Reader Response Theory

Reader response theory supports the idea that teacher's do not have the answer key for every poem, novel, or story.  Studies show that boys especially believe that there's one right answer or hidden message in what they're reading.  When teachers ask questions using this approach, it's no surprise that all they get is "I don't know" or "I don't get it".  This will happen anyway but a more open-minded, student-directed approach opens it up to more lively discussion.

Reading is an active process, a social act.  The text isn't by itself with a secret code to be unlocked.  The reader and text wrestle back and forth.  The reader responds to the text by drawing on their personal insight, knowledge base, and past experiences (Research #8, 3).  They need all three in order to construct meaning and experience the text, in a way.

So one's reading isn't so much about the writer's intention or story behind the poem or song, but on how the reader or listener reacts and responds.  Personal insight is based on reader's identity shaped by...
  • age
  • culture
  • ethnicity
  • religion
  • gender
  • sexuality
  • values
  • education
  • lived experiences
Knowledge base is your critical thinking component.  Hardcore RR theorists hold that to gain full benefit, teachers should just throw a poem or novel to a student without building background knowledge or context (Research #8, 1).  I would have to disagree with that, especially if the topic touches on social studies key historical events like the Holocaust or the slave trade.  You need to situate the literature in an accurate historical context.  Otherwise, interpretations and discussion become a free for all.

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