This article presents an overview of reader-response teaching methods, which follow a theory of epistemology that focuses on how readers make knowledge or meaning by reading a short story, novel, poem, or other text. Reader response theorists such as Louise Rosenblatt, Stanley Fish and Wolfgang Iser advocate a reader-oriented approach to responding to a text. The rise of Reader-Response theory (also known as transactional theory) resulted from a focus away from Romantic theory and New Criticism.
Within reader-response theory, hermeneutics theory states that a literary work is finished by the reader, as the process of reading is carried out through the interaction between reader and literary work. It is also said that the hiatus of the work is filled in by the imagination of the reader. In the practical literary science school, meaning, sense is tied to the inner and outer status of the individual, thus it is a relative thing (Demeny, 2102). According to transactional literary theory (Rosenblatt) meaning is born within transaction; through reader-response, the reader brings his or her own experiences to the selection. There is no one true interpretation, as the reader is the active creator of the responses. Reading becomes a transaction between the reader and the text, a relationship evoking an experience or meaning for the particular individual reader. The five theoretical perspectives surrounding Reader-Response theory are also discussed.
Keywords Aesthetic Response; Book Clubs; Cultural Texts; Dialogue Journals; Efferent Response; Literature Circles; New Criticism; Romantic Theory; Rosenblatt, Louise; Transactional Theory
Reader-Response literary theory (also known as transactional theory) is a theory of epistemology, focusing on how readers make knowledge when reading a text. A text can be of any genre - short story, novel, poem, etc. Reader-response theory advocates a reader-oriented approach to responding to text, marking a shift from a text-centered to a reader-oriented focus on reading. In this theory, readers respond to the text by creating their own meaning to what they are reading. Louise Rosenblatt, along with other promoters of reader-response theory such as Wolfgang Iser and Stanley Fish, promote the transaction between the reader and the text. Each individual reader extracts his or her own unique meaning out of the text. The theory promotes critical thinking in readers and enhances multiple perspectives and associations with past experiences. Rosenblatt (1985) also states that Reader-Response offers benefits beyond the classroom, enhancing the open-mindedness that is the foundation of a democratic society.
Historically there have been, and still exist, three major approaches to making meaning through texts. Romantic theory was the dominant theory in the 19th century to the 1940's, as every critic tried to explain the intentions of the writer. This theory supports the preoccupation with the author and his or her message; the literary work is seen as a reflection of the writer's biography and historical background. The general assumption of this theory is that competent readers learn to interpret the text, looking for the author's intended message or meaning. The author's intention is the key to ascertaining what the work is really all about, i.e., its meaning. Only through close scrutiny and analysis of the structure and techniques of the author can a reader reach the one meaning that is the only meaning that the author meant the text to express. Typically in the classroom where formal analysis is the focus, the instructor lectures, presenting an analysis of the work and the author's background.
In the 1940's, the predominant theory that explained the making of meaning shifted as readers focused on a close reading of the language in a text. Through a theory called New Criticism. In New Criticism, the reader focuses on a close reading of the text, with a formal analysis of the setting, character, plot, language theme, etc. The reader's task is to carefully identify the major literary elements of what he or she is reading. Teachers teach close, concise analysis of the text. Those who teach through this theory are critical of the reader's attempt to make his or her own feelings important in the reading of any text. Readers are not encouraged to respond to their own personal connections with the text.
The rise in Reader-Response occurred during the 1960's to 1980's, with a marked shift of attention on the reader. This reaction challenged New Criticism as educators attempted to focus away from structural analysis of the texts. Instead, teachers who promote reader-response help their students improve the quality of their reading. In Reader-Response theory, readers are taught to justify their responses by providing textual support, as a means of avoiding irrelevant, inappropriate or arbitrary interpretations. The teacher's role is to create a community that fosters individuality of response.
There are three elements to reader-response: the reader, the text, and the context. In Rosenblatt's (1983) view, reading is not a passive act. When readers read, they bring their own experiences to the selection. There is no one true interpretation, as the reader is the active creator of responses. Readers re-create the text for themselves. They do this by bringing forward their own understandings about how texts work as well as their own beliefs and expectations. A reader creates his or her own meanings, not one specific meaning that the author of the text may want the reader to achieve.
Reader-response is a transaction between the reader and the text. Karolides (1992) defines transaction as "denoting the special nature between the relationships between the reader and the text during the reading event: mutually acting on each other, affecting each other to evoke an experience or meaning for a particular reader of the text" (p. 22).
For a transaction to happen, the text must be understandable and within the developmental range of the reader. The reader also must be motivated to read; inattention blocks one's ability to respond. Younger children's responses are more literal than those of more mature readers, whose responses tend to be more interpretative.
Besides producing their own individual responses, readers work in small groups to further enhance their understanding about the text. Rosenblatt (1983) promotes sharing of responses:
"In that sharing, their students can learn from each other; reconsider what they found in a poem; keep, modify, or reject parts of their responses; and go away to rethink their reactions" (p. 19). Small-scale studies conducted by a teacher allow him or her to understand better what students are thinking when they encounter particular concepts (Lesser, 2013).
Rosenblatt (1983) states that no two readers experience the same poem in the same way. By comparing responses, the readers may discover further possibilities in the text and in their own writing, and move into conversation that will further their understanding of the text and their own responses.
Reader-response can be broken down further into five theoretical perspectives. Beach (1993) states that reader-response theorists have evaluated readers' processes of reading and have identified ways in which the reader creates meaning, through textual, experiential, psychological, social and cultural means. Theorists study certain characteristics of readers in order to determine how they make meaning through reading of a text.
Textual theorists focus on knowledge of text conventions, what students know about genre conventions to response to specific parts of the text. Readers apply this knowledge to help them understand what they are reading and are encouraged to look for links between several texts, perhaps defining similarities between stories. Through each new experience, readers revise their knowledge of the conventions of a genre and use this knowledge in their approach to the next text. For example, in the classroom, readers may compare two texts and look at similarities in terms of language and style.
Experiential reader-response theorists focus on the nature of the readers' engagement with the text, the ways in which students identify with characters, visualize images, etc. Louise Rosenblatt (1983), a leader in the study of reader-response, states that readers shift back and forth between efferent and aesthetic responses. Readers who respond aesthetically are creating a private meaning, responding to personal thoughts and feelings as they react to the text. When students engage with the text, they become involved emotionally, empathizing or identifying with the characters. They construct alternative worlds through their reading, conceptualizing the characters, the setting, the events, etc. and create visual images. They make connections with the text and their own lives, and reflect upon the quality of their own experiences with the text. For example, in the classroom, readers are often given optional activities that they choose, based on their learning styles. After readers have explored their personal responses, efferent responses follow, with a focus more on analysis (Jenkins, 1997). Reader-response does not preclude the literary examination of the text; this often develops through the writing of ongoing responses. But with either aesthetic or efferent responses, students must always return to the text to validate their responses.
Psychological reader-response theorists look at the psychological aspects of readers, focusing on their personalities and development levels and how they affect reading response. Appleyard (1990) states that responses are shaped by a host of psychological dimensions; the reader may engage in a fantasy world, vicariously experiencing the romantic quests of characters, adopting the characters' perspectives. The reader may respond as a thinker, reflecting on the underlying meanings associated with the characters' actions. Readers may become interpreters of texts, as they...
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