Unleash Your Struggling Readers

The Necklace_SWTwo of my fifth graders recently confided to me that they wish to become actors. This after each starred in a classroom play—one as a ghost in our Scrooge movie, and the other as Maupassant the cat, the lead in my read aloud play based on Guy de Maupassant’s, The Necklace. What’s extraordinary about this is that these two boys are among my most reluctant readers–two struggling readers who’ve sat through every Title I intervention, every SPED evaluation, and every differentiated reading program known to humankind and yet have still managed to “flatline.”

Until now. Read aloud plays have unleashed them.

When using read aloud plays, assigning parts can be tricky. If your goal is to impress the audience, cast your best readers in all the lead roles. But if your goal is to improve reading fluency, be sure to spread the parts around. Over the course of a school year, I try to make sure each student plays a lead role at least once. (Of course, my students enact 15 to 20 plays per year, so there are plenty of lead roles to divvy up.)

Struggling readers get more fluency-building practice from read aloud plays that any other reading activity. They get the text modeled for them by more experienced readers, they have the opportunity to practice it on their own before exposing themselves to scrutiny, and they’re willing to—happy to–read it over and over again. It looks a lot like what preschoolers go through when first learning to read, which according to brain researchers and development theorists such as Lev Vgostsky, is critically important.

Admittedly, I was initially worried when I gave the lead role in The Necklace to my struggling reader. My frustration grew as day after day he mumbled, bungled, and stumbled through his lines, often to the dismay of his fellow cast members (pause for a minute and imagine their heavy sighs). And day after day I implored him to work harder practicing his lines at home. Sure enough, over time he improved substantially, and during our final practice he was reading his lines well—not perfect, mind you—but well.

And now he wants to be an actor. I can’t recall getting results like that from a text book or leveled reader.

Remember when assigning parts that an Oscar or Tony Award isn’t what you’re pursuing. Your goal is to build capable, enthusiastic readers. When it comes to your struggling readers, read aloud plays is the perfect format to re-create that preschool parent-child brain chemistry.

Good “leads” on which to unleash your struggling readers include Henry in “Box Brown’s Freedom Crate,” Jackie Robinson in “How Jackie Changed the World” and Young David in “Sitting Down for Dr. King.” Good roles for reluctant girls include Tess in “Fly Me to the Moon,” and Young Claudette in “The Girl Who Got Arrested.” All these plays and more are available for preview and/or purchase in my TeachersPayTeachers store.

Happy directing!