Free Reader’s Theater Teaching Tips

My class of fifth graders recently staged a nifty trio of plays. Eric paced about the dais as the insanely villainous narrator in The Tell-Tale Heart, Jacqueline put on her best 1930’s gangster dialect, performing the roll of safe-cracking Jimmy Valentine in A Retrieved Reformation, and Emilee engaged us with a delightful French accent in The Necklace. Though staging these plays can be hard work for the teacher, the rewards are gargantuan. A few carefully-selected props—a cardboard safe for the gangster play, for example—help turn the plays into memorable performances, but over the twenty-plus years of doing this stuff, I’ve come to the conclusion that for young actors, there are five areas of greatest importance.

Projection: I’m not a believer in microphones. Instead, I want students to “fling” their voice into the audience, to “almost yell” their lines—and by way of example, I admit to myself doing a lot of shouting to help get them there.

Attention: Students often get lost in the performance, becoming spectators instead of performers. My best performers pay attention to the script so they come in on cue. We repeat whole scenes over and over again until performers recognize their cues without thinking.

Characterization: Memorable performances come from actors who use dialect, accents, and inflection to put personality into their parts. Jacky’s gangster dialect, Emiliee’s French accent—they brought their plays to life!

Enunciation: I’m painfully aware of my own tendency to mumble—especially when in a rush—and I bet you’ll agree your many of your students have the same issue. Instead, we want our kids to slow down and speak crisply. This flies in the face of so-called “fluency standards” in which success is measured by words per minute, so you might have to do some “unteaching” to get your kids to enunciate properly on stage.

Direction: My kiddos think it’s funny when I say, “No one wants to see your rear end!” But said often enough, it does the trick, getting kids facing the audience, a critical element when acting.

To help teachers turn kids into good actors and even better readers, I’ve put together a little poster called “5 Stage Acting Hacks for Kids.” It’s available for free on my TeachersPayTeachers site. If you like mnemonic devices, it uses the “PACED” acronym to help students remember the five elements “of a well-paced play.” You can print it as an 8 ½ by 11 handout in color or a low-ink versions, or you can enlarge version #3 by 154% to create an 11×17 mini-poster.

Happy directing!

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Eerie Reader’s Theater for Halloween

Harry_Clarke_The_Tell-Tale_HeartFairies waving candied wands… Goblins drooling chocolate malt… Halloween has such a bizarre place in our classrooms. In my school it’s been informally “banned,” though the kinders still get to parade through the school in their costumes, and the rest of the student body gets to have an afternoon “party” that presumably has nothing to do with ghouls and ghosts. Personally, I like “Monte Carlo Day,” a party in which kids set-up, run, and risk candy tokens at a variety of “probability games” such as Roulette, 21, and the Shell Game. The kids still get their candy fix, but at least there’s a bit of math involved.

An even better approach to Halloween is to replace your parades and parties with a collection of play performances. Kids still get to dress up, you can serve treats at the performance, and it’s not only academically valid, but a fine way to satisfy standards. A trio of plays takes a few weeks to prepare and an afternoon to perform. You can also invite other classes to attend, thereby helping your colleagues with their Halloween alternatives.

I have a number of Read Aloud Play titles that are perfect for Halloween. The Birth-mark, which is a classic short-story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, tells the story of a mad scientist who, in his quest to make his already beautiful bride “perfect,” kills her instead. The Monkey’s Paw is W.W. Jacobs’ classic Gothic tale about getting three wishes. The disturbing result will stay with your students long after Halloween has passed. The well-known Legend of Sleepy Hollow is available in my book, Read Aloud Plays: Classic Short Stories (you can purchase and download it instantly at Scholastic Teacher Express). Pair it with YouTubeThe Birthmark scope cover page segments from the original Disney flick. You’ll also find Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart in the same book, which can be paired with my modernized version, Penelope Ann Poe’s Amazing Cell Phone. (At least one of my reader’s has commented that it’s “too strange,” which I think makes it a lot of fun for Halloween.) Finally, A Piece of String has a ghostly conclusion and Cyclops has a ferocious monster. All of these plays were originally published in Scholastic classroom magazines such as Scope and Storyworks, so you know they’re up to snuff, and they all come with reproduction and performance rights.

Ready to give it a try but unsure how to start? Download my free guide to teaching with plays. It’ll give you tips and ideas on how to use plays to make your language arts block the best section of the day. But get to it right away…those ghouls and goblins are already knocking at your door.

Happy Halloween and happy directing!

Great Reader’s Theater for Back-to-School

Before you crack those text books or assign that homework reading, how about blasting away all that summer slog with some kid-friendly reader’s theater? Because nearly all my titles were originally published in Scholastic classroom magazines, they’ve been designed to meet the latest standards. Here’s a baker’s dozen of timely titles to get your kids up and interacting right from the start, but there are dozens more under the links to the left. Click on any cover to download a free preview from our storefront at TpT.

Plays About Kids in Poverty

The Library Card readers theater play script for kidsThe Newsies readers theater class play scriptLewis Hine Child Labor Crusade readers theater playThe Library Card tells the true story of a sharecropper’s child who overcomes poverty and racism on his way to becoming the internationally-acclaimed author, Richard Wright. The Newsies shares the tale of immigrant street children who survive by selling newspapers during the great depression. When the big publishers stick it to them, the kids go on strike. This one’s also based on real events and the subject of a Disney musical of the same name. Stolen Childhoods shares the work of depression-era photographer Lewis Hine’s crusade to end child labor. Based on real events, the story follows a trio of fictional kids who bide their time working in the textile mills rather than going to school. These are dramatic, heart-wrenching stories your kids will love.

Just for Fun Plays

Cyclops: The Monster in the Cave readers theater play scriptPeter Rabbit reader's theater play scriptThe Tell Tale Heart modernized readers theater scriptEach of these plays has a distinct academic theme and literary focus, but the main reason for enacting them is pure get-up-and go amusement. In Cyclops, kids get to play Greek soldiers who get eaten one by one, the heroic Odysseus, and of course the one-eyed beast himself. Blood and guts for sure, but a ton of humor as well. The Tale of Peter Rabbit is also a carrot patch full of silliness. Let your older students adapt the script to their liking and then enact it for the littl’uns down the hall! Finally, Penelope Ann Poe’s Amazing Cell Phone is a modernized version of Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” only the old man is the main character’s best friend and the beating heart is a buzzing flip phone.

Plays About Racism

Jackie Robinson classroom RT play scriptLunch Counter Sit-ins readers theater play scriptClaudette Colvin Twice Toward Justice readers theater play script for kidsRegardless of one’s political persuasion, there’s no questioning that issues about racism have recently exploded. Open constructive dialogue about it by reading How Jackie Saved the World, which shows how Jackie Robinson overcame racism to change the landscape of American sports. Sitting Down for Dr. King looks at the Greensboro Lunch Counter Sit-ins from the perspective of a ten year old white boy. When the sit-ins interfere with David’s celebration, he’s faced with a tough decision. The Girl Who Got Arrested shows what it was like to be a black child in the South during the mid-20th Century. Long before Rosa Parks, teenager Claudette Colvin was dragged off a bus, beaten, and jailed for refusing to give up her seat on a city bus. Powerful stuff.

Plays About the American Revolution

Revolutionary War readers theater plays for kidsBetsy Ross American Flag readers theatre play scriptThe Secret Soldier read-aloud play script for kidsMany intermediate-grade text books start the year focused on the American Revolution. You can get your kids better engaged by jump-starting your unit with some reader’s theater. Two Plays from the American Revolution is a two-for-one deal that includes “Eagles Over the Battlefield,” a nifty skit in which Jefferson and Franklin argue about the adoption of the eagle, and “A Bell for the Statehouse” provides the real history behind that infamous crack in the Liberty Bell. Betsy Ross: Fact or Fiction lets your kiddos sleuth out the facts about the creation of the Stars & Stripes. Lastly, Secret Soldier shares the compelling real story of America’s first female soldier. No one knew it at the time because she fought the war disguised as a man. After doing these plays, kids will be chomping at the bit to read those textbook stories about Tories and minutemen.

Plenty More Where Those Came From

That’s right, I have a ton of other professionally-published read aloud plays for the elementary and middle school classroom. Take some time to explore my collection here at ReadAloudPlays.com or at my storefront on TeachersPayTeachers, and be sure to use RT all year long. Thanks, and Happy Directing!

How to Create a Library Culture

Historic library checkout cardOne of the greatest things my mother ever did for me was regularly take me to the public library when I was a kid. I don’t recall any exact schedule or regular routine, but I’m guessing every two weeks or so—perhaps more during the summer. On these days my mom would drag my little sister Karen and me away from whatever mud puddle or walnut tree we were in, and we’d all slither into her Ford Falcon and head off to the main branch downtown.

Karen was my best friend growing up, but at the library we mined different tracts. So engaged was I by our library outings that I have no recollection whatsoever of Karen even being present, though I know she was. I sought Daniel Boone and Davy Crocket novelizations, wildlife fiction, and sports biographies, always coming home with a stack of books to conquer before the next visit. I also Dewey-decimaled my way into the architecture section upstairs, pouring over books about drafting and design. When my mom bought me a drafting set one Christmas, I became a master with a t-square and determined to become an architect myself. I got side-tracked during the adolescence of high school, but I’ve used those drafting and design skills in many endeavors. Such was the power of those public library visits.

Click on the library card to preview this play at TpTThe library remains a significant aspect of my lifestyle today. It befuddles me when I see letters to the editor decrying the latest library bond. The writers of these letters want our libraries to charge user fees. They begrudge the $127.45 in annual taxes they pay to maintain our library system. Clearly, these folks never developed that library culture. Perhaps their mothers never took them to the library when they were young.

These days I find myself missing those childhood trips to the library. Perhaps that’s what inspired me to produce my latest Read Aloud Play, The Library Card. I originally wrote this script for Storyworks, where it appeared in October of 2001. It tells the story of African-American author Richard Wright’s relationship with the library. Wright wrote numerous books of significance during the middle of the 20th-century including Native Son and the semi-autobiographical Black Boy. The play is based on an incident from Wright’s youth in which he was denied access to the public library due to his race. The racism theme is obvious, making it an ideal fit for Black History Month, but make no mistake, this play is ultimately about the love of reading and the significance of libraries. With any luck, students who act-out this play will quit taking their access to the library for granted. Should you give the play a run, you might also consider pairing it with a trip to your local public library where you can help kids apply for their own library cards. It’s also worth noting that the story was popularized in William Miller’s inspiring picture book, “Richard Wright and the Library Card,” which makes for another ideal pairing.

Well, I’m off to the library. More plays are coming soon. Happy directing!

Talk Like a Russian Day

The Nose read aloud play readers theater skit by Mack Lewis“Talk Like a Russian Day” was a big hit in my classroom. Though it coincided with certain political events, there was nothing political about it. We started the day by watching a YouTube short of a Hollywood voice actor giving us hints about speaking with a Russian accent. He told us not to emulate Chekov from the Star Trek series. Russians, he said, don’t substitute w’s for v’s. None-the-less, we decided Chekov’s style was to our liking, as was Gru’s in Despicable Me. We also liked the cosmonaut in the Armageddon movie. So after watching short clips of each, we embarked on a day in which the goal was to “talk like a Russian” all day long.

Though it seems like a crazy way to run a classroom, especially when I’m trying to deliver instruction on converting between decimals and fractions, the point was to encourage my students to use an accent in their presentation of my play, “The Nose.” The Nose is a short story by Ukrainian writer Nikolai Gogol, who lived and wrote in the 1800’s. It’s an example of literary farce, meaning a story that defies explanation. Gogol used it to criticize the Russian hierarchy. As the story goes, a mid-level but prideful bureaucrat awakes one morning to find that his nose has inexplicably gone missing. Clasping a handkerchief over his face, he heads straightaway for the police inspector, but on his way he spots his nose getting out of a carriage. Amazingly, it appears to be dressed as a Vice-Governor! Well, the story follows the bureaucrat as he attempts to reclaim his nose, one crazy twist after another.

One of my students, R____, is particularly engaging with her accent and an inspiration to the rest of us. Her enunciation is so scintillating, her sense of timing and inflection so ideal, well, when she is on stage, the play reaches a magical level. R____, by the way, is a Sped student, which just goes to show how powerful Read Aloud Plays can be for otherwise struggling readers.

This week we’re busy building the papier-mâché nose costume, which will be the final touch on what I think will be a smash performance. My second play group, meanwhile, is preparing for their performance of an as of yet unreleased play set in the Wild West, so we followed “Talk with a Russian Day” with “Talk Like a Cowpoke Day.” (The day after that we tried, “Talk Like a Russian Cowpoke,” which we decided meant speaking in a Russian accent while using phrases like “Yippeekayay.”)

The final stretch of another school year is a great time to be messing around with Read Aloud Plays. And no matter how silly the story, plays are an excellent way to promote fluency and engage young readers. Some fun ones to end with include The Nose (which can be found in my book, Read Aloud Plays: Classic Short Stories and online here), The Open Window (also from Classic Short Stories), and Peter Rabbit (while the story may seem young, my upper elementary students always have a blast with it). My Jackie Robinson play is both socially impactful and fun to perform, as is The Newsies (“Talk like a Bronxite Day” doesn’t have the same ring to it, but it’d be fun anyway).

If you’ve been doing plays all year and are ready for something more powerful, some hard-hitting titles worth considering include Sitting Down for Dr. King, Stolen Childhoods, and Freedom for the First Time. I try to incorporate accents, dialect, or tidbits of foreign language into my plays whenever I can, so whether serious or silly, you can almost always have a “Talk Like a ____ Day.”

Happy directing!

42: The Most Important Number to Teach This Month

Public domain picture of jackie robinsonThe Major League Baseball season’s Spring Training is underway, which seems a trivial point in the broad scheme of academics. Yet were it not for Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color-barrier, education in America might look alarmingly different.

When I was growing up, I was a sports fanatic. By then, professional sports had already been integrated, so it was easy for me–as Dr. King would say--to judge a man by his character rather than the color of his skin. The grit and tenacity of Matty Alou on the baseball diamond and Terry Metcalf on the gridiron made them my heroes and helped teach me to be “color-blind.” But the fact that Alou and Metcalf were out there at all was the direct result of Jackie Robinson’s own grit and determination.

There was never any doubt that Robinson had the talent to play in the Major Leagues. The issue was whether or not he’d have the character necessary to withstand the racist slurs and physical violence that followed him everywhere he went, both on and off the ballfield. Imagine what would have happened had Jackie responded in kind, perhaps taking a swing at a white player who’d deliberately spiked him, or kicking dirt at an umpire who refused to call a fair game. He would have been quickly drummed out of baseball. Integration of all our institutions, including education, would have been delayed for decades.How Jackie saved the World readers theater play skit

No doubt you have a crop of kids in your classroom who idolize professional athletes. Whether black, white, or striped (as Pee Wee Reese is quoted as saying), learning about Jackie Robinson will help them judge their fellow man by his character just as they judge their sports heroes by their grit.

April 15th is Jackie Robinson Day, the day every Major League player wears number 42 in Jackie’s honor. The league doesn’t celebrate it because Jackie was a great player, but because of the importance and difficulty of Jackie’s accomplishment. It’s a great time to enact How Jackie Saved the World. Kids consistently tell me it’s one of their absolute favorites to perform. I’m confident your students—especially your young sports fans—will enjoy it as well. You can preview and/or purchase it from TeachersPayTeachers by clicking here. You can also listen to some of my students performing it by following this link.

Happy directing!

Pairing Plays & Picture Books for Black History Month

Focus on Common Core Point of View activity freeThe Common Core requires that we teach students to “evaluate authors’ differing points of view on the same historical event or issue by assessing the authors’ claims, reasoning, and evidence.” One way to do that is to pair Read Aloud Plays with developmentally-appropriate books and films so to compare and contrast point of view. Black History Month presents an ideal opportunity for the following pairings:

* The Disney movie, Selma, Lord Selma, and the Read Aloud Play, Gonna Let it Shine.
* My play from the Montgomery Bus Boycott, The Girl Who Got Arrested, and Phillip Hoose’s book about Claudette Colvin, Twice Toward Justice.
*Sitting Down for Dr. King, which depicts the Greensboro Lunch Counter Sit-ins of 1960, and Andrea Davis Pinkney’s book, Sit-in: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down.
* Peter Golenbrock’s book, Teammates, depicting the relationship between Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese, and the Read Aloud Play, How Jackie Changed America.
* We Shall Overcome, my play about the Birmingham Children’s Crusade, and Cynthia Levinson’s non-fiction book, We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March.
*Days of Jubilee, by Patricia and Fredrick McKissack, and my play, Freedom for the First Time, which is based on slave narratives from the Civil War.
*The Read Aloud Play, Box Brown’s Freedom Crate, and Ellen Levine’s book, Henry’s Freedom Box.

To get your classroom discussion going, I’ve developed a simple short-answer comparison activity covering Craft & Structure (Literature item 6 and Informational Text item 6). You can download it for free here and use it with my plays and any paired text to satisfy these standards by having students “analyze multiple accounts of the same event or topic.”

Happy directing!

New Plays and Product Updates

Click on the cover to preview at TpTTeachersPayTeachers has grown immensely over the last decade. Back when I first started using it as a secondary market for my plays, products could be pretty simple. In fact, most were in black and white. These days there are a bazillion teacher-marketers selling product, so competition has become pretty fierce. Consequently, I’m constantly trying to update my Read Aloud Play packages and post new ones. Thanks to a couple of snow days here in southern Oregon, I was recently able to revamp several products. I’ve added comprehension activities, teacher notes, and answer keys to The Monkey’s Paw, W.W. Jacobs’ fabulous masterpiece about three wishes, The Birthmark, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s wickedly wonderful “mad scientist” story, and Cyclops, from Homer’s Odyssey. These three plays are perfect for introducing middle-schoolers to the otherwise difficult original stories. Whether you use the play before or after, student engagement and comprehension skyrocket when you pair the original with a play. But they’re also engaging stories for fourth and fifth graders to read and act aloud. (What could be better than your 5th grade Cyclops eating a bunch of 4th grade Greeks?) All three of these plays originally appeared in Scholastic classroom magazines, so they’ve been “vetted” by Scholastic’s professional editors. Add to that the new comprehension activities and they’re a fantastic deal.

I’ve also updated The Secret Soldier, which has previously appeared in both Scope and Storyworks. It’s the true story of Deborah Samson, the first woman to serve in the U.S. Military. Samson disguised herself as a man to enlist in the militia near the end of the American Revolution, was twice seriously wounded, and even performed surgery on herself to avoid being found out. It’s a must-have for any Revolution unit study. Like the other updated plays, it now comes with the additional support material—as do my other plays from the era. Be sure to check out Betsy Ross: Fact or Fiction, Two Plays from the American Revolution, and my newest product, So You Want to Be President. This last one is another “Two for One” pack. It comes with two of my favorite plays from my 2003 Scholastic title, Read Aloud Plays: Symbols of America, which is no longer in print. Both plays cover the history of the presidency and the character traits necessary to serve successfully. Given today’s political climate, they’re important additions to your history and reading curriculum, but they’re also a lot of fun to read and enact.

Finally, MLK Day and Black History Month are already upon us. If you haven’t yet read my earlier post about my Civil Rights and African-American history plays, be sure to scroll down and take a look.

Happy directing!

The End of Standardized Testing?

Click here to watch this TED TalkWe’ve been seeing it for the last year or so: the education pendulum on the verge of swinging. Standardized testing, Common Core standards, standards-based report cards (with all their annoying numbers), all being shown the door—or at least a dingy corner of the room. Enter, stage right, what I’m calling “purpose-driven instruction.” If you’re not familiar with it, check out this TED talk by education expert Sir Ken Robinson. He shows how the “factory model” of education created by the industrial revolution is outdated. The education documentary “Most Likely to Succeed,” which debuted not long ago at Sundance and is now in limited release, takes it a step further. It shows how “soft skills” such as critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and leadership need to be the focal point of instruction. Rather than having students memorize content (which is all readily available at our thumb-tips), we teach these soft skills through purpose-driven instruction.

Purpose-driven instruction involves having an end product. This end product determines the skills that need to be learned and provides the motivation to learn them. A person building a deck, for example, needs to know about the permit requirements, how to prepare the site, footings, measurement, using a chop saw, and a host of other things. Said person learns all this stuff, in a sense, “on the job,” while actually working on his or her deck. And because he or she is motivated to finish the project, said person is willing to learn the skills, even when it’s as uncomfortable as navigating the city’s building permit process. This person gains mastery through authentic application. (Sound like project-based learning, right? Sure, but keep reading.)

To teach those same skills independent of actually building a deck seems rather ludicrous, but it’s what we do in school all the time. For example, we typically teach calculus without any purpose other than that we might need to know it at some point in the future. No wonder kids ask, “Why do I need to know this?” And even when kids do “know it,” they usually don’t. The “Most Likely to Succeed” filmmakers demonstrate how even students who demonstrate assessed mastery forget pretty much everything within just a few months.

What’s all this got to do with Read Aloud Plays? Well, plays, by their nature, are purpose-driven. Simply by scheduling a performance and inviting an audience, a read aloud play becomes an authentic way to teach a host of “soft-skills.” Get this: in “Most Likely to Succeed,” a play performance is presented as the epitome of purpose-driven instruction and with amazing results (I can’t wait for you to see the documentary!). Plays are especially effective in that you can use them even with large classes (a fundamental symptom of our industrialized education approach). In any given month, I have my class of 34 split into three groups, each working on a play. Granted, these are rather simple performances. Sets are kept to a minimum, if at all, costuming is limited to just a few accessories to signify character (a parasol or a certain hat, for instance), and kids can carry their script in their hand if they want. But it remains that students must collaborate and cooperate, they must practice independently and as a team, and they must “finish” (the play must go on) regardless of broken legs, absenteeism, or fire bells. Students learn about subtle forms of communication such as inflection and innuendo, about body language and movement, all while happily developing their core reading skills. Instead of being forcibly required to read a text book, presumably to improve assessable fluency, they’re willingly—even eagerly—honing their fluency to present a successful performance. That’s a significant shift of the paradigm, as Robinson calls it.

With Read Aloud Plays, students can do more than just read and act, too. They can direct. They can build sets. They can write and adapt scripts. They can design and make costumes. They can create playbills. They can create tickets to the show. They can build online promos. They can create posters. They can film and post the video of the play online. They can serve as ushers. They can run a snack bar. They can write reviews. And, of special importance, they can self-evaluate and provide feedback. No letter grade, report card, or standardized test required.

Those of you who’ve been around for a couple decades have probably seen “purpose-driven instruction” under different names. And critical thinking skills certainly aren’t new to the education community. But whether you’re a proponent of project-based learning, student-led conferences, or reader’s theater who has had to fly under the radar of the standardized data miners, Read Aloud Plays are for you. Whether you’re someone looking to try something other than the text book, or someone who remains committed to teaching to the Common Core, Read Aloud Plays are for you. They’re a fantastic purpose-driven way to teach to the reading standards while simultaneously developing those essential “soft skills.”

Click on the Read Aloud Plays tab for access to a wide-variety of plays with focused content. You’ll find great classroom plays about explorers, the Revolution, Civil Rights, and more, or visit my store at TeachersPayTeachers. And if you haven’t yet seen “Most Likely to Succeed,” look for a screening near you.

Happy directing!

What’s Hindering Your Low Readers?

Perhaps many of you have figured this stuff out long ago. Me, after nearly 25 years of teaching, I recently had a couple of instructional epiphanies.

Click here to visit Lauren Tarshis' author pageThe first one was when one of my 5th graders showed me a picture of her mother. “This was at the visitation center,” she said. “The only time I get to see my mom is when we go to the visitation center.” A day later we were on our way to the local science museum when another student pointed out the window and piped up, “I think that’s the safe house we stayed at one time.” Later that same day my admin handed me my latest set of Oral Reading Fluency scores showing both of those students near the bottom. As I looked over the rest of the data, I suddenly realized all my lowest performing students are victims of childhood trauma: violence, tempestuous divorce, drugs, homelessness… Then, taking a look at my top performers, I realized nearly all are from healthy, financial stable, intact families. Thinking back over years of high and low test scores, the correlation is obvious. Early-childhood trauma and neglect may be the most significant factor contributing to academic failure. Politicians who ignore it are insincere in their efforts to “improve schools.”

If you’re like me, you’re constantly wrestling with how to help these kids. What works? We’re not going to undo the trauma or erase their memories. When it comes to reading, however, I’ve landed on three things that appear to hook them, three things that seem to motivate even these reluctant readers to put some “miles on the tongue.”

The first, naturally, is Read Aloud Plays. I write and promote read aloud plays not merely because I want to sell you a script, but because they’re exceptionally effective. I don’t need to belabor the point here. If you want to know more about reader’s theater, including the brain research that supports it, check out my free download entitled, “Why Use Drama?”

Roald Dahl books are also compelling for this group of kids, though admittedly this may be as much about my own enthusiasm for Matilda and The Witches as it is the books themselves. I have so much fun reading aloud sections of Boy or having small groups read Fantastic Mr. Fox, even my most reluctant readers catch the Dahl bug.

But the best thing I’ve discovered lately is the I Survived series. These books are written by my editor at Storyworks, Lauren Tarshis, so it surprises me that it’s taken me so long to start using them in class. This year, having finally amassed enough copies, I was able to assign all my students the task of reading one during silent reading sessions. Yeah, I know: SSR is often a waste of time; many students—especially the struggling ones—only pretend to read. Consequently, I use an approach I call “Directed Silent Reading.” It works with any age-appropriate books, but because these I Survived books have consistent themes, high-interest plots, and conquerable reading levels, they’re particularly fruitful. So much so that even my lowest performing students are begging for more.

I begin by telling my students they’re only going to read for a minute. At the end of the minute, I ask the kids to “turn and talk” to a neighbor about something they found interesting from their minute (or two) of reading. After they’ve had a couple minutes to share, I then ask for three or four volunteers to share out with the class. As the students hear their classmates tell about Hurricane Katrina or Pearl Harbor, the enthusiasm becomes contagious. We repeat the process, this time for three or four minutes of reading, and then again for eight to ten more. You can vary the questioning, too. “Be prepared to tell us something you know about your main character,” or “Provide some details about the story’s setting” are other “go to” questions. By the end of the session, all my kiddos have read for 20 minutes, discussed what they’ve read, and have invested enough in the story that they’ve committed to it. You don’t get such enthusiasm or commitment from homework reading, traditional SSR, or even oral reading, especially not from struggling readers.

There are no easy answers when it comes to overcoming the childhood trauma suffered by our lowest-performing students. But by using plays, Roald Dahl books, the I Survived series, and Directed Silent Reading, perhaps we can help them create a survival story of their own.

Happy directing.