ARCHIVE - Story Drama (12-19-14)

If you walk past a classroom of students engaged in a Story Drama lesson, you will know that this is an exciting time to be a part of the arts education community. Inside that classroom you might hear students retelling a part of the story, or see them making a tableau of an emotion that a character experienced, or working together to create an environmental soundscape. Many schools and arts organizations want students to have deep literacy skills and to leave their institutions with 21st century skills that include a growth mindset, perseverance, creative and critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and college and career readiness skills. Story Drama has the ability to do just this: teach core literacy skills while also preparing children socially and emotionally for the 21st century.

Story Drama is a literacy activation strategy, most appropriate for children in pre-school through third grade. Story Drama promotes an integrated arts curriculum, seamlessly and authentically combining core curricula, social skills and drama skills. This strategy was conceived and developed by the Seattle Children’s Theatre Education Department. During a Story Drama lesson, the teacher leads the students on an interactive journey “inside?" a children’s book, where students work together as an ensemble to solve a parallel problem inspired by the book. Story Drama allows students to become an active and powerful part of the literacy experience. With Story Drama, the story jumps off the page, creating opportunities for children to have authentic and personal connections to the text, while meeting Common Core Standards. According to Seattle Children’s Theatre, “Story Drama uses theatrical skills to experience story and character and to explore the world of the book?" It is a process-based literacy tool rooted in play, discovery, and exploration of text, not in performance.

Here, Karen Sharp and Brynn Hambly will tell of their experiences using Story Drama as a teaching technique to inspire and activate literacy. We will explain the structure of the technique, the power it has to deepen student learning, and its clear connections to the Common Core Standards.

What is the Structure of Story Drama?

Story Drama is a narrative-based drama strategy developed around a storybook. The leader creates a parallel problem, which matches the problem in the storybook. This problem is explored in the “pre reading"? section of the lesson. About half way through the lesson, during the “active reading"? section, the book is read aloud as a means to help the students solve the parallel problem. The parallel problem is then activated during the “post reading"? section of the lesson. Finally, the group reflects on the lesson as a way to demonstrate evidence of understanding.


  1. Transition into the world of the story: Students draw on schema and prior knowledge to help conceptualize the parallel problem; students connect personally with the problem.

Some examples of transition activities:

  • Create individual pictures or pieces of art related to the parallel problem.

  • Using role-play, the leader facilitates a dialogue with students about the parallel problem.

  • Play music to establish the mood for the ensuing activities.

  • Create a large map or collage of the setting.

  • Explore the physical environment of the story with movement.

  • Personalize the problem in the story. For example, if the character in the story is going to build a house, tell the students that you have a friend who is building a house and she needs our help imagining what a house looks like and where the house should be built.

  1. Motivation: As a group, students work to try and solve the parallel problem. Unknowingly, the students make connections to the plot and problem in the storybook.

Some examples of motivation:

  • Students brainstorm ideas of how to solve the parallel problem. Their ideas are activated.

  • Use tableaux as a way to see if solutions will work.

  • In role, the leader becomes different experts who help the group try different solutions.


  1. Read Story: Students listen to and participate in the reading of the story. The information in the storybook is what assists the students in solving the parallel problem. Students make connections to the problem solving activities they have been engaged in and develop an understanding for the actual characters and dramatic conflict of the story.

Some ways to make the reading active:

  • Use a “hook�? or repeated line that the students say when prompted. Ask the students what they think the hook line means in the story.

  • Use tableaux and pantomime to activate parts of the book.

  • Incorporate “turn and talks�? that encourage students to make plot predications and use visualization.


  1. Dramatic Play: The students dramatize the solution to the parallel problem that has been discovered by reading the storybook.

Some examples of dramatic play:

  • The leader and the students play characters.

  • The solution is activated using pantomime and tableaux.

  1. Reflection: It is an interactive sharing experience that transitions students out of the dramatic play and closes the lesson. This interactive reflection helps students establish deeper comprehension of the story’s characters, the setting, the problem and the theme and can be used to evaluate the objectives of the lesson.

Some example of reflection activities:

  • Pass around a “talking stick"? and when the students have the stick they share what they remember about the story.

  • Draw a picture of the conflict or resolution in the day’s adventure.

  • Discuss the story, reinforcing vocabulary and concepts such as main character, setting, conflict, obstacle and resolution. Activate the answers using tableaux and pantomime.

  • Students add story details to a drawing.

  • In role, students visit a character to tell them how the problem in the story was solved.

Adams class2

There is one leader (or teacher) who guides the students through the interactive experience. The leader narrates and facilitates, as well as plays characters within the drama. All of the children in the class participate in the drama. A typical Story Drama lesson generally lasts between 45 minutes and an hour, but its length can be adapted to suit the needs of a particular group. Story drama usually takes place in the classroom setting, either with the children sitting on the floor in a circle, or remaining at their desks.

Story Drama relies heavily on sensory activation and rituals to engage students. Sensory activation gives students opportunities to connect deeply with the sensory world of the story. Ritual, or the observance of a set form or the repetition of an act, draws students together as a community and makes students feel comfortable and safe, which allows them to engage deeply in the lesson. Rituals also provide a built-in classroom management strategy.

What are the Benefits of Story Drama?

Story Drama enhances classroom literacy and reading instruction by guiding students on a dramatic journey throughout the story. Through this process, Story Drama works to support the comprehension of the book and to draw out the themes, conflicts, environments and characters in the book. Additionally, it invites students to personally, physically, and vocally connect with the story. For example, within the lesson created to connect with the book Ming Lo Moves the Mountain by Arnold Lobel, the students experience the problem in the book directly. Because the journey of the character in the book is similar to the journey they are experiencing in the drama, they have the opportunity to connect personally with Ming Lo’s creative problem-solving and his ultimate success in moving the mountain. Students also make physical and verbal connections to the story. Tableaux, pantomime, gesture, soundscapes, sensory activation and repeated lines all provide opportunities for the student to engage with the problem in the story, as well as to demonstrate evidence of comprehension.

Additionally, with Story Drama, students have a genuine reason to read. The students need to read the book in order to solve the problem within the drama. Needing the information in the book to solve the problem makes students listen deeply to the words, and work to make meaning. The reading of the story becomes a high stakes experience with a strong pay off.

Not only is literacy activated, but other core curricula are easily infused into a Story Drama lesson. Science, math and a variety of art forms are frequently used to deepen the student’s understanding of the problem. Language also plays a big role in Story Drama, using multiple sign systems to activate the book allows students to make meaning in aesthetic and intellectual ways.

Story Drama also provides an opportunity to teach social and community skills. As a whole class, the students must work together to solve the problem presented in the drama. They must “say yes�? to each other’s ideas and develop as individuals within a larger group. Drama is a highly socialized art form and therefore relies on whole group effort. It provides an opportunity for cooperation, team building, and collaboration. Throughout the Story Drama lesson, students participate through two central structures: unison play and pair play. With unison play, all the students work together individually but at the same time. This type of play helps students overcome feelings of self-consciousness and builds group trust. Pair play occurs when students work in pairs, but all at the same time. Pair play is a step toward building group cooperation skills and allows students to take risks and communicate with a partner. Both of these structures build toward working successfully in small groups and building the community. Not only does Story Drama contribute to relationship building among students, but it also has the potential to deepen the relationship between students and the teacher.

Additionally, Story Drama aligns itself with the Common Core Standards. Several of the Anchor Standards for Reading and Speaking and Listening are authentically met throughout Story Drama lessons. The Common Core puts a big focus on the student’s ability to retell the key details of the lesson. One of the ways Story Drama activates retelling is by creating opportunities for the students to be in the role of the expert and to retell specific details, events and feelings to characters from the story (played by the teacher). Additionally, at end of the Story Drama lesson, where the children and teacher transition out of the dramatic play and back into the world of the classroom, the students reflect upon what they have dramatically explored in the story. Here, they are able to demonstrate their understanding of the text and answer questions such as who, what, where and why in creative and engaging ways. Some examples include making a tableau of a character or a soundscape of an environment, distributing pictures of an environment from the story and asking the students to add details from the story, and describing how the repeated “hook line�? connects to the overall meaning of the story. These creative methods not only align with the Common Core Standards, but also allow for the teacher to gather evidence of student learning and assess the experience.

Final Thoughts

We have used this strategy in hundreds of classrooms and we believe strongly in the power of Story Drama to activate and engage children in the literacy experience. While deepening understanding and making meaning, children are playfully and passionately working together to collaborate and build community. In our experience, Story Drama makes students want to read, not only as a means of solving the problem and playing the drama, but because it connects them personally to the thoughts, feelings, successes, and failures of characters in the book. Story Drama creates a bridge between our every day life and lives of the characters in the books we read. But don’t just take our word for it. Here is what other educators have to say about Story Drama.

“Through the emphasis of Story Drama lessons, we have seen our primary students build their knowledge through practice reading and speaking grounded in evidence from the literary text. Additionally, it has been so exciting to observe the overall enthusiasm and focus of our primary students increase in the area of literacy as they practice kinesthetic and engaging Story Drama strategies…�?

– Principal, Kent, WA

It is so inspiring. Every one of our kids was totally engaged, visualizing the story and responding. I love that you infuse academic content into the story and that our class was so excited to share their knowledge.

-2nd Grade Teacher, Beloit, WI

“Story drama is the perfect connection to Common Core reading standards. I can use story drama to engage my students in deeper thinking using a good piece of literature. During a story drama experience, I can ask the students to retell the story, give characteristics of a character, or describe the setting, to name just a few focus skills. The children can pull details from the text not only verbally, but with their bodies, which absolutely shows comprehension and understanding. I completely appreciate the experience story drama provides which not only stays with the students for a long time, but also transfers the skill set to other kinds of texts.�? –First Grade Teacher, Kent, WA


Karen Sharp photo

Karen Sharp is the Education Director for Seattle Children’s Theatre. In addition, Karen is an adjunct professor for Seattle University’s MFA Arts Leadership program and Cornish College of the Arts. Karen is currently the Board President of TYA/USA and Secretary of The Winifred Ward Scholarship Foundation. 



Brynn Hambly is a teaching artist and theatre education specialist who has taught as an adjunct professor at the University of Iowa and Beloit College. At Seattle Children’s Theater, she had the pleasure of working as the Education Program Manager. Brynn holds a Master’s Degree in Elementary Education.

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