National Writing Project

Starting the Fire: Motivating Readers

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

Summary: In this excerpt from the introduction to Action Strategies for Deepening Comprehension, Jeffrey D. Wilhelm defines enactment strategies and details their benefits. From his earliest to his most recent work, Wilhelm has emphasized the role of drama or enactment in assisting readers. He argues persuasively that comprehension can been deepened through a wide range of activities that invite readers to engage in role plays, tableaux, and other enactment strategies. The book contains concrete suggestions as well as theoretical underpinnings to help students make connections between their lives and the texts they are reading. Wilhelm offers suggestions for enactments that include everything from "front loading" to final reflections.


From the introduction to Action Strategies for Deepening Comprehension by Jeffrey D. Wilhelm, Ph.D. Published by Scholastic Professional Books a division of Scholastic Inc. Copyright 2002 by Jeffery D. Wilhem. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

From his earliest to his most recent work, Jeffrey Wilhelm emphasizes the role of drama or enactment in assisting readers. Wilhelm argues persuasively that comprehension can been deepened through a wide range of activities that invite readers to engage in role plays, tableaux, and other enactment strategies. One need not be an actor to follow his suggestions, only to be willing to let students grapple with text in physical ways.

Action Strategies for Deepening Comprehension follows through with concrete suggestions as well as the theoretical underpinnings to help students make connections between their lives and texts. This book is rich in actual strategies that build on students' strengths. Wilhelm offers concrete suggestions for enactments that include everything from "front loading" to final reflections. As he notes, "All learning is metaphor: We must connect the already known to something new to achieve it ( p. 45)."

Starting the Fire: Motivating Readers

Before sharing Ronald Wallace's poem "Grandmother Grace" with her seventh graders, Kylene Beers cuts up lines from it and gives one to each student. For ten minutes they walk around, share their lines, and try to stitch together an idea of what the poem may be about. Their voices rise with their building curiosity. Kylene smiles. She's got them hooked. She then asks them to sit down and imagine they are one of the characters in the poem, and to talk about their feelings and what may happen to them. Then Kylene hands out the poem and begins to read it aloud.

In my own class, I invite my students to identify themselves as either a New England Patriots football team fan or as a fan of the archrival New York Jets, and go to opposite sides of the room. I tell the two groups that I want them to interact as if they are meeting each other on the way to the championship game. They can make signs, taunt each other, whatever, but to prepare quickly. In a few minutes, they are ready. "You're going down!" "Your team is lunch meat!" they exclaim. One girl holds a sign: "Don't Bet on the Jets. They'll Be Grounded!"

I ask them to add gestures. They do. Then I suggest they bite their thumbs at one another, explaining that it's an old-fashioned way of showing your disapproval. They do one last go-round of good-natured taunts, and bite their thumbs.

With the students' energy high, I tell them that now, one group is to be Capulets and the other Montagues. Ahh, we get it, their expressions tell me. Having spent five minutes acting out a contemporary rivalry that they understand, students can now connect personal experience to the feud introduced in the first scene of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.

My eighth graders have just finished reading Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery." They are confused by it and need some clarification. I tell them we are going to use a technique called Newscast, in which teams of reporters interview characters about what happened, search for an explanation, and then report the ending of the story. Their Newscast will conclude with a feature comparing the lottery in the story to other beliefs, habits, and traditional ways of doing things that we all unquestioningly accept.

At the Audubon School in Chicago, midway through a unit on the environment, teacher Lara Pruitt asks students to perform Vocabulary Tableaux, creating "living statues" that depict the meaning of important terms like deforestation and global warming. Students begin to strike poses and gesture and talk things through, using their bodies to try to define these terms and the relationships between them. Lara gives a signal, and the room is filled with frozen statues.

I observe my student teacher, Seth Mitchell, as he teaches The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. One of his students says: "Why did Huck play that trick on Jim, making him think he was dead?" Before Seth can respond, another student exclaims, "Let's do a Hotseat and Alter Ego!" The students quickly organize themselves so that two students play Huck and Jim, others pose questions to them, and two others stand behind them and play the characters' alter egos, revealing what they think are Huck and Jim's actual thoughts and feelings. "I played the trick on Jim just for fun and because the opportunity was there, " says Huck, but his inner self then reveals that "I wanted to give him a good scare. I knew old Jim was superstitious and I thought I would get a good laugh. But after what he said to me, now I sure am ashamed."

Seth and I exchange looks. Yes! These students immediately recognized a drama strategy as a way to read between the lines of Twain's text, beautifully inferring character motivation. And best of all, they did it of their own accord.

What's the common thread linking all these vignettes? Action strategies—also known as enactment strategies or drama strategies. For the purposes of this book, I will regularly refer to them as enactments, since even the word "drama" can understandably produce full-blown stage fright in many of us. And just so you know from the get-go: enactments are not theater, and do not require props, stages, rehearsals, or acting skills.

Enactment: A Definition

"If you will practice being fictional for a while, you will understand that fictional characters are sometimes more real that people with bodies and heartbeats."

Richard Bach Illusions
Enactment is, quite simply, creating situations in which we "imagine to learn" (Wilhelm and Edmiston, 1998). As a teacher, I invite students to imagine together, actively depicting characters, forces, or ideas, and to interact in these roles. An enactment may be cast in the past, the present, or the future, but always happens in the "now of time." In other words, the time of reference may be the year 1776 or 3076, but the action unfolds as if that time is now. Enactments can be used in any curriculum area. Through enactments, you can highlight and teach strategies of reading and learning, and help students create interpretations of text that reverberate with artistic, aesthetic, and metaphorical meanings.

The Benefits of Enactment Strategies

As I trust is palpable from the teaching scenes described above, students take to these strategies like squirrels to trees; enactments enliven and engage students, and get them interacting with texts in profoundly different ways than when students sit at desks and answer questions about a book. Enactment strategies are the most powerful strategies I use, so much so that I cannot imagine teaching without them. Curiously—as educator David Booth once told me—they are the most underused strategies in the American teaching repertoire. I hope this book will give them a higher profile, as my own teaching and research has shown me how effective they are for motivating and assisting students, particularly at-risk and reluctant students, to become more engaged and competent readers and learners (Wilhelm, 1997; Wilhe1m and Edmiston, 1998; Wilhelm, Baker, and Dube, 2001; Smith and Wilhelm, 2002). The findings in my own studies are abetted by a wide research base that has shown how these strategies can help all students, particularly those whose ways of learning and knowing are not privileged in traditional classrooms. (See Wagner, 1998, for a research review. See Smith and Wilhelm, 2002, for a data-driven explanation of why enactment strategies engage and assist students.) I have adapted many of the enactment strategies in this book from the field of drama in education; many others I have developed in collaboration with colleagues and students. Here, I will outline enactment's seven chief benefits.

1. Enactments Make Reading a Transformative Experience
Enactment strategies give students new entry points into text, and yes, many of them are active, requiring students to move physically, but the goal of enactments is to get students' minds to move to new places, to be transformed. Think about it: When we teach anything, but particularly when we teach something like reading or literature, we are actually involved in a more significant ursuit—transformative teaching. Transformative teaching is the flip side of transformative learning, which Valde and Kornetsky define as "learning experiences that alter one's understanding of oneself, one's notion of the nature of knowledge or the meaning of knowing, one's ethical sense or world view, one's sense of self and one's place in the world, and/or one's life or vocational trajectory" (2002, p. 5). I know that I love reading and teaching literature because stories and other kinds of texts provide me with a unique way of knowing, giving me new lenses for seeing myself and the world in different ways. Reading transforms me. Since I want the same experience for my students, I give them the tools and strategies necessary for transformative experiences with texts. Enactments assist students in internalizing these kinds of strategies.

2. Enactments Can Be Used Flexibly
Enactments can be engaged individually, silently, in writing, through pair work, or in large groups. They can be used spontaneously, with little preparation, for as short a time as 30 seconds or for extended periods. Enactments can be used in combination with other strategies to form a story drama (a series of enactments that get students using certain reading strategies to support their comprehension and engagement with a whole text) or a process drama (where one dramatic activity helps students shape another activity}. However, when you are first using these strategies, you'll probably feel most comfortable with shorter, single strategies. You will soon learn to combine them in more sophisticated and extended ways.

3. Enactments Assist Students Before, During, and After Reading
To quote educator Margaret Meek, enactment strategies "make public the secret things that expert readers know and do" so that these usually invisible strategies will be made physical, external and concrete. This is powerful, as the noted Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1978) argued that all learning must proceed from the concrete to the abstract, from the external to the internal, from the "near to home" if you will, to understandings and ways of doing things that are "further" from home—meaning more foreign, specialized, and distant from students' lived experience. Enactment strategies can be used by a teacher or fellow students to model expert reading strategies and to work through the strategies together, through each of the three phases of reading: before reading, during reading, and after reading.

Before reading, enactments help students to

  • activate their prior knowledge and relevant background experiences.
  • connect a text to related texts, either in terms of content, structure, or both.
  • build the schematic knowledge/content background necessary to comprehend the text.
  • set purposes for reading.
  • build motivation to read.
  • prepare emotionally and cognitively for the reading experience.

During reading, enactments help students to

  • evoke the textual world.
  • build and sustain their belief in the textual world.
  • use appropriate reading strategies.
  • enliven their reading and be motivated to continue reading.
  • intensely visualize places, situations, actions, and people.
  • enter into varying perspectives; help students become characters, ideas, or forces acting upon the characters.
  • infer—to see and make meaning of simple and complex implied relationships.
  • connect the text to their lives and/or larger issues of social significance; to elaborate on the textual world.
  • engage their ethical imagination, helping them to ask: "What if?" "What do we believe?" "What should we do as a result?"
  • assist other's reading performance through modeling, sharing, collaborative work.

After reading, enactments help students to

  • negotiate and reflect on meaning.
  • discern, discuss, and evaluate author's visions, meaning his or her generalizations, themes, and main ideas.
  • reflect on text structure and how this affects meaning.
  • consider alternatives and elaborations, going beyond what is directly stated to other possibilities—or pursue inquiry into questions raised by the text.
  • consider how to apply what's been learned in the text to their own lives, i.e., ask So what? and Now what?

Later, on page 34, you will see how many of these readerly strategies get practiced in a 90 minute period, working with the short story "The Fan Club."

4. Enactments Harness the Power of the Social Nature of Learning
Vygotsky (1978) posited that all learning is social. Enactments give teachers a way to "socialize" meaningfully with students—engaging, confronting, and challenging them, so they will outgrow their current selves and learn new strategies, stances, conceptual knowledge, and ways of being. (For more on the social nature of learning, see pages 22–27.) Enactments give students a means of learning together in the following ways:

They are action-oriented and participatory. They

  • require students to work together, express their opinions, listen to each other, and create meaning together.
  • require active involvement by all parties.
  • provide a variety of roles and ways to participate—
  • begin with and are driven by student interests, by what they already know and find signficant, and by what is socially relevant.
  • develop new interests in students.

They are socio-constructivist and democratic. They

  • enable students and teachers to construct meaning and new understandings together.
  • give everyone a voice, and those voices must all be attended to.

5. Enactments Invite Students to Think and Imagine
As you will see throughout this book, enactments take students' thinking and imagining to new heights. They powerfully combine rigorous, reasoned thinking with divergent thinking. They flex students' intellects and imaginations in the following ways:

They are liminal.
An enactment exists on the threshold between what is real and what is imaginary. Things can be said, done, or manipulated in ways that are experimental, and yet the situation will have the power of reality (O'Neill, 1982).

They are substantive.
In an enactment, reasoning must be made visible, and knowledge made accountable (Mercer, 1995). What is created during an enactment must fit what we know from the text and the world. Enactments make hidden processes of reading and learning visible, manipulatable, and open to evaluation and revision.

They promote inquiry.
Enactments require us to go beyond facts to their causes, meaning, and ramifications, and to what could be different. Students will observe others (ethnographic research), live through and experience new positions and perspectives (phenomenological research), and can experiment with the possibilities and consequences of different courses of action (action research) (Edmiston and Wilhelm, 1996).

6. Enactments Are Motivating
This sixth chief benefit may be the most potent benefit of all: motivation. An enactment is playful, fun, and emotionally engaging. Various theorists and researchers studying the brain, learning, and human potential have demonstrated that learning is most powerful when the participants are having fun (Bloom, 1976; Csikszentmihalyi, 1990; Csikszentmihalyi, Rathunde, and Whalen, 1993; Hillocks, 1995; Heath and McLaughlin, 1993; Vygotsky, 1978).
Attending to how kids learn and what they enjoy is essential. As Vygotsky (1978) argues, people can only learn in their zone of proximal development—a zone in which they can do with help what they cannot do alone. When people enter into their cognitive zone of proximal development (ZPD), where learning occurs, they must first have moved through their motivational ZPD (Coles, 2000). They need to have a reason to learn, a purpose for learning, and a belief that they will be successful. Enactments fulfill all these needs, and are motivating because they

  • provide a meaningful context and applicable situation for learning.
  • highlight human purposes and experience.
  • connect reading to the world and to social action.
  • frame the learning, supporting and assisting students to use new strategies and ways of knowing.
  • make use of a variety of student strengths and literacies by using various kinds of movement, gestures, visuals, oral language, and so forth, to create meaning with text.

In so doing, they provide students with alternative ways to work through and think about texts. This is particularly motivating for those students considered at-risk or unsuccessful in normal school settings (Wilhelm, 1997; Wilhelm and Edmiston, 1998; Yaffe, 1989).

Enactment is "a major force in boosting a child's self-concept and desire to be an active part of a learning community" (McMaster, 1998), and the success students experience in enactments can lead to increased motivation for reading, which in turn leads to further success (Bordan, 1970).

7. Enactments Help Students Achieve a State of "Flow"
My recent research with Michael Smith on the role of literacy in the lives of boys and young men demonstrates that students are engaged by learning situations in which the conditions of "flow" (optimal experience) are present (Smith and Wilhelm, 2002; cf. Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). These conditions include

  • choice and control.
  • social interaction and involvement.
  • a sense of developing competence.
  • active assistance to meet new challenges.
  • a connection to high levels of personal relevance and social significance.

These conditions abound in the kinds of enactment activities this book will explore. Interestingly, the boys in our study cited drama—by which they generally meant role playing—to be a favorite part of school because it gave them the chance to be active, to work with others, to make and express meaning. The strategies in this book will assist teachers in helping students do all those things, but will also go well beyond traditional notions of role playing or acting out a dramatic script.

Using Enactments Throughout the Reading Process

An Example Using The Great Gatsby

So, what might it look like to weave enactment strategies into your teaching repertoire? Just how do they support students throughout the reading process? I invited teacher Tanya Baker to share how she does this. She says, "I'm planning my unit on The Great Gatsby. In the past, this novel has given my students trouble in several places, and I think drama can help them over those humps." With Tanya's comment, you see, when planning a unit, one aim might be to anticipate things students might struggle with, and build your enactment activities around them.

Tanya continues. "After they read Chapter 1, I want students to concentrate on making connections to the characters. I know that the setting (the time, the wealth, for example) is foreign to them, but they should still be able to think about what sort of people these characters are. I'll have them work in groups for support and use the text to make sense of the characters. They will write questions to ask a character and practice answering them. They will also make a list of questions they'd ask other characters. When they are ready, I'll put students 'in the hotseat' to take turns answering questions from their peers as if they are the characters.

"After the first four chapters, I will have students work together on teams as private detectives in a 'mantle of the expert' strategy. Their job will be to determine an answer to their client's question: Who is Jay Gatsby? They will make a list of what they've heard about Gatsby, using things that Gatsby and other characters have said. The students will decide which things on the list they believe and which they don't, and they will also have to give their reasons for believing or disbelieving. Student groups will write up a report to be delivered to their clients. This will help them see the complex implied relationships that the text asks them to see.

"During Chapter 5, I'm planning to do 'tableaux/silent movie.' Students are always confused by the silent scene at the end of Chapter 5. So here, I'll have students form acting companies that will perform a 'silent movie' version of what Gatsby sees through the window on the night of the accident. Each company will have a director, a reader, and two actors. As the reader goes over the paragraph phrase by phrase, the director will 'direct' the actors playing Tom and Daisy. Ultimately, each acting company has to decide what Gatsby witnesses between Tom and Daisy that night. Each company's actors will present the scene as the reader reads. In a 'director's cut,' the director will explain why she 'shot' the scene in this way. Students will discuss the scenes and any discrepancies, and reach a consensus on what Tom and Daisy discuss and decide on that night.

"After the silent movies we'll do 'whispers,' with one student playing Gatsby. I'll give the other students a chance to come up to him as he sits alone to give him advice about what he should do. Because of 'silent movie,' students will be quite involved in making sense of what Tom and Daisy are doing to ruin Gatsby's plans, so they should be more than willing to tell what Gatsby ought to do next. Also, I think it is a point in the story at which, although the narrator still has mixed feelings about Gatsby, he feels compassion for him. I want my students to think about the mess that Gatsby is in and try to express their feelings about that to the character.

"At the end of the book, few people come to pay their respects to Jay Gatsby. And although both Nick and Gatsby's father seem to love Gatsby, they don't talk to each other much. I'll divide the class into two groups, and we will imagine that it is a month after the funeral. Group A will take on the role of Mr. Gatz, group B will play the role of Nick Carraway. Each student will write from his or her assigned character's point of view to the other character about what they know and what they wish to know about Gatsby. Individuals in groups A and B will exchange letters, and each person will underline a particularly apt, moving, or poignant line. Students will then work in their groups to prepare a choral montage of the letters." (See Chapter 9 for details.)


More on Boys and Literacy

The boys in our study complained about the lack of action-oriented learning activities in school. As Michael Smith and I began to analyze the data, it became clear why enactment strategies would be so attractive to them. The boys expressed a desire for:

A challenge that requires skill

  1. including assistance to meet challenges

Clear goals and feedback, which was supported by the chance to

  1. make or do something.
  2. apply or use what has been learned.
  3. name what they have learned and how they could use it.

A sense of control, which was abetted by the opportunity to

  1. develop and display competence.
  2. express their own opinion.
  3. construct, share, and use their own understandings.

Social activity

  1. working together on something meaningful
  2. the chance to share who they are and what they have learned

Fun and humor

  1. laughter
  2. losing themselves in the immediate task

(Smith and Wilhelm,2002)

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