ITBS.
  • Analyses of the performance assessment (PA) scores indicated parallel results, with the RCD group showing significantly greater improvement in overall reading comprehension compared to the control group.
  • Of four PA subscales, the experimental students improved significantly more than the control students on the two drama-based subscales (Factual Information–Drama and Inferential Understanding-Drama).

Significance of the Findings:

These findings have implications for educators and schools as they suggest that drama-based instruction is an effective method for teaching basic skills such as reading and thus that basic skills education and arts education are not mutually exclusive. The researchers emphasized the success of this reading program was due to its theory-driven, research-based integrative approach. The study’s method of teaching language arts drew from specific elements of the dramatic arts that are consistent with research on memory, learning, and reading comprehension.


Four public elementary schools in Chicago participated in the study. Two fourth-grade classrooms from each school were randomly selected to participate and specific classrooms were then randomly assigned to either the experimental (94 students) or control (85 students) groups. The experimental drama-based program took place for 10 weeks (20 sessions, 1 hour twice a week) running from late February to early May. Whirlwind, a non-profit arts education organization, designed and implemented the Reading Comprehension through Drama (RCD) program. The program was divided into four stages focusing respectively on: story, sequence, perception, and evaluation. The control group received traditional reading instruction. Researchers worked in collaboration with Whirlwind to evaluate the effects of RCD, comparing student outcomes measured by the reading comprehension scores (grade equivalence) of the ITBS and a performance assessment (PA), which the researchers created to assess both reading comprehension and drama skills. ITBS scores for both groups were compared from the end of their third-grade year (before the drama program) to the end of their fourth-grade year (after the program). Because the groups differed in their pretest scores, analyses of covariance (ANCOVAs) were conducted with pretest scores as a covariate.

Limitations of the Research:

The researchers noted a major limitation regarding the effect of individual teachers on student achievement. In this study, students are linked to specific teachers/classrooms and because researchers did not formally assess teacher style or abilities, they were not able to disentangle or account for teacher differences on students’ reading achievement. It is possible that the more experienced, higher ability teachers were in the experimental group, which may have biased results. Additionally, researchers did not use multilevel statistical analyses to statistically account for this type of nested data (i.e., students nested in teachers/classrooms). Another limitation was the possibility that the change of the teaching method for reading (i.e., novelty) rather than the method itself, could have affected reading achievement scores. All study participants were from low income-urban neighborhoods therefore results might not generalize to other samples, such as those with a wider range of socioeconomic status (SES) levels or in rural or suburban communities.

Questions to Guide New Research:

Would findings hold when differences in teacher abilities are taken into account? How long do the enhanced reading comprehension effects last? Were the effects simply due to the novelty of the drama-based teaching method, which began in the spring and ended just prior to the spring ITBS testing period? If the program ran the duration of the school year would similar results be found? Are the effects limited to students of lower SES or would findings hold for samples from a wider range of SES backgrounds?