Improving Literacy and Language Arts through Theater

It was our first read through for our holiday play and Robin, the little girl I had cast as the lead in the play, flashed me a charming smile. "I might not be able to read all the words," she told me, and I thought that was pretty interesting. I knew Robin was 11 years old, and surely under ordinary circumstances that was old enough to know all the words in the script. But though I remembered her struggling with many of the words in the audition reading, her personality had shone right though any trouble she had been having and I had seen through all her starts and stops and misread words that there was something really special about this kid. There had been no doubt in my mind that she was the right choice to lead our young cast in the show.

"Don't worry, we'll help you," I told her, though it was clear she wasn't at all worried to begin with. And yes, we did have to help her, and actually it was the young actors sitting on either side of her who did most of the helping and offered the assistance she needed, whether it was helping her find her place on the page when she was lost or giving her the correct word when she read it out to us incorrectly as something else. But she was confident and proud to have been given such a large role in the show, and though reading remained a challenge to her, she was the first one in the cast to be off book, had her lines down perfectly, and she did an absolutely stellar job in the show.

Time and time again through the years I have encountered kids who struggle to read, who hate reading and perhaps for that very reason are disillusioned with school in general, yet when they find themselves with a part in the show, the script they are given to read and memorize never leaves their side. That script is the key to something they have craved; experience in the theatre! And the opportunity to be in a show sometimes provides the best - often the first - real motivation for a young actors to voluntarily pick up a book and read...their script!

In addition, there is no better way for our young students to come face to face with the world of good literature if we directors are careful and conscientious about what we offer them in the way of projects. There are many less than well written scripts available for young people's productions, but if we choose carefully and have faith that our actors will rise to the occasion, it is possible to expose the children to well crafted versions of great stories and educational tales of historical events.

And in the rehearsal process there are many opportunities for the improvement of language arts skills. Simply through the movement we add to the script as we block the show we offer a way to make the words a part of the actor's body and in this way can improve reading comprehension skills for our kids who are kinesthetic learners. We demand exact pronunciation and clear diction onstage, we work through the script quizzing our students about what the characters are thinking about and why they act as they do, and in through this process the kids will develop mastery of verbal communication and problem solving skills as they work through the analytical steps essential in the creation of a full production.

A child who is involved in a play must naturally become a better listener and observer as the only way to approach a sense of truth onstage is to pay close attention to what the other actors are saying and doing. Also, as theatre involves live human beings, mistakes will happen! Be sure of it; sometimes during the run of the show an actor will drop a line or forget to come onstage. And when those moments strike, careful listening and observing skills are what the other actors onstage will have to depend on to rescue themselves from those very unpleasant moments.

It has been my great pleasure and honor to work with young actors for many years now, and there are a lot of reasons I enjoy it. I love to see them come in as shy little ones who yearn quietly for that moment on the stage, and I love watching them grow into much louder, much more confident young actors. I have found that the theatre is a great place for kids to learn to work collaboratively on wonderful creative projects and to develop a sense of community with kids of all different ages and regardless of socio-economic similarity. But it's also great to know that through their experiences in the theatre, kids will have opportunities to develop strength in academic language and literacy skills as well, and it is wonderful to be a part of that process. I have seen it and I believe in it, and while perhaps experiences in the theatre are not an answer for every child, but what we offer here touches many children in many positive ways. Confidence, growth in spirit and community, a creative outlet and a sense of responsibly can all be fostered here. Add to that a chance to further their literacy and language skills, and it is hard to think of a more beneficial, more positive opportunity for a child than a chance to experience the world that awaits them in the theatre.
About The Author: Susan Scaccia

Susan Scaccia graduated Magna Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Theatre arts with a concentration in Acting and Directing from Castleton State College in Vermont, where she won the President's Scholarship. She studied classical voice training.