Increasing Comprehension: Bridging the Physical and Mental Domains

Increasing Reading Comprehension I read a fascinating blog post today by Annie Murphy Paul (of the Brilliant Blog) about the power of making stories come alive to strengthen reading comprehension.

It was one of those articles that is SO affirming because it puts data behind an already-held philosophical belief. A quote from Paul’s post:

“The research of Arthur Glenberg, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University, has demonstrated that when children are given the opportunity to act out a written text, their reading comprehension can actually double.”

YES! I knew that to be true, if only from my personal experiences. Glenberg’s research had a lot to do with children manipulating toys and small figures to “act out” the passages they read. (And this wasn’t limited to fiction- he tried it with math word problems too.)

However, I believe it is also true when children act in a theatrical sense. The process of becoming the story is truly powerful.

Just stop and ponder how a child learns about the world. Everything is literal/ physical when they first begin. A baby cries when his mother leaves the room because he has no capacity to imagine her there if he can’t see her. A kindergartener looks curiously out the window when her mother says “It’s raining cats and dogs”- expecting to see a torrent of furry friends.

Children first learn by experiencing the physical world and learning its many names. As they grow older, they begin to develop the ability to pretend and symbolically represent objects (i.e.- a stick becomes a magic wand.) However, most children don’t develop the ability to think in abstract ways until closer to age 12.

Remember the father of cognitive development, Jean Piaget? I find it helpful to refresh myself on his Theory of Cognitive Development every now and again. I thought of him today when I read Paul’s article.

Glenberg’s research makes complete sense in light of what we know about the developmental growth of children between the ages of 2 and 7. While they rapidly build their language and become more symbolic in terms of play and pretending, it is often challenging for them to mentally manipulate information. The physical world is still of extreme importance!

Therefore, it makes perfect sense that inviting children to manipulate storytelling toys or get up and “act out” a story would be a very powerful strategy for building comprehension. (And I would argue it is powerful for older children as well as those officially in the “preoperational” stage.)

Question: So, let’s say I’m a first grade teacher and I don’t have a bunch of storytelling toys pulled together at the moment. How can I implement this strategy right away?

Answer: Pantomime!

I love pantomime! It is the easiest drama structure in the world to use with your students. Basically, pantomime is “acting out” something silently, like a game of charades. It’s a great strategy in the classroom because it’s quiet and therefore a little easier to manage than some other movement/drama structures. It’s also something that everyone can do successfully.

In my next post I’ll share some specific tips for using pantomime to bring text to life in your classroom.

Do you have other ideas for having children “act out” text? I’d love to hear!

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photo credit: Geoffery Kehrig via photopin cc

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  1. Exactly! My favorite (and most successful) way to teach multiplication tables is to “act them out” or create “math stories”. It sure is better than memorizing!
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