The flight of reading: Shifts in instruction, orchestration, and attitudes through classroom theatre

Wolf, S. A. (1998). The flight of reading: Shifts in instruction, orchestration, and attitudes through classroom theatre. Reading Research Quarterly, 33(4), 382-415.1

Abstract:

This research studied 17 children labeled “at risk” in a remedial third- and fourth-grade classroom. During the study, the teacher and students transformed their reading program from one that used “traditional” instruction to one in which they worked mainly through classroom theater activities, under the guidance of a visiting artist. Instead of traditional cycles of reading, students began to approach their texts through interpretation aimed at performing narratives and excerpts from their readings. The researcher studied instructional practice, children’s approaches to reading, children’s attitudes about reading, and the degree to which children created meaning from text. She found that children called on background knowledge, became decision-makers and experts as they interpreted the texts, and improved their accuracy and momentum. Children expanded their understandings and explored alternative expressions, coming to see themselves as actors, as expressers, and for the first time, the author concludes, as readers.

Key Findings:

Through classroom theater, new reading resources became available to participating students, especially peer discussions in which they could argue and negotiate meanings of texts. Amidst the challenge to dramatize, “…children called on background knowledge, blending their understandings into others (sic). They became decision-makers and experts as they interpreted the words and did not simply turn the pages…. Through increased opportunities for practice, the children not only got inside the text but improved their accuracy and momentum.” Children expanded their understandings and explored alternative expressions; they began to see themselves as actors, as expressers, and for the first time, the author concludes, as readers.

Significance of the Findings:

This study offers the field an example of a thoughtful, patient, and long-term inquiry into the life of a classroom over an entire school year. Instead of the more familiar use of treatment and control groups and a one-week research experiment to discern effects, the author in this study participates and observes in a classroom twice per week. The results of this study should also be considered contributions to what we know about drama’s roles in academic and social development. The classroom theater transformed students. At first they believed reading was a matter of just decoding story after story. When using classroom theater as a routine in their reading instruction, students took great interest in stories and displayed heightened inclinations to read for meaning and increased interest in the expression and movement involved in stories. Because of its focus on changes in decoding and comprehension, this study contributes to research in both educational drama and reading pedagogy.

Methodology:

This study included 17 children labeled “at risk” in a remedial third- and fourth-grade classroom. Some of the children were reading below grade level, and some had special needs and until recent policy changes would have most likely been schooled in special education classrooms. The children experienced traditional round-robin reading instruction up to the time of the study. During the one year over which this study took place, the teacher and students transformed their reading program from one that used “traditional” instruction to one in which they worked mainly through classroom theater activities, under the guidance of a visiting expert (not the researcher).

The theater instructor worked with the class once a week and exposed the class to multicultural trade books, dramatic expression based on these books, and literary discussion. Instead of traditional cycles of reading, hearing others read, minimal discussing, and reading some more, students began to approach their texts through interpretation aimed at performing narratives and excerpts from their readings. The researcher used participant observation, audio recording, and video recording to discern various qualities of classroom life during reading instruction, paying particular attention to language and action that characterize instructional practice, children’s approaches to reading, children’s attitudes about reading, and the degree to which children create meaning from text.

Limitations of the Research:

Future research should compare good, psycholinguistically sound reading instruction with theater strategies (unlike this study, which is compromised because it seems to contrast bad reading instruction with good theater techniques). Such a focus might tease out a distinction between reading and theater instruction that are aimed at similar goals, such as fluency, expressive oral interpretation, connecting new with prior knowledge, insight into character values and motives, and reader response.

Questions to Guide New Research:

In what ways do various arts education experiences develop the abilities of students to interpret meaning, connect previous experiences to new knowledge, and take responsibility for their learning?

1The text of this summary is adapted from the Arts Education Partnership’s 2002 research compendium: Deasy, R. J. (Ed.). (2002). Critical links: Learning in the arts and student academic and social development. Washington, DC: Arts Education Partnership.