Three Acts to Engagement and Enjoyment: Theatre Brings Literature Back to Life for Reluctant and Struggling Readers

Article excerpt

I thought it was, like, good for us because we got to actually see it. Like, understand it a lot, more. So, instead of just thinking about it in your head, you could actually see it, visualise it, so you don't have to keep it in your head.

Charles Wallace (pseudonym), 6th grader

Prologue--A weak pulse

Once upon a time students loved to encounter new stories. They loved to be carried off into unfamiliar worlds with characters that were initially strangers, but became friends or foes as plots progressed in the students' imaginations. Literature was alive. Moments in these stories stimulated laughter, smiling, crying, and cringing. Reading was an interactive experience of creating meaning from something unknown through discovering, listening, visualising and sharing.

However, as literature becomes complex in middle school, a growing number of students see reading stories as tedious academic exercises. Teachers expect that students have learned to read in the elementary grades (Taylor 2002). While these students may have learned basic skills, they have not learned how to enjoy the process of reading. Their challenges with literature become struggles which evolve into frustrations and into what Mikulecky coined 'aliteracy' (Mikulecky, personal communication, March 2004). Students have the basic ability to read, but choose to not read books assigned in school.

Typically, reluctant readers 'have not learned how to establish a sustained connection with a text longer than a page or two' (Mackey and Johnston 1996, p. 25). As a result, they have lost the 'purpose and pleasure' for reading literature that they once experienced as children (Tovani 2000, p. 9). Stories no longer stimulate the students' imaginations, evoke laughter, or provoke curiosity. For them, literature seems dead. Laughter and smiles are gone. Crying and cringing come not from reading the literature, but from having to read yet another book.

How can we turn those attitudes around? Alvermann (2001) recognised that 'reading is too complex a process to refer to it simply as decoding alphabetic print or making meaning of text' (p. 4). When lessons merely target comprehension, vocabulary, retelling, or writing essays about themes, Sumara (2002), also, finds that this defeats any chance of reading being enjoyable or meaningful. Reading is more than acquiring information. It is more than recording facts. It is to be, as expressed by Somerset Maugham: 'a pleasure, one of the greatest that life affords' (1939, p. 77).

Unfortunately, struggling and reluctant readers are typically mired in frustrations of trying to understand characters with no apparent relevancy to their lives, overcoming word-blocks in complex text, and sifting through endless pages of text without pictures. As students find that they have enough work to do to understand a text, much less enjoy it, more students are finding less personal enjoyment in literature (Baker 2002, Beers 1990, Moss and Hendershot 2002, Sullivan 2002, Worthy 2002).

An approach of teaching reading is helping students discover aesthetics in literature. Maxine Greene (2000) believe that knowledge is more than connecting things together. She proposes creating experiences where the imagination fills in spaces so students go beyond where they are. Rosenblatt (1976) proposes seeing literature as 'a work of art' (p. 43):

   The greater the reader's ability to respond to the stimulus of the
   word, and the greater his capacity to savor all that words can
   signify of rhythm, sound, and image, the more fully will he be
   emotionally and intellectually able to participate in the literary
   work as a whole. In return, literature will help the reader to
   sharpen further his alertness to the sensuous quality of
   experience. (p. 49)

Seeing literature as art recognises its potential to evoke and provoke aesthetic responses. Stimulating students' imaginations must be included in the goals. …