School & District Management

Attending Live Theater Improves Students’ Vocabulary and Tolerance, Study Finds

By Liana Loewus — October 17, 2014 3 min read
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Students who attended a live theater performance showed better knowledge of vocabulary words, more tolerance, and an improved ability to read others’ emotions when compared to students who did not attend, according to a recent study published by Education Next.

The researchers, including Jay P. Greene, a professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas, looked at 49 groups of students in Fayetteville, Ark.—22 of whom were randomly assigned to see a professional production of either Hamlet or A Christmas Carol and 29 of whom did not receive tickets. The 7th through 12th grade students, 670 in all, were asked to fill out surveys about 50 days after the treatment groups saw the plays.

The surveys asked about students’ knowledge of the plot and vocabulary words in the play, as well as measured their levels of tolerance. It found the following:

•Students who saw the performance had significantly better understanding of the play’s plot than those who did not. “For example, we asked Hamlet students, ‘Who are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern?,’” the authors wrote, “and 83 percent of the students who were assigned by lottery to see the play could correctly identify them as Hamlet’s friends, compared to 45 percent of the control group.” While this in itself is not surprising, what’s more notable is that the numbers remained pretty much the same when they controlled for whether students had read the play or seen the movie, but weren’t chosen to attend the performance. “If teachers want students to learn plays, it is much better for them to take students to a live theater performance than to have them read the material or watch a movie,” they concluded.

• Students who attended the play also better understood its vocabulary. “Of those who saw A Christmas Carol, 93 percent knew that ‘humbug’ meant ‘nonsense or a trick’ compared to 62 percent of the control group, and 66 percent knew that destitute meant ‘very poor,’ compared to 50 percent of the control group,” they wrote. Again the results held up when they controlled for who’d read the play or seen the movie.

• Those students who attended the play also scored significantly higher on what the authors refer to as a measure of tolerance. For example, students were asked to agree or disagree with the following: “Plays critical of America should not be allowed to be performed in our community.” The authors write that “if students won the lottery and went on the field trip to see the plays, only 9 percent agreed that plays critical of America should be forbidden, compared to 21 percent of the control group.” And when they controlled for who had watched the film or read the play, the effect size was even greater.

• The researchers also administered a test that measures students’ ability to infer a person’s feeling by looking at their eyes (Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test, often used to test for signs of autism). Students who went to the theater performance scored higher here as well, identifying the correct emotion 73.4 percent of the time versus 71 percent of the time for those who did not attend.

• Seeing the live play did not increase students’ interest in seeing future performances. The study explains this by saying, “These students already had a fairly high prior exposure to live theater, so it is possible that the marginal benefit of this one experience on interest in theater consumption is not strong enough to be detectable.”

The authors note that the students in the sample were fairly homogenous, “with most being white and in advanced classes,” and that the researchers were unable to analyze subgroups (racial,socioeconomic) for that reason.

The goal of researching “the effects of culturally enriching field trips is to broaden the types of measures that education researchers, and, in turn, policymakers and practitioners, consider when judging the educational success or failure of schools,” the study authors wrote.

Previously, Greene led a study looking at the value of field trips, and found that taking students to art museums can improve their critical thinking, empathy, and tolerance.

Rick Hess, an education-policy expert and the executive editor at Education Next, who also writes a blog on, commented on the study, saying, "[M]any of today’s most talented researchers have found it easy and rewarding to focus on test scores and graduation rates, because those are the outcomes readily at hand—but Greene et al.'s work shows that it’s possible for imaginative researchers to tackle other important elements of schooling in a rigorous, rewarding fashion.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.