Reader Response in Literature and Reading Instruction

By Asselin, Marlene | Teacher Librarian, April 2000 | Go to article overview

Reader Response in Literature and Reading Instruction


Asselin, Marlene, Teacher Librarian


Reader-based approaches to literature and reading instruction can now be found in many elementary and secondary classrooms. Benefits of these approaches include increased motivation to read, higher levels of response and improved reading ability. Doris Lessing exquisitely captures this way of reading in her memoirs: "The delicious excitement of it all ... the discoveries ... the surprises ... I was intoxicated a good part of the time" (Fraser, 1992). This article looks at the development of the concept of reader response, examines some of the practices that have evolved from theory and concludes with a list of professional resources for more teaching ideas.

Theories of reader response explain how readers create meaning. Theorists identify three aspects of this process: the reader, the text and the context. The different relationships that are possible between these components define different perspectives of reader response.

Traditional approaches to literature education regard meaning as residing in the text. Each literary work contains a "correct" interpretation that teachers, as mediators between critics and students, hold the keys to unlocking. Text-based reading emphasizes students' knowledge of literary conventions and expects them to derive designated meanings from the literature. Many of us, particularly in secondary and university English courses, learned about literature this way. The last national survey of literature instruction in the United States showed that these views still dominate (Applebee, 1989).

Louise Rosenblatt (1938, 1978) proposed a radical new view of how readers make meaning. Key features of her theory are: 1) the focus on readers' psychological processes and 2) seeing literature as a means of promoting critical thinking and multiple perspectives. She proposed that readers bring a wealth of emotions, experiences and knowledge to a reading that, in turn, provoke associations with the words, images and ideas in the text. Rosenblatt also believed that experiencing literature in this way promoted the openmindedness foundational to democracy.

Rosenblatt explained that readers read texts for efferent or aesthetic purposes, which in turn guide their experience with an interpretation of the text. Efferent responses highlight carrying information away in order to learn something. Traditional or textual approaches to literature instruction favor an efferent stance to literature. Aesthetic responses put the reader in the text world making the reading a "lived-through experience." Most reading, however, occurs along a continuum of aesthetic and efferent response. Rosenblatt argued that schooled experiences with literature restrict children from engaging aesthetically with literature and lead to limited views of reading.

The move to literature-based approaches to reading in the elementary grades is influenced by Rosenblatt's transactional theory through emphasis on aesthetic purposes for reading. However, researchers have identified obstacles to implementing this approach such as teacher's limited knowledge of literature and their emphasis on text-driven comprehension in reading. In contrast, literature-based reading instruction focuses on exposure and opportunities to read quality literature and regards reading as both a psychologically and socially constructed interpretative process.

Rosenblatt describes how a reader's response is both individually and socially constructed. This view accounts for multiple and diverse responses within and between readers. A group of people reading a common text will respond diversely because of individual feelings, experiences and knowledge. Likewise, an individual will respond uniquely to the same text at different times of their life and in different circumstances. Historical, social and cultural aspects of a reader's identity also influence the meaning of texts so that readers' responses also vary by group. Practices that support the joint construction of meaning through talk such as literature circles and book clubs demonstrate how this process translates into instruction. …

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