Reading, as every one of us knows, is emotionally complicated. Anxiety may be the most significant influence on it. (And see Ramirez et al 2019.) Our teaching is certainly at its very best when our student is at peace, confidently and unself-consciously engaged with it. And a lively play-reading, with a trusted tutor in a private place, is safe, warm and profoundly empowering. A good play will suck your student into the experience of reading as it should be – pleasurable, enlightening, and simple.
This collection of two-handed plays is very specifically written by a remedial reading tutor for use as a remedial reading resource at late primary level. I hope they prove as user-friendly and exciting a resource for you as they did for me and as gripping and entertaining an experience for your students as for mine. There are 50 plays here, at least as I write this, all ready for you to print and go.
Let me explain how I think plays like these, for two sympathetic hands, work so well.
When I started, as an anxious volunteer, to teach remedial reading in primary school, I searched everywhere for good, short, lively two-handed plays, with very small success. I remember one in particular. It retold a well-known story but had squeezed the charm right out of it, leaving it a simplified, but leaden and childish thing.
“Surely, it has to be possible to do better than that!” I thought. And, of course, it is.
At first, I composed just one or two plays I now see were rather ill-adapted to our purpose, and used them, tentatively and timidly, with carefully selected children. But I soon found them so powerful and positive a force, found the enthusiasm for them so palpable and success with them so obvious, that I began to write more (and better) and read them with all the pupils, at their demand. So I entreat you to try them for yourself, in your own school. Just print and go.
My plays are written for children in years 5 or 6, but they ‘work’ perfectly well with somewhat younger or older children. My experiences when writing and deploying plays have taught me a few imperatives about how best to do this:
A play-reading can be up to some 20 minutes, if the remedial session is to be 30 minutes long. This means that each play you write (as I hope you will) should be something under 1,500 words of speech. If a subject area is large, several plays can be written and read in series, for example my 4 plays on English etymology.
Reading, in particular reading aloud, often induces anxiety. These plays should be read in a nice, private place, just the child with a trusted tutor. And they are for reading only, not ‘performance’. Emphasise this to your student. (The relief will be palpable!)
If you do write plays yourself, I strongly suggest that you keep each line short, and visibly so. Almost all the utterances on my scripts take no more than a single line. They are often (like real talk) only a few words long. This means that a child sees, at a glance, that the thing is probably ‘doable’. That there are no huge chunks of text anywhere. That there will be a lot of pauses for the gathering of mental breath. That it is, most likely, going to be OK. This matters.
If there is any difficult vocabulary, I put it into the mouth of the tutor first. In such a play, I delineate lines as ‘tutor’ and ‘student’. This seems to work well and feels natural to the child, who will attempt the difficult words, if they appear in their own lines later, without embarrassment, indeed probably with considerable relish.
My plays are written in grown-up language, expressing grown-up ideas in grown-up ways and often deal with rather grown-up content. In the gratified words of one pupil “That was a proper conversation!”.
A play-reading demands scaffolding. The tutor must read (from their own script) with appropriate zest and emphasis. The event must be light-hearted but whole-hearted, and it must also be ‘proper’ – a real play-reading – with each protagonist reading from their own script, as in the real world.
Deployed with enthusiasm, two-handed plays like these are extremely powerful. I am about to indulge myself with an anecdote – the story of ‘K’ and conversation – to demonstrate this. I think you will be impressed by the educational dynamite a few small plays can bring to your table:
‘K’ was in year 6. He had been presented to me as illiterate; a child who could not read even the simpler school readers. I was very afraid. What was I to do? Then a thought struck me. He chatted very readily and interestingly at our first meeting. In particular, he spoke with great zeal and commitment about the game of Minecraft.
I came into the school twice a week, on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. On the first Tuesday we met, K and I simply chatted, mainly about Minecraft, and I jotted down a few thoughts and notes, with his permission.
Minecraft was a gift from the gods of pedagogy. K was genuinely the expert and I genuinely the novice; a very happy psychological advantage. And the game is drenched in wonderful vocabulary, many common ‘difficult’ words and many compound words, in all of which K was already absolutely fluent. And Minecraft is a game originally built for adults, so the atmosphere and linguistics are grown-up. It could have been made for the job.
I went home and typed up our conversation. On Thursday, I laid my two scripts on the table before K and he, although decidedly dubious, agreed we should read it together. So we did. Within moments, he was unreservedly engaged in the reading, laughing loudly at the recollection of our Tuesday remarks and sailing through the hairy vocabulary without hesitation, at speed and with gusto, emphasis and accuracy.
When we were done, I remarked that “Now you’ve read a play!” He frowned in disbelief and replied that “That wasn’t a play! It was just what we said on Tuesday!” So I responded that it was indeed what we’d said on Tuesday, but that a play was just conversation written down in a script and our play had told the story of our first meeting together. “Oh.” He said. “I suppose.” And walked back to class with a proud smile on his face and two scripts clutched to his bosom.
We did this, K and I, for eight weeks. Our conversations and plays ranged widely over his thoughts and his life. And then, one heartwarming lunchtime, I overheard two teachers walk by in the corridor, talking about K. One was saying to the other “It’s amazing how K’s reading has come along – it’s like a miracle!”
I don’t believe in miracles, but I do believe in the power of a short, two-handed play.
If I can do it, so can you!
Faced with reading-resistant individuals with passionate interests, you can have a couple of conversations with them, or Google their passion, write it up in dialogue, and turn them into readers in an afternoon. In my collection, for example, there is a series of five plays about Manchester United football club’s history up to the glory days. They turned Ben from a resolute non-reader into an eager one (on the subject of football, at least).
PS. A small plea: I know you are busy, but if you do use any of my plays, or write your own, I would love to hear from you. I would particularly love to hear from you if you use my plays but in different ways than I have, or if you write your own but in different ways than I have. And especially I would love to hear from you if you use my plays but do not find them the successful tool I have – if you find the glitches I have not. (And some plays will need updating one day. I’d be interested to hear about that, too.)
My contact page is here.
Ramirez, Gerardo, Fries, Laura, Gunderson, Elizabeth, Schaeffer, Marjorie W., Maloney, Erin A., Beilock, Sian L. and Levine, Susan C. (2019) Reading Anxiety: An Early Impediment to Children’s Success in Reading. Journal of Cognition and Development, 20:1: 15-34. DOI: 10.1080/15248372.2018.1526175