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.
In other studies, Glenberg has found that the acting-out technique can help children solve word problems in math, too: elementary-school mathematics students who act out the text in word problems are more accurate in their calculations and more likely to reach the right answer. (In one such investigation, for example, students were asked to act out a zookeeper’s distribution of food to his animals while figuring out how many fish the hippos and alligators need.)
In these experiments, it seems that enacting the “story” told within the math problem helps students identify the information important for its solution: enacting made them 35 percent less likely to be distracted by irrelevant numbers or other details included in the problem.
Eventually, fluent readers become capable of “enacting” these scenarios in their heads (our brains appear always to be drawing on our experiences of bodily sensations and movements as we read, creating mental simulations of the stories on the page). But while they’re still learning, less adept readers can benefit from seeing and feeling those printed words come to life under their hands.