Physically acting out a written text—as an actor would walk himself through the gestures and emotions of a soliloquy during rehearsal—is an effective way to commit that text to memory. For adults, this process of enactment imbues abstract words with concrete meaning, fixing them more firmly in our minds.
For children, acting out words on the page can also yield benefits. Especially for beginning readers, physically moving objects or one’s own body can provide a crucial bridge between real-life people, things, and actions, and the printed words meant to represent them. Fluent readers take this correspondence for granted, but many children find it difficult to grasp.
In everyday life, after all, the words “dog” or “cup” are usually encountered when there’s an actual dog or cup around. But inside the pages of a book, words must be understood in the absence of such real-world “referents.” 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.
In one of his studies, Glenberg asked first- and second-graders to read stories about life on a farm. The children were also given farm-related toys, such as a miniature barn, tractor and cow. Half of the kids were directed to simply read the stories a second time. The other half were instructed to use the toys to act out what they were reading.
After reading the sentence “The farmer drove the tractor to the barn,” for example, the child would move the toy tractor over to the toy barn. Youngsters who acted out the sentences were better able to make inferences about the text, and they later remembered much more about the stories than those who merely reread them.