Reader’s Theater

Updated December 30, 2017

Reader’s Theater is the acting out of a written story. The teacher narrates the reading while the actors do the actions and provide the dialogue. It is a good way to make reading more enjoyable for students. For example, in the words of Dustin Williamson, “Nothing gets my students more excited and more engaged than acting out a scene.” You can use Reader’s Theater as a during-reading activity or a post-reading activity

Why Use Reader’s Theater 1

  1. Comprehension: Reader’s Theater can help students understand a complex reading that has a lot of action, characters, or general confusion.
  2. Enjoyment & Repetition: Reader’s Theater doesn’t feel like reading, so it is possible to get students to revisit the same text without them complaining about it.
  3. Prosody: Reader’s Theater promotes expressive reading and linking meaning to emotions. Elementary reading teachers are sensitive to whether new readers can read expressively since that indicates comprehension of what’s being read (though it’s important to remember that not everybody is or wants to be an actor).
  4. Differentiation: Even though there is evidence that the idea of Multiple Intelligences is misleading, Reader’s Theater manages to help differentiate by providing visual, auditory, and kinesthetic components.

Choosing a Reading

The Reader’s Theater text should be (1) comprehensible, (2) compelling, and (3) action-packed. By action-packed I mean that the plot should progress through action instead of dialogue. While it is possible to do Reader’s Theater with dialogue, it’s more difficult. If you do choose a reading with dialogue, at least make sure that the dialogue has a lot of emotions.

Reader’s Theater Tips 2

Here are some more tips for making Reader’s Theater a success. Many of them come from Dustin Williamson’s post about Reader’s Theater. For a more extended look at the subject of making reading engaging, see You Gotta Be the Book by Jeffery Wilhelm.

  • Props: Props add a lot to Reader’s Theater. They make the text more comprehensible, and there is also the possibility of adding humor with the props you use. If you plan ahead, you could ask students to bring in or create some props for you.
  • Actor selection: Choose your actors before beginning Reader’s Theater (perhaps while the rest of the students are engaged in a partner activity) and coach them in their role. Miriam Patrick found that if you choose actors ahead of time, it will help the actors be mentally prepared to act, reduce the chaos at the beginning of the activity, and allow you to choose students who will take the acting seriously. If you have problems with your actors, fire them! Annabelle Allen has some tips for classroom management with actors on her blog. Actors with lively and engaging personalities make Reader’s Theater much more enjoyable. Don’t hesitate to repeatedly use the same actors for multiple readings if they’re good at it.
  • Auditions: One way to get additional repetitions of the language would be to hold auditions for a particular role. Ask for volunteers to come up and try out a particularly exciting line and then repeat the same line with other students. The process should be done with care so that no students get their feelings hurt for not being selected.
  • Coach actors: Don’t settle with an actor’s first attempt. If you’re not satisfied with a student’s acting, tell them to try again in a more exaggerated manner. The added benefit of asking your actors to repeat is that you get added repetitions of the language. Don’t feel ashamed to coach your actors efficiently in English 3.
If the actors aren’t doing what you want them to do, coach them, model it for them, get in on the action and demonstrate exactly what you want the students to do. It increases student interest to see the teacher also acting out the scene and [you are] able to sneak in a LOT of additional repetitions of key structures and vocabulary 4
  • Exaggerate: Everything’s funnier if the actors really exaggerate. Furthermore, there is research indicating that sounds with intense emotion generate a greater neurological response.
  • Set the scene: If there are places or important objects in the reading, describe where each of them are in the classroom. For example, maybe your desk is school and the door is home 5. You could also project an image on your board to act as the background.
  • Slow motion: After a certain actions, ask students to do it again in super slow motion. While they are acting in super slow motion, you can narrate and ask comprehension questions.
  • Scripts: While it is more effort and mostly unnecessary, some teachers write scripts based on the reading for students to hold while acting.
  • Behind voice: When Dustin Williamson’s students don’t want to speak the dialogue, he does it for them by standing behind them. When he taps their shoulder (with permission), the student moves their lips in sync with his reading. If you read with a lot of exaggeration, it will be funny to watch for the other students.
  • Name tags: Dustin Williamson likes to make large name tags with the characters’ names to put on the student actors. It helps everyone to remember who’s who.
  • Inanimate objects: Having an actor be an inanimate object like a door or a telephone can be a fun way to include more students in Reader’s Theater.
  • Music & Sound Effects: Music and sound effects help to create the atmosphere. Dustin Williamson says, “If there is a fighting scene, put on some intense classical music. If there is a sad scene, put on slow music. Sound effects are also good either from a computer or a student.” One really great website for ambient sounds is
  • Synchronization: The actors need to synchronize with the teacher’s narration because if they don’t, they will be a distraction to the rest of the class.
  • Video / photograph: Have a student photograph or record the scene as it is being acted out. You can then use the photos to review the next day by using them as a Picture Talk or by providing them to students for them to re-tell the story. You could also use the photos to have a caption contest, or you could give copies of the photos to students to put them in order.
  • Slow: As always, be aware of your pace. If students don’t understand because you’re speaking too fast, they won’t be acquiring.

Variations / Extensions 6

  • FreezeFrame: The teacher re-reads a sentence from a scene and calls on a group to run and put themselves in a position to act out that sentence. The teacher then takes a picture of them. This process continues until the teacher has enough pictures to make a slideshow for re-telling the story the next day 7.Students are put into random groups of three or four. Each group has a copy of the novel. Groups are to either assigned a chapter or allowed to choose a chapter and then re-enact one scene in a frozen moment. Groups only need 3-5 minutes to practice; Teacher circulates to clarify which scene they’re choosing. One group presents at a time. The first question the teacher can ask is “Who is who?” Then the scene being represented usually becomes clear. Many opportunities for circling key structures. Have your camera ready — students love posing!
  • Simultaneous Acting: Instead of only having several actors, break the students into groups and give everyone a part. While the teacher reads aloud, everyone acts at the same time. The teacher can pause the action of one group and draw the entire class’s attention to it in order to provide additional repetitions of the language 8.
  • Puppet Theater: Students use dolls, stuffed animals, or puppets to re-enact a scene. When Erica Peplinski does this with her elementary students, the students use their desks as a stage, and flashlights as spotlights. She asks her students to bring socks from home. In this video you can watch a Puppet Theater video that some of her students made for fun.
  • Sleep Walker: In the variation, the teacher has the whole class stand up and act out a text with their eyes shut. For example, if the character in the text is walking, the students would walk as well. It is a good way to see if students are understanding. Erica Peplinski learned about this variation from Craig Sheehy.
  • Acting with Style: Ask your students to act in a particular style such as robot style, pirate style, fairy style, etc. Erica Peplinski has a longer list of styles that you could try, especially for elementary classes. This is a great way to get repetitions since for students, acting in “pirate style” is completely different from acting in “cowboy style.” For older students, Keith Toda simply asks different people to try acting out the scene loudly, happily, sadly, romantically, etc.
  • Sound Stage: Take a text and add sound effects. As the teacher reads the text, students provide the sound effects (such as walking feet, bird sounds, rushing water). All of the students could provide the sound effects, or the sounds could be assigned to certain students or groups. Erica Peplinski, who learned of this activity from Kristy Placido, suggested that students close their eyes so that they have a better visualization. In her original presentation of the activity, Kristy Placido put participants into groups of 3-4, gave them a few minutes for them to generate the sound effects, and then all of the groups performed the sound effects while the teacher read.

Video Demonstrations


Liven up a class reading with reader's theater! Tips will be given on how to use reader's theater in your world language or ESL class.

  1. Terry Waltz on the MoreTPRS listserv (2016).
  2. Dustin Williamson, Reader’s Theater (2016)
  3. Jason Noble, Actors and Directors (2010).
  4. Help: If you know where this quote came from, please let me know in the comments!
  5. Judith Logsdon-Dubois, What is Readers’ Theater? (2016).
  6. Erica Peplinski, Reader’s Theater (2016).
  7. Bess Hayles, Reader’s Theater with Carol Gaab, Kristy Placido, and Carrie Toth (2013)
  8. Martina Bex, Simultaneous Acting (2013).

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