Theatre for a young audience: how can we better prepare kindergartners for the experience?

Aram, D., & Mor, S. (2009). Theatre for a young audience: how can we better prepare kindergartners for the experience? Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance, 14(3), 391 - 409.

Abstract:

This study considers whether the traditional story comprehension or the theatre semiotics approach is a more effective means of preparing young children to experience and understand a theatrical performance. The story comprehension approach involves introducing students to a play’s plot and vocabulary, while the theatre semiotics approach exposes students to different theatrical elements (e.g., costume, props) and helps them understand how these elements convey meaning. The sample for this study comprised 61 kindergarten students from two classes in a school in Tel Aviv, Israel. One class served as the story comprehension group and the other served as the theatre semiotics group. Children underwent their respective pre-performance preparation sessions, attended a performance of a play, and were then interviewed by researchers. Interview results suggest that children in the theatre semiotics group understood the meaning of theatrical elements used in the play to a greater extent than did children in the story comprehension group. Both groups of children performed at the same level on plot and vocabulary understanding, even though only children in the story comprehension group received preparation training in these areas.

Key Findings:

Children in the theatre semiotics group outscored students in the story comprehension group in the area of understanding theatre semiotics in general and appeared to outscore these children as well in the specific theatre semiotics areas of movement, costumes and props, sets, music, and continuum. However, significance levels are not reported. Although the story comprehension group was pre-taught the play’s plot and vocabulary while the theatre semiotics group had no preparation in these areas, interview results revealed that students in both groups understood plot and vocabulary at the same level.

Significance of the Findings:

These findings suggest that by preparing students to experience an art form (in this case a theatrical performance) and by teaching them how to interpret the art form (theater semiotics), students have a richer and deeper experience of the art as well as an understanding of the story components.

Methodology:

The sample for this study consisted of 61 kindergarten children (two classrooms) of primarily middle to high socio-economic backgrounds who attend a school located in Tel Aviv, Israel. The researchers conducted the study in three phases:

Pre-Performance: One class prepared to see a performance using a traditional story comprehension approach while the other prepared using a theatre semiotics approach. The story comprehension program was centered on exposing students to the play’s story and vocabulary. The theatre semiotics program consisted of preparing students to encounter theatrical movement, music, costumes, props, and sets by actively exposing children to these elements with an emphasis on meaning. All pre-performance sessions were taught by one of the researchers with small groups of ten students at a time for 30 minutes.

Performance: All students attended a Hebrew musical based on the story Rumpelstiltskin.

Post-Performance: Two days after the performance, each student was individually interviewed for 20 minutes to determine their understanding of the play and the quality of their theatrical experience. Interviews included a theatre language comprehension portion in which students were shown pictures or played songs from the play and asked to interpret meaning, a story reconstruction portion wherein students were asked to retell the story, and a vocabulary understanding portion in which children were asked to define words used in the play. The researchers recorded all interviews and used this data in their qualitative analysis.

Limitations of the Research:

Results of this study would be considered more robust if students were assessed on their understanding of and experience of more than one play. In addition, this study assessed students who were assigned to either the story comprehension group or theatre semiotics group based on their classroom assignment. A Random assignment would rule out other causes. Finally, adding a control group with no pre-performance preparation would enhance the findings of this study

Questions to Guide New Research:

What additional findings are yielded by the data collected in this study and how can these enhance the current findings? In what way would a triangulation of research methodology enhance the study’s findings? Is there a transfer of knowledge among the students who were taught theater semiotics to other theatrical experiences? What longitudinal effects do these results have on reading and writing learning objectives?