National Writing Project

The Dimensions of the Reader's Response

By: Jeffrey D. Wilhelm
Publication: Authors and Issues Online Conference
Date: March 2003

Summary: Theory and practice are blended in this excerpt from Jeffrey Wilhelm's engaging and informative book, You Gotta BE the Book. Wilhelm became interested in what good readers and engaged learners do, and how struggling readers or unengaged learners might be helped to do the same things. His observations led him to develop strategies that struggling readers and others can use to increase their skills. His observations and frustrations will be familiar for many teachers, and his solutions open up new ways of supporting struggling readers.


Reprinted by permission of the publisher from Wilhelm, J.D., You Gotta BE the Book, (New York: Teachers College Press, 1997 by Teachers College, Columbia University. All rights reserved.), pp. 40-43. To order copies, please contact Teachers College Press.

Facilitator Comments: Jeffrey Wilhelm's "You Gotta BE the Book" blends theory and practice in this engaging and informative book. He was interested in knowing more about what good readers do that struggling readers do or do not do. His observations led him to develop strategies that struggling readers, and others as well, can use to increase their skills as readers. Many of his observations and frustrations will be familiar, but his solutions open up new ways of supporting struggling readers. The following excerpt is from Chapter 3.

The Dimensions of the Reader's Response

As I tried to find windows to my students' reading activity, I asked them to try and make visible what they were doing, thinking, and feeling as they read and responded to their reading. This was a project that I pursued with all of my students throughout the school year, but most intensively with Ron, Cora, and Joanne, as well as with my other six case study students.


I developed three criteria for any classroom research method I used with my students:

  1. that it offered a window into my students' reading processes.
  2. that it fit naturally into the life and flow of the classroom, being accepted by students as something interesting and even fun to pursue.
  3. that it was pedagogically useful, providing students and myself as the teacher with empowering ways of seeing, knowing, studying, and sharing ourselves as readers and learners.
These criteria inevitably led to undertaking research collaboratively with students, to sharing findings with them and with other teachers, and to asking them to share with each other. I continually asked students to display and perform what they were coming to know, and to talk about what and how they were learning. To these ends, I used the following methods.

Teacher Journal

The bedrock of my teacher research was my teaching journal. I have kept a journal and notes about my teaching experiences for the past 13 years. I record observations about particular students, assess what seemed to work or not work for the kids, tell stories, posit theories, make plans, and revise lessons that I hope will be more successful in the future. During the year described here, I recorded as many observations and conversations as I could regarding the nine students I chose as case study students. I was sometimes able to write in my journal during classes, but I usually did so during lunch, after school, or during my free period.

Literary Letters

On an average of two times a week, students exchanged literary letters (Atwell, 1987) about their reading, both with me and with other students. All letters and responses to them were kept in the students' journals. The letters concerned what students read in class and the reading they pursued on their own. I sometimes asked students to write about not only what they read, but about how they were reading: anything they noticed about what they saw, felt, did, and thought as they were reading.

Think-Aloud Protocols

Throughout the year I made use of four types of protocols: a free- response protocol, a cued-response protocol, a two-column written protocol, and eventually, as we began to study the use of art as a response to our reading, what we called a visual protocol. I modeled my use and analysis of protocols on the work of Flower and Hayes with written composition (1981) and after Newell (1984, 1990), who adapted protocols for use with both writing and reading.

Free-Response Protocols

Several years ago, I began making use of "free-response protocols." I would ask students to read something-sometimes a story I had chosen especially for them because I thought it would be challenging or offer them rich response possibilities. As they read, I would ask them to simply stop and talk into a tape recorder whenever they noticed something about how they were reading. I modeled a couple of protocol responses for the class, and began making use of them during workshop conferences.

Cued-Response Protocols

The going with free-response protocols was tough. Some students provided very rich protocol information, but most students revealed very little. Since I wanted to get a sense of how each student was reading, I began to make use of "cued protocols." I would provide students with a text and insert a carat wherever I wanted them to stop and talk into the tape recorder about what was going on with them at that point in their reading. If students were reading from a book of their choice, I asked them to stop and respond at the middle and end of pages. This technique worked much better. One of the best things about the protocols is that "they have focused the attention of the class on how we read, and made this the very subject matter of what we do together" (November 1991).

Two-Column Written Protocols

Despite the success of protocols in yielding rich data and supporting student thinking about "their thinking and their reading," I was somewhat nonplussed about the amount of time it took to record protocols with each student, and then transcribe and analyze just segments of them. As a teacher, I was just too busy and tired to spend that kind of time translating data into usable forms. So I began using two strategies: asking students to tape protocols at home and transcribe segments on their own, and asking them to complete two-column written protocols. In this technique I would provide a story on one half of a sheet, leaving the other half clear for their comments, which provided a kind of gloss of their activity as they read the corresponding passages. Later, we simply recorded observations in our journals as we read. This procedure meant that every student could complete a protocol during a single class period, and it saved me a tremendous amount of time, as the data were immediately available to me. The protocols were in a form that could easily be shared by the students with reading partners or friends. This they pursued with gusto, comparing responses to particular passages and beginning to evaluate and borrow particular strategies for making meaning. This was and continues to be tremendously exciting for everybody.

Visual Protocols

During the visualization study explored in Chapter Five, Tommy and Walter suggested that instead of writing down what they were seeing and thinking at a particular point in a story, they draw pictures of what they envisioned as they read. This was an option I made available but did not require of all students, and most used some form of artistic response on all of the protocols that followed. (On one protocol, 72 of 121 students drew pictures, without or with only a few words. With so many students indicating a preference for visual notemaking, perhaps we could encourage and build on this more often in our classrooms.) Some students used a combination of writing and drawing, drawing themselves or characters with thought bubbles, or using pictures with captions. Some framed off a picture of themselves as readers engaged in their reading activity inside a larger picture depicting the world of the story; others included themselves as readers in a picture of the story world. Some just drew what they were seeing at that point in the story.

Symbolic Story Representation

In Patricia Enciso's research (1990), which catalyzed my thinking about reading and response, she developed and made use of a technique she calls the "Symbolic representation Interview," which I adapted and made use of in my own classroom and called the "Symbolic Story Representation" (hereafter referred to as SRI so it will not be confused with the SSR of sustained silent reading). In this technique, students create cutouts or find objects to dramatize what they have read and how they have read it.

During or after their reading, the students, using an adaptation of the SRI, created cutouts symbolizing characters, character qualities, groups, or forces from the book; objects, scenes or settings of importance; motifs, themes, or ideas that played a role in the story; and a cutout symbolizing oneself as a reader. Some readers chose to create cutouts of the author, or special props and backgrounds for particular scenes they wished to talk about, but this was something they did on their own initiative.

The cutouts could be of any shape or design the student wished. Some students used little squares, associating the size or color with the characters in question. Most students made highly stylized cutouts, sometimes realistic-being a face or including the special features and dress of a particular character; sometimes highly abstract-consisting of an object associated with the character, or symbolizing a quality of the character.

When the cutouts were complete, the reader met with the teacher, reading partner, or classroom reading club. The reader then identified the cutouts he had made, and explained why this character, quality, force, or idea was important, and how the cutout worked to suggest or symbolize that particular referent. Next, students would use the cutouts to both dramatize the story events for their audience and recount their readerly experience of these events-or in the case of a short story, to recount their experience of the story from beginning to end. I encouraged students to interview each other throughout the presentations about the nature of the cutouts, the story, and how the story was read and presented by the reader. Throughout the year the students developed and encouraged each other to meet high critical standards for the creation and presentation of an SRI.

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