Reader-Response Theory

Reader-Response Theory


Reading specialists talk a lot about automaticity. Simply put, automaticity means putting together all of the reading concepts and skills, such as word recognition, word identification, vocabulary, and comprehension strategies to read a text effortlessly and fluently.

However, regarding automaticity, the Jedi Master is right, “Both light and dark sides of the Force there are.”

Good readers need to learn how to enhance the benefits of automaticity and eliminate or minimize the drawbacks. One important way to do so is through engaging the the author-reader relationship.

One reading theory and body of research which attempts to describe the author-reader relationship is Reader-Response Theory. And, as is usually the case with any construct which attempts to explain a complicated relationship, there are plenty of variations on this theory.

The mainstream reading-response theory was developed by Louise Rosenblatt in her 1938 book, Literature as Exploration. In this and subsequent books, research, lectures, and articles, Dr. Rosenblatt explored what she termed, the transaction, which takes place between the text and readers. Think of a transaction in terms of a business deal made between two parties which results in a certain outcome.

For reading, the transaction is the give and take interplay between the author’s words and the reader’s input. The outcome of this transaction produces the meaning of the text.

The key point to understand about reader-response theory is that meaning exists outside of the author’s text and outside of the reader. For our purposes, meaning is another way of saying reading comprehension. So, how does this text-reader transaction affect what you understand and remember as you read?

When you sit down with a cup of coffee and your phone to read the morning news, you scroll down and click on an article headline which interests you, and you begin to read the text. All the input of the author, such as her research on the news story, her past experience and biases, her on-the-scene interviews, the facts of the event, her writing style, and her word choice are combined into the text that we read. The text acts as a stimulus to which you respond as a reader.

Some of your reader response will, undoubtedly, be the same as other readers. For example, if you are reading an article on a school shooting, everyone reading that same story would feel sad, angry, and perhaps a bit helpless. Certain words in the text, such as “tragedy,” or “heroic” would evoke similar connotations. No doubt, each of us will make a mental connection to a previous mass shooting. If we read the article byline and see that a teacher at that same school wrote the article, we would be especially empathetic to the writer’s experience. If a pop-up ad interrupted our reading, we would all be briefly annoyed. If our spouse or friend is in the room, we most likely would say, “Did you hear? There’s been another school shooting.”

However, your reaction to the article will differ from that of other readers, because your input as an individual reader is different. Personal associations, experiences, opinions, and feelings certainly influence how you understand and react to the text, as well what else you’ve read or watched on television. If you’ve read a few articles by the reporter and tend to disagree with her reporting or point of view, this will influence your personal reaction. Environmental factors may also affect your reader-response, If you woke up grumpy or the coffee is cold, your response to the stimulus produced by the article may be different than if the sun is shining and you have the day off.

If the Reader-Response Theory is accurate, the meaning that the author’s text and your reading produces entirely depends upon the circumstances of the transaction. In fact, Dr. Rosenblatt claims that both the author’s text and the reader are equally important and necessary in the production of meaning. In other words, the meaning of any novel, poem, song, article, or even this lecture is a co-creation of both what the author has to say and what the reader hears. Both the text and reader are partners in this transaction. So, if the good doctor is right, I’m not the only one to blame if you haven’t found this lecture to be scintillating so far!

As I previously mentioned, Dr. Rosenblatt’s position is in the mainstream of reading-response theorists. While she stresses the important role of the reader in shaping the meaning of text, particularly in terms of the reader’s emotional response to the author’s stimulus, she also values the role of the author’s text. The text serves as a blueprint to guide and and a check-point to restrain the reader’s response, so that the subjective experience of the reader is balanced with the objective text.

Now, a few of the buzzwords I just used to summarize Dr. Rosenblatt’s theory may have have stimulated your critical response. Good, we’re supposed to be partners in this transaction! Some of you may have wondered about the phrase, “equally important and necessary.” You may be asking, “Is the reader really just as important as the author’s words in determining meaning?”

You might think back to reading Act 2, Scene 2 of Romeo and Juliet. Is your interpretation of Romeo’s “But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?” soliloquy of equal value in determining what the character means as what the author of the text, William Shakespeare says and intends? I’m thinking that you would feel a bit unimportant, or at least uncomfortable, sharing your literary insights and interpretations if Will happened to be in your book club. Doesn’t Shakespeare’s play remain objective, despite your subjective interpretations?

You aren’t alone in your questions about Reader-Response Theory. But even more extreme positions regarding the transaction between text and reader have come in and out of fashion since Dr. Rosenblatt’s first publication. I’ll briefly describe two of these sub-camps.

Some reader-response theorists have trotted out George Berkeley’s “If a tree falls in the midst of the forest, and no one hears it, does it make a sound” conundrum to question whether the author’s text has any meaning whatsoever apart from that of its reader. So, according to these reader-centered theorists, the text only exists as it is being read in the mind of the reader, just as the tree makes no sound unless some one hears it. No right; no wrong interpretations because there is no objective benchmark. So, every student would get an A+ on their Romeo and Juliet final exam.

Others have expanded the reader-centered position and would argue that the social nature of reading has an important impact on the creation of meaning. Of course, we don’t read in a vacuum solely of our own experience. As literacy critics we all have somewhat of a herd mentality. Think about how social media creates meaning.

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