Five Tried and Tested Tips For Learning Lines With Young Actors Who Can’t Read

Updated from the post dated 30th October 2017.

In a new age of youth theatre, when many schools and arts organisations are teaching online, rehearsals can be tricky! With so many distractions at home, it is harder than ever to get kids motivated and engaged in the rehearsal process – and that is extra challenging when those kids can’t read and you’re not in the room with them to help them follow along using their scripts.

It occurred to me that many of the techniques we developed for helping young actors with their lines at Prague Youth Theatre could be invaluable at this time. Not only do they make the process simpler for the students, but they also help to engage them in a different way.

Often when I was teaching classes with younger actors, as soon as I’d mention the script, parents would come to me concerned about the fact that their children couldn’t read.  I explained that many of the students were in the same boat and we didn’t ask the kids to read from their scripts in rehearsals. We learned the lines as we went, and while we encouraged the parents to work on lines with their children at home, much of the work happened during rehearsal. But how? Here are our top five tips for learning lines with young students.

1. Phonetic Repetition.

As with adult actors, repeating the lines can go a long way in helping young actors to remember them. As a director, read the line aloud and ask the student to repeat it back. After a few lines with different actors, try to run through all the lines start to finish. If possible, only prompt each actor when it is their turn to speak, without telling them what they must say. Some actors will get it right straight away and others after a few repetitions. It takes some practice to develop this kind of sequential thinking but I break this technique down in greater detail in our post about how to get your actors to learn their lines and cues while performing.

2. Emotional Explanation.

If a particular line is long, often the students will stumble over it even when trying to simply repeat it back. In this instance it is best to stop, step back and break it down. Ask the student what their character is really saying. How does their character feel about that? Once they have gained this connection to the text, you’ll often find they’ll easily repeat it on the next attempt and remember it in future.

3. Image Association.

With very young students, one way I help them to remember their lines quickly is by using flash cards. Often the students can remember a bunch of different lines but struggle with what order they come in. By holding up an image associated with their line you are able to silently prompt them what is next. With very young children I use this technique right up to the show, sitting in the front row with my flash cards ready to prompt when needed. It takes the pressure off preschoolers in a performance, allowing them to enjoy the show while still telling a coherent story.

4. Action Association.

Sometimes students get a mental block about their lines. Especially when they can’t read, remembering lines can be a daunting task. In this instance, they may find it easier to remember actions. By knowing what they should be doing, they can remember more clearly what to say. Even with narration, you’ll often find that assigning an associated action to each line helps the students remember. A movement sequence is something they can learn pressure free to remember where in the script they are and what they should say next.

5. Storytelling. 

Even when the actors know their lines, they sometimes forget their cues. One way to avoid this is encouraging them to understand the story. If students are so busy concentrating on what they need to do, they can sometimes be blind to what else is happening on stage. They can’t see the wood for the trees so to speak. Make sure you ask them regularly what is happening and why. Understanding the story helps them remember the part they need to play within it.

Using the above tips in rehearsals can provide new ways to help your students learn their lines and new opportunities to engage them in the lessons. At Silly Fish, we’re always happy to step up and run a workshop with your class or simply consult with you on how your classes and curriculum can be adapted. If you’d like more information on our services, email [email protected]

Rebecca is the founder and chief executive officer of Silly Fish Learning Ltd. She is a children's playwright with a vast and varied career in education, primarily teaching drama and English.

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