How one primary school used drama to boost reading

Published on: 
30 Aug 2018

A deputy head explains how incorporating drama techniques into a drive to boost reading has inspired teachers and contributed to raised attainment

Before embarking on our journey to achieve an Artsmark Award, we conducted an honest review of our arts provision. We’ve always placed a high value on the arts, and we were proud of the opportunities we provided for children, especially in the visual arts. However, it became apparent that we needed to focus on something specific, something that could benefit the quality of teaching and our standards of attainment.

Achievement in reading was also high on the school agenda at the time. While our pupils have always done well academically, the increased expectations that came with the new curriculum presented a challenge: could we get more pupils achieving high marks in the new key stage 2 Sats test?  

Getting with the programme

We started a programme of development, which initially involved very recognisable actions, including buying new class sets of readers, refining reading homework and looking at the timetabling of teaching reading. However, we knew this wasn’t going to fully address the key abilities that help children to achieve excellence in reading: how to develop understanding of character, plot, motivation and empathy, as well as inference skills.

We decided to use the arts as a tool for developing our reading – just as we did with the rest of the curriculum – and chose drama as our primary focus for the Artsmark Award. We felt it would provide a framework for teaching the higher-order reading skills we wanted to focus on, while retaining and encouraging a love of reading. We believe that good reading standards always have good engagement at their core.

Balancing act

Developing any arts-based practice is always a balancing act. First, it’s vital for space to be allocated strategically, so we carved out time for CPD. These sessions weren’t lengthy, but they had to be regular.

There’s a wealth of resources available inside and outside of school, but we asked colleagues who were already using drama in their classrooms to good effect to lead the initial two-hour CPD session, and they taught techniques using a book in a lovely setting off-site. The primary focus was how deeper questions about a text could be explored using drama.

Apart from timetabled CPD, the only other “top-down” requirement was for teachers to include drama in their long-term plans anywhere it was possible to do so. Which subjects and how regularly drama techniques cropped up was left to them to decide.

Second, the commitment and engagement of staff is crucial for any new initiative, but it’s particularly difficult to enforce something like drama as a teaching tool unless the practitioners are confident and invested. Luckily, our school culture has always encouraged teachers to be experimental and creative in their teaching.

Growing organically

We know that effective teaching can take many guises, and we understood from the outset that some teachers would embrace drama wholeheartedly while others would merely dip their toes in the water. For us, regular, short blasts of CPD, combined with our school culture, led to the use of drama growing organically in every classroom across the two years of our Artsmark journey. 

Our focus on drama has had a terrific impact. It’s worked incredibly well as a tool for engagement and teaching that has moved beyond reading sessions. It crops up as a stimulus for writing, PSHE sessions and a host of topic areas. Having seen drama used regularly in the classroom, support staff now get involved. Last month, one of our teaching assistants dressed up as the fossil hunter Mary Anning to be questioned by pupils.

Other teachers have combined drama with their own strengths; I observed a brilliant lesson by our IT lead where pupils recorded themselves in character, showing their close-up, slow-motion reactions to events in a story. They then used these to improve descriptions in their own writing.

Our children love drama and have undoubtedly grown in confidence and articulacy since we began our journey. As for using drama in reading, that seems to have paid off, too. The number of children achieving the “greater depth” standard in KS2 Sats doubled between 2016 and 2017.

More engaged

It would be misleading to suggest the improvement was totally down to this initiative. However, what’s undeniable is that the use of drama has developed children’s engagement with what they’re reading.

They’ve enjoyed their class novels and talk about them with great knowledge and understanding. Children relish the collaborative and creative nature of drama, and with an initial strict focus on reading, we were able to ensure a clear learning focus, too. For us, this enjoyment of reading allied with clear teaching objectives is key to raising attainment.

As a leadership team, investing time and resources into drama has reaffirmed our commitment to a creative curriculum – one that is motivating and inclusive for staff and pupils. Incorporating drama as another creative approach has breathed new life into the teaching of a crucial life skill.

Ingrid Taylor is deputy headteacher at Redhill Primary School in Derbyshire

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Ingrid Taylor for Tes

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Cultural education gives children and young people the opportunity to develop their creativity, both individually and collectively, and that's why our goal is for every child and young person to have the opportunity to experience the richness of the arts.

Darren Henley
Chief Executive
Arts Council England

It's vital that children have the opportunity to learn and enjoy arts and culture from an early age. It develops their creativity, inspires future careers and enriches their childhood.

Artsmark Award does brilliant work in schools and education to ensure young people access a broad and balanced curriculum that includes high-quality arts and culture.

Michael Ellis MP
Minister for Arts, Heritage and Tourism
Department of Culture, Media and Sport