Live theater improves student literacy, emotional intelligence

Researchers find increase in empathy, tolerance

Exposure to live theater enhances tolerance, empathy, ability to read emotions, and literacy knowledge, according to a new study in Education Next.

Researchers from the University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform examined the effect of attending high-quality theater productions on students.

Using a randomized field trial, researchers offered groups of students from grades seven through twelve free tickets to performances of A Christmas Story or Hamlet. The 670 students were divided into 24 groups based on similarity in grade level, type of class, and demographics. A lottery determined which groups attended the play and which served as control groups, which did not attend a play. A survey six weeks later collected information about students' comprehension of the work, tolerance level, and emotional intelligence.

Students who saw the plays in live theatre had a much better grasp of both their plots and vocabulary:

  • Of those who saw A Christmas Carol live, 93% knew that "humbug" meant "nonsense or a trick," versus 62% of the control group.

  • Over 94% of those who attended Hamlet knew Ophelia drowns, compared with 62% of the control group.

Additionally, the live performance attendees scored higher on tolerance measures and the youth version of the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test, which measures ability to recognize others' emotions:
  • Students who attended A Christmas Carol correctly identified emotions 73.4% of the time, compared to the control group's 71% rate—nearly a quarter of a standard deviation.

  • Only 20% of the theatre attendees agreed that "people who disagree with my point of view bother me", compared to 30% of the control group.

"Seeing live theater produced positive effects that reading a play or watching a movie of the play does not produce," says Jay Greene, one of the study's authors, adding, "the story can be conveyed in a movie, but it doesn't engage the viewer in the same way" (THV11 CBS, 10/15; Greene et al., Education Next, Winter 2015).


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