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The Reader, The Text, The Poem

Louise Rosenblatt developed the Reader-Response Theory, which posits that the reader’s personal feelings, knowledge, and experience contributes to the author’s text to create the meaning for the individual reader. Dr. Rosenblatt termed this creation of meaning “the poem.”

As theorists continued to work with her theory, they added the influence of the reader’s environment and social community as contributor’s to meaning.

In the New Criticism Movement of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, critics of Rosenblatt asserted the independence of the text as the source of meaning. They argued that only the text should be the arbiter of itself. According to these critics and their cousins, the Formalists, devolving meaning-making to the reader was akin to admitting that the meaning of the text is anything that the reader makes of it.

I, personally, see a melding of the opposing theories as an important impetus to improving reading comprehension. If reading comprehension is the understanding and retention of text, then both the author’s text and the reader have shared responsibility for meaning-making. That meaning-making is not in the exclusive control of the text. After all, there is an author behind the text. It is also not in the exclusive control of the individual reader. The reader is part of a larger community.

To better explain the relationship of the author’s text and the reader in the creation of meaning, this illustration may be helpful.

Reader-Response Theory


Imagine sitting in your living room, looking at a garden through a window.

In our illustration, the garden is the author’s text; you, in the living room, are the reader; and the window is the meaning of the reading text. If the garden is closer to the window than you are, the author’s text has more control of or influence upon the meaning. If you are closer in the living room to the window than is the garden, you, the reader, have more control of or influence upon the meaning.

With author-centered texts, designed to inform, explain, and analyze, such as news articles, non-fiction, technical writing, legal text, and instruction manuals, the window is closer to the garden, because the reader’s comprehension is primarily text-dependent.

For example, with respect to the news article on the school shooting, we rely upon the expertise and accuracy of the news reporter to help us understand what happened. To put together a toy on Christmas Eve, we depend upon concise, step-by-step directions and a good picture on the box.

With reader-centered texts, designed to describe, entertain, or persuade, such as fiction, poems, editorials, social media posts, and songs, the window is closer to you, the reader in your living room. The input and filter of your personal feelings, knowledge, and experience are significant contributions to understanding the text.

For example, if you are listening to and reading the lyrics of Lennon and McCartney’s “With a Little Help from My Friends,” you, the audience, are intended to contribute meaning to the song. Some of the lyrics are intentionally ambiguous.

As the official Beatle biographer, Hunter Davies, explains, Lennon and McCartney struggled to come up with a lyric to answer their question: “What do you see when you turn out the light?” Lennon suggested “I can’t tell you, but I know it’s mine.” It fit the required number of syllables and rhyme scheme, and McCartney loved it because it could mean different things to different people.

So the type of text and the author’s purpose should have considerable impact upon how readers should understand and interpret the text. Good readers are flexible readers. They monitor their levels of comprehension while reading, according to their own purposes and the dictates of the text. When crucial facts or plot events are being delivered, they move the window close to the author; when less important description or tone are being read to evoke a certain mood, they move the window closer to themselves as readers.

And one last comment about applying the author-reader relationship theories: For those of you accustomed to reading on automatic pilot, you may be looking at the garden for far too long without thinking of the window. For many of you, the window is in fine shape, but it may need a bit of Windex to make the garden more visible. We often become accustomed to dirty windows and don’t notice until someone scribbles “Wash me!” However, our attention needs to be drawn to the window before we can notice. How do we start paying attention? Check out Talking with the Author.

FREE DOWNLOAD TO ASSESS THE QUALITY OF PENNINGTON PUBLISHING RESOURCES: The SCRIP (Summarize, Connect, Re-think, Interpret, and Predict) Comprehension Strategies includes class posters, five lessons to introduce the strategies, and the SCRIP Comprehension Bookmarks.

Get the SCRIP Comprehension Strategies FREE Resource:


Intervention Program Science of Reading

The Teaching Reading Strategies (Intervention Program) is designed for non-readers or below grade level readers ages eight–adult. This full-year, 55 minutes per day program provides both word recognition and language comprehension instructional resources (Google slides and print). Affordable, easy-to- teach, and science of reading-based, featuring the Sam and Friends Phonics Books–decodables designed for older students. The word recognition activities and decodables are also available as a half-year option in The Science of Reading Intervention Program.


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