Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum
Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum
Reader response stresses the importance of the reader's role in interpreting texts. Rejecting the idea that there is a single, fixed meaning inherent in every literary work, this theory holds that the individual creates his or her own meaning through a "transaction" with the text based on personal associations. Because all readers bring their own emotions, concerns, life experiences, and knowledge to their reading, each interpretation is subjective and unique.
Many trace the beginning of reader-response theory to scholar Louise Rosenblatt's influential 1938 work Literature As Exploration. Rosenblatt's ideas were a reaction to the formalist theories of the New Critics, who promoted "close readings" of literature, a practice which advocated rigid scholarly detachment in the study of texts and rejected all forms of personal interpretation by the reader. According to Rosenblatt, the New Critics treated the text as "an autonomous entity that could be objectively analyzed" using clear-cut technical criteria. Rosenblatt believed instead that "the reading of any work of literature is, of necessity, an individual and unique occurrence involving the mind and emotions of some particular reader and a particular text at a particular time under particular circumstances."
Impact on teaching literature
Over the last several decades, reader-response techniques have become firmly established in American classrooms. Language arts teachers at all levels now widely accept central tenets of the theory, particularly the notion that learning is a constructive and dynamic process in which students extract meaning from texts through experiencing, hypothesizing, exploring, and synthesizing. Most importantly, teaching reader response encourages students to be aware of what they bring to texts as readers; it helps them to recognize the specificity of their own cultural backgrounds and to work to understand the cultural background of others.
Using reader response in the classroom can have a profound impact on how students view texts and how they see their role as readers. Rather than relying on a teacher or critic to give them a single, standard interpretation of a text, students learn to construct their own meaning by connecting the textual material to issues in their lives and describing what they experience as they read. Because there is no one "right" answer or "correct" interpretation, the diverse responses of individual readers are key to discovering the variety of possible meanings a poem, story, essay, or other text can evoke.
Students in reader-response classrooms become active learners. Because their personal responses are valued, they begin to see themselves as having both the authority and the responsibility to make judgments about what they read. (This process is evident in the video programs, when students are asked to choose a line of poetry and explain why it is important to them.) The responses of fellow students also play a pivotal role: Through interaction with their peers, students move beyond their initial individual reaction to take into account a multiplicity of ideas and interpretations, thus broadening their perspective.
Incorporating reader response in the classroom
As increasing numbers of elementary, middle, and secondary school language arts teachers have come to accept reader-response theory over the last 25 years, the instructional techniques that support it have become more common in classrooms: Literature circles, journal writing, and peer writing groups all grew out of the reader-response movement. These teaching strategies value student-initiated analysis over teacher-led instruction, promote open-ended discussion, and encourage students to explore their own thinking and trust their own responses.
Benefits and challenges of using a reader-response approach
Research has shown that students in reader-response-based classrooms read more and make richer personal connections with texts than students using more traditional methods. They tend to be more tolerant of multiple interpretations, and because they learn techniques that help them recognize the ways in which their own arguments are formed, they are better equipped to examine the arguments of others. In short, reader response helps students to become better critical readers.
While these techniques encourage a broad range of textual interpretations and reactions, students must learn, however, that not every response is equally valid or appropriate. The meaning of a text is not an entirely subjective matter, of course, and it is crucial that responses be grounded in the text itself and in the context in which the text is read. One way of guarding against students "running wild" is to make sure that there's a community restraint on interpretation. That is, if the teacher structures reader-response exercises carefully, each individual student is challenged by the discussion to go beyond his or her first response. Even though an individual reader's reactions are based on his or her own "schema" (the expectations that arise from personal experiences), he or she will realize in class discussion that not everyone shares that same perspective.