In our fast paced world of smart phones, GPS, tablets and other forms of near-instant information, it may seem that literacy skills have become less important than the tactile navigational routines we have developed. On the contrary, the acquisition of literacy skills and the teaching of them remains a central and evolving component of education. And while theater, as a direct result of literacy instruction, evolves as well, it remains a classic example of the unification of the 5 elements of literacy instructing: Fluency, Comprehension, Vocabulary, Phonics and Phonemic Awareness.
Fluency, quite simply, is how quickly and accurately (including rhythm and inflection) text is read. The understanding of text (discussed later) is directly affected by how fluently a child reads. Theater is perhaps the strongest example of material that can significantly increase a child’s fluency. By the very nature of the art, fluency is required in order for the actor to portray the character and story to the satisfaction of the audience. While at the school level, it is rarely required that students memorize text, involving them in after-school and community theater programs may make a significant impact on bringing their reading skills to a higher level.
With increased fluency, a child’s understanding or comprehension of text is considered the highest level of learning to read. In fact, this element is essential to the transition from learning-to-read to reading-to-learn. With a multitude of genres of theater, students’ comprehension may be increased dramatically through the act of being immersed in a historical reenactment, a social commentary or a mythical drama. Furthermore, the child’s ability to reach the highest levels of comprehension such as assessment/reflection (the ability to review and criticize with evidence) and synthesize (write their own play in a similar style) are supported.
Though up to now, the higher level reading skills have been discussed, it must be acknowledged that there are many readers who struggle with foundational knowledge. Similarly to comprehension, vocabulary (words we know and understand) can come to life for a child as they are involved in meaningful demonstrations of the words in action. Vocabulary is absolutely essential to comprehension, so given opportunity to practice, speak and play with words, a child struggling with reading can build their background knowledge through theater arts which may transfer to increased success in the classroom.
The two final elements of reading instruction, phonemic awareness and phonics, are often misunderstood and confused for each other. Discussing them in the same paragraph may exacerbate the issue, however the relationship between the two is unmistakable. Phonics is the understanding of individual letters and letter sounds in isolation. Further, it is how those letters and sounds work together predictably to make words. Phonemic awareness refers to hearing, manipulating and playing with sound groups and recognizing relationships of such among words. Surely few artful theater productions focus specifically on these two concepts (especially phonics) the benefits that can be gained from involvement in some forms of theater is unmistakable. From Dr. Seuss to Shakespeare, examples can be found that demonstrate a playwright’s mastery of such.
Students have more and more access to technology that increases their opportunity to learn and access information interactively. While the world continues to try to predict what the future will hold for learning, theater remains one of the original interactive learning tools for helping students read fluently, comprehend ideas, build vocabulary and appreciate the art of word and sound manipulation.
Keith Remillard, 35,
is a principal/educator
living in East Greenwich, RI.