Multiple studies show theater can serve as a powerful tool for improving children’s literacy skills. But when San Francisco Unified School District teacher Anna Pepito first thought of starting a Readers Theater project in her classroom, it meant even more to her than boosting achievement. It was personal.

Ms. Pepito attended a performing arts school as a teenager, and she knew the potential for theater to instill confidence and promote self-expression.

“It felt really powerful as a young person to be able to participate in the arts,” said Ms. Pepito, who teaches first grade at El Dorado Elementary School in Visitacion Valley. “Every day when I went to my theater classes I was able to have more of a voice.”

With an Innovation Grant from the San Francisco Education Fund, Ms. Pepito could make her dream a reality. Ms. Pepito teamed up with fellow first-grade teacher Mary Higgins in the 2015-16 school year to see if they could help even their shyest and most hesitant students improve their reading skills with Readers Theater.

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The grant helped educators buy books, take students on a field trip to watch a live production and help children put on their own performances with masks and props. Ms. Pepito chose the popular Elephant and Piggy children’s books for the performance material, as many of her students were already big fans of the beloved characters.

By the end of the project Ms. Higgins saw a transformation in an English Language Learner student who had been struggling in reading and confidence. “She hardly participates in class ever, and she did an entire play and in front of not only her classmates but other parents in the room,” Ms. Higgins said. “She did a great job. She was enthusiastic, and she was becoming the character; she wasn’t just reading the lines.”

By reading and performing aloud at the same time, Readers Theater can help children improve fluency, or the ability to read quickly and accurately with expression. According to Ms. Pepito, students grew in their reading fluency by at least 15 words per minute and by at least one point in their comprehension with the Fountas & Pinnell reading assessment by the end of the year.

This school year the San Francisco Education Fund renewed funding for Ms. Pepito’s vision. She partnered with fellow teacher Ariana Contreras, as Ms. Higgins recently moved to Colorado to teach there. New to the project this year are in-class theater workshops, where students will learn tips from a professional children’s theater company on how to perform for an audience.

While the students’ reading improvement was definitely something to write home about last year, so was the enthusiasm of their parents.

“I had 90 percent attendance in our performances [last year],” Ms. Pepito said. “[The students] were definitely excited to have their parents in their audience, but I think the parents were more excited than the kids.”

We can’t wait to see this year’s performances. Have you tried this literacy strategy with your students? How’d it go? Let us know in the comments!