Reader-Response in Education

The "transactional theory" of literature is the formal name for what is common identified as the reader-response theory. This approach has recast the role of the reader from that of subordinated spectator to that of prominence as an equal partner to the text. This theory of reading literature has significantly influenced the teaching of literature and reading. Recognizing the role of the reader in the reading act is the underpinning of the theory, along with the critical understanding that reading is a process.

Learning to read for most children starts with responses to stories, oral or read-aloud literature, or, in abbreviated form, responses to words. Listening to words, often with the accompaniment of entrancing pictures, they develop language awareness and participate in language response. They experience the words and develop awareness of story structure, being able, for example, to model and tell their own stories. Such response-to-literature background is appropriately touted for its enhancement of reading readiness.

Establishing positive, expectant attitudes about reading along with developing language and story awareness have significant learning effects. However, the responses themselves are equally significant; the giggles, the sighs, the exclamations reflect and enhance an increasing alertness to the power that words in context have. The reading act necessarily involves a reader and a text. Without a reader, text does not come into existence as it does not have meaning or invoke feelings or sensations. The central premise of the reading process is that the literary work exists in the transaction between a reader and a text. The term transaction expresses the reader-text relationship. It signals a connection between them and the nature of the connection. Transaction denotes a situation of mutuality. During the reading activity, the reader and the text mutually act on each other, each affecting and conditioning the other.

The dynamics of the reader's stance are particularly significant in a classroom situation. Directly or indirectly, the teacher or the textbook's questions and instructions can markedly affect the stance that operates in student transactions. Appropriate discussion and classroom activities can assist readers in differentiating and applying stance in relation to the predominant purpose and language of the text and in developing and enhancing their responses in keeping with that predominance. Expectations and assignments may promote the application of a blend of both stances or may direct emphasis to one or the other.

Through interactive discussion, students are exploring their evoked responses, attempting to understand and come to terms with a text. Individual speakers, reflecting an interior voice, relate their experience with the text. Others reveal impressions through reactions to previous speakers. Together they weave an interpretive tapestry. Understanding is broadened, potentially deepened. The shared-response learning situation is a significant underpinning of reader response teaching strategies. With parallel significance for adult readers, it is especially meaningful for beginners in reading. The strategy exposes the building blocks of the responding structure, starting out with laying out of the materials at hand, the initial reader responses. With guidance from the teacher and active participation among themselves, the students begin to establish the design or designs of the structure, constructing it with the planks of their impressions and ideas. Discussion promotes expansion of the structure; reference to the text clarifies the details of the design and features of the structure.

Developing responsive reading is also more demanding for the teacher. Traditional procedures, such as the give-and-take discussion and comprehension-oriented workbooks that seek answers to data questions or textual details, offer structure and management control. They do not provide the impetus for students to reflect on their experience with the text, nor to express their involvement and uncertainties. These teaching strategies, in effect, present the teacher as the dominant reader. They assume her expertise, experience and greater skill in finding and making meaning; they provide the safety of a planned lesson and perceived interpretations but not the excitement of quest and discovery. In contrast, the teacher's role in a reader-response situation is dynamic: ascertaining where the students' initial responses are; anticipating developmental responses; identifying passages in the text that may need clarification or that may be used to expand understandings and preparing strategies for enhancing responses. The main challenge is being in the mainstream of the discussion, initiating it, feeding it with queries and responses and helping students grow as independent readers.

Reader-Response in Education: Selected full-text books and articles

Reader Response in Secondary and College Classrooms By Nicholas J. Karolides Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2000 (2nd edition)
Reader Response in Elementary Classrooms: Quest and Discovery By Nicholas J. Karolides Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1997
Handbook of Reading Research By Michael L. Kamil; Peter B. Mosenthal; P. David Pearson; Rebecca Barr Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, vol.3, 2000
Librarian's tip: Chap. 23 "Research on Response to Literature"
Intertexts: Reading Pedagogy in College Writing Classrooms By Marguerite Helmers Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2003
Librarian's tip: Chap. 5 "Whatever Happened to Reader-Response Criticism?"
Verbal Protocols of Reading: The Nature of Constructively Responsive Reading By Michael Pressley; Peter Afflerbach Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1995
Librarian's tip: Chap. 4 "Text Processing in Light of Think-Aloud Analyses of Reading: Constructively Responsive Reading"
The Exceptional Teacher: Transforming Traditional Teaching through Thoughtful Practice By Elizabeth Aaronsohn Jossey-Bass, 2003
Librarian's tip: "Reader Response" begins on p. 31
Issues in English Teaching By Jon Davison; John Moss Routledge, 2000
Librarian's tip: Discussion of Reader-Response Theory begins on p. 199
Crossing Over: Teaching Meaning-Centered Secondary English Language Arts By Harold M. Foster Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002 (2nd edition)
Librarian's tip: "Reader Response" begins on p. 13, and "Reflections on Discussing Books: How Reader-Response Discussions Work" begins on p. 92
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