National Writing Project

Book Review: Action Strategies for Deepening Comprehension, by Jeffrey D. Wilhelm

By: Pamela Fong
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 2
Date: 2004

Summary: Pamela Fong reviews Action Strategies for Deepening Comprehension, which challenges teachers to consider untraditional ways to support student comprehension and engage otherwise unmotivated students into becoming independent learners.


Action Strategies for Deepening Comprehension
Written by Jeffrey D. Wilhelm. Scholastic Professional Books, 2002. $17.95, 192 pages. ISBN: 0-439-21857-8.

Last fall, returning to the classroom and teaching a literacy course in a university preservice program, I was able to integrate my previous high school teaching experience, the theory on learning and literacy that I had studied in graduate school recently, and my newly honed professional development facilitation skills. I had planned what I thought was an innovative, hands-on curriculum, sprinkled with theory only as it related to our topic that day. Despite my efforts to model new teaching strategies similar to those my students might model for their students, the recurring question from these student teachers—especially those who had yet to enter any teaching situation—was "But what does it look like with kids?"

That is a question I never once asked myself while reading Jeffrey Wilhelm's new book, Action Strategies for Deepening Comprehension. Granted, unlike my student teachers, I have schemata from my years of teaching high school to envision how his approach might be carried out in the classroom. However, I believe it is Wilhelm's ability to write a teacher-friendly how-to book, incorporating descriptive personal experiences from his own teaching and from other teachers' experiences, that brings to life ways teachers might integrate these strategies into their classroom practice.

Drawing on the theoretical work of Lev Vygotsky, particularly his idea that play and socially constructed meaning making are necessary for learning to take place (11, 28), Wilhelm challenges teachers to consider untraditional ways to support student comprehension and to engage otherwise unmotivated students into becoming independent learners. As in his previous works, Wilhelm puts his students at the center of his book, making use of student conversations, student work, anecdotal descriptions of learning moments, and photographs of his students engaged in active learning.

Throughout, Wilhelm makes much use of what he calls "enactments," which are ways he finds for students to live in the text as they role-play historical people, characters, thematic events, social issues, and scientific processes. He believes that when students learn through enactments, they are utilizing tools and strategies for experiencing the same rich and powerful literacy experiences with text that expert readers automatically experience, or what he calls a "transformative experience with text" (9).

In his introduction, Wilhelm discusses how enactments create opportunities for student choice, creativity, and social interaction—all of which can be particularly motivating and empowering to students for whom the traditional classroom has not been a successful learning environment (14, 15). In fact, one of Wilhelm's own daughters is such a student, and he periodically shares personal anecdotes describing how her learning has been enhanced greatly from opportunities applying her imagination and creativity while enacting literary scenes and events in and out of the classroom. Thinking back to when I was teaching ninth grade English, I recall a number of students who were consistently more involved and animated in class when we dramatized the text or held debates on thematic issues compared to the times we engaged in more traditional activities. Had I known more about enactments then, I imagine these students would have had a very different relationship with the texts we read in class.

Chapter 1, titled "Show Me, Help Me, Let Me," grounds the teaching practice of enactments in Vygotsky's zone of proximal development (ZPD) theory and the notion that all learning is a social event, "consist[ing] of the conscious lending of expertise from the teacher to the student, so that the student can do with help what she could not yet do alone" (21).

In the classroom, enactments provide students with scenarios that have no ending. Teachers introduce and model the "how" of the enactment strategy, but students must challenge themselves within their own ZPD, apply their own critical thinking to act out the scenario, and provide a conclusion. In the process of enacting, students are making meaning. Since the nature of enactments is open ended and, to a degree, unpredictable, teachers who use them must be flexible. Wilhelm is aware of this and concludes the chapter by addressing an assortment of teacher reservations about the use of enactments, hopefully assuaging those who fear losing control of their classrooms.

In Chapter 2, "Making the Connection: Enactments to Use Before Reading," Wilhelm discusses how enactments can be used effectively to introduce a new topic, text, genre, or reading strategy. In contrast to many books that focus on teaching ideas, Wilhelm provides tips for "framing the enactment" (33) to the class and encourages teachers to be explicit with students, informing them why and how they will perform a scene. So often books such as this offer slight rationale and few set-up directions. In cases such as these, teachers see a "neat" idea in a book and try it out the next day, only to see it flop, never fully appreciating the intent and nuances of the strategy. Teaching with enactments requires a teacher to understand why she is choosing this approach and to ask what outcome she is hoping to achieve from using it.

In addition to ideas for framing the enactment, chapter 2 offers numerous frontloading activities that help students activate or build background knowledge before reading the text. For example, students respond to a compelling letter that raises thematic or controversial issues from the text. There are twenty-seven other such front-loading activities in this chapter that help students activate or build new understanding about a concept before beginning the journey in a new, unfamiliar text.

In chapters 3 and 4, Wilhelm introduces role-playing activities. For instance, students take on the roles of different characters—major and minor—to "see" the story from different perspectives. In particular, Wilhelm introduces an activity called Mantle-of-the-Expert, in which students become experts such as teachers, counselors, or parents who then interact with the characters from the book, providing a new perspective to the scenario. Mantle-of-the-Expert encourages "students to read and think deeply enough that they learn more than the raw content—they learn the ways of thinking and knowing that experts use to understand, produce, represent, and use that content" (98). This seems an especially effective approach for history and science teachers to consider with their nonfiction texts. For example, while studying the Great Depression, Wilhelm asks his students to produce a video documentary, so they take on the mantles of documentary filmmakers and historians and learn what it means to do their jobs. But they also become rum runners, economists, hobos, policymakers, Hooverville residents, Dust Bowl farmers, and breadline workers. By becoming real people who lived under these adverse conditions and immersing themselves into the experience through enactments, students learn the content of their documentary, and thus, the content of their historical unit.

For me, the power of enactments really came alive in chapter 5 when Wilhelm takes a twelve-step outline for planning a Mantle-of-the-Expert project and demonstrates how three different teachers carry it out. In addition to his own class, which was studying civil rights at the time, he includes two other very strong examples that show the diverse application of this teaching approach. One is from an Australian teaching in aboriginal communities, whose students become health officials, researchers, and documentarians in order to create an antismoking video for their community. The other example is from a ninth grade English teacher who, while teaching The Iliad and The Odyssey, challenges his students to become historians and designers of a theme park—the theme being the adventures of these two Greek classics, of course. These three examples, played out in their discrete ways, provided for me a clinching case for enactments in the classroom

Chapter 6, "Tableaux," is devoted to variations of the well-known activity of students interpreting a scene, concept, or situation by posing in a frozen snapshot or a series of snapshots.

The title and subtitle of chapter 7 are "Reenactments and Interventions: Playing to Deepen Understanding of How Texts Work." The chapter demonstrates how students play with text in order to better understand its intentions. Through reenactments of the subtexts and unspoken aspects of a story, students probe deeper into the text's meaning. For instance, students' reenact the text reframed differently—in a new time period, genre, point of view, or circumstance. By applying their understanding of what they believe the author had intended and then recasting dimensions of the text in a new light, students are pushed to demonstrate their comprehension of the text.

The penultimate chapter provides ways enactments can help students step into roles as writers. Wilhelm calls this type of writing Correspondence Enactments. Students become aware of the audience, purpose, and text structure as they adopt a persona and write a letter, editorial, diary entry, and so forth.

In the final chapter, "Discussion Drama," readers gain new ideas for orchestrating a whole-class enactment around a critical issue. Replacing the ubiquitous and ineffective free-for-all "class discussion" are radio and TV talk shows, choral montages, quiz shows, newscasts, and other creative ways in which students prepare a position—not necessarily their own—on an issue and enact it.

Anyone who teaches in middle school knows how kinesthetic young adolescents can be and will understand how enactments are a natural fit for kids in this age group. I initially thought the enactments better for middle school than for high school classrooms where content area teachers often feel pressured to "cover the course content" or devote more time to prepare students for college in their particular discipline. However, I have learned through my professional development work with teachers that "covering the course content" does not mean teaching it. If students are not learning the concepts in deep and meaningful ways, it does not matter that the history teacher has "covered" the Revolutionary War through the Vietnam War in a single year, or that the students in an English class have read half a dozen novels and have written six essays—each in a different genre. Breadth is not necessarily depth. In fact, the book includes enough high school level examples of detailed lesson plans and applicable uses of enactments across content areas to convince me that high school teachers and students can benefit from engaging the text and concepts in this creative way.

Although Wilhelm presents a teaching approach that may not appeal to all teachers, his argument for creating learning opportunities for those students who seldom feel successful in the classroom through the use of enactments is convincing. Granted, setting up a classroom based entirely on enactments may not be for every teacher; however, I think that every teacher who reads Action Strategies for Deepening Comprehension will find that there are more than a few gems to take away from this resource. Personally, as a teacher who does not possess an extroverted personality in the classroom, I now feel inspired to push myself to seek out alternative approaches such as those offered by Wilhelm to reach those students who learn in a modality completely different from my own. As I gear up for teaching another semester of my literacy class to preservice teachers, I am already thinking about ways to integrate Wilhelm's enactments into my curriculum. As a result, I'm hoping that my own student teachers will be receptive to these creative approaches for teaching the varied students they will soon encounter.

About the Author Pamela Fong is a former high school English teacher, as well as a former professional developer in literacy for secondary teachers. Currently, she is teaching academic literacy at the University of San Francisco.

Note: The Quarterly editors asked Jeffrey Wilhelm to write a few words about the experience of writing and publishing a book. See article "On the Experience of Writing Action Strategies" by Jeffrey D. Wilhelm.

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