The Reader-Response Method: Pathways to Critical Thinking

For students to engage and find relevance in literature they must be able to relate to what they are reading. They also must be allowed to explore the multiplicitous meanings of a work. Too often students have been discouraged from reading because of the narrow confines from which they were permitted to interpret what they were reading. I submit that the reader-response approach is effective in ameliorating many problems of traditional teacher-centered approaches because, as Louise Rosenblatt states, “readers need to attend carefully to the words a writer uses to craft a work of literature but those words and what they might mean is a matter  of personal construction.” In this way, students  can bring their own personal, cultural, and social experiences to shape their understanding and interpretation of literature (Smagorinsky).

As Carl Leggo affirms, “the reader-response allows the students the freedom to respond to anything in the text…relationships to personal experiences, inter-textuality, references.” One of the wonderful aspects of the reader-response then is that “it encourages reading for multiple meanings rather than attempting to nail down the meaning” (Cella). This allows students to understand that there is no one answer when interpreting literature and demonstrates that, “Theme [is] actually a matter of perspective and that many interpretations or truths could be valid, depending on the reader’s perspective. In this way, the reader-response approach addresses diversity and encourages a plurality of views.

Of course, other approaches to reading are needed as well. In reality, a mix of approaches is often the best, and many tend to overlap. For instance, a biographical and historical approach is important because contextualizing a work can lead to a greater understanding and enjoyment of literature. For example, students who may denounce or reject a work or render it obsolete if it is incongruent with today’s views and beliefs, may gain a greater appreciation of it if they understand the time and place in which it was written. Students benefit from understanding that attitudes, beliefs, and ideologies were different and continue to change over time. It is important that students understand that authors were of their time, and rarely transcended it. This may bring about a deeper and more forgiving reader, and, ultimately, a more knowledgeable one.

A historical approach may also prevent the proclivity for anachronistic readings. For example, when I was teaching a lesson on the Cuban Missile Crisis many of my students couldn’t understand why it took Kennedy so long to contact Khrushchev. “Why didn’t he just email him–then they would have avoided such a close call,” one student wrote.

The Gender Approach can be used effectively when teaching such works as Shakespeare, as his depiction and characterization of women are varied and open to a multiplicity of meaning and readings. Psychological, sociological, and mythological approaches are all useful  and valid as ways of interpreting literature as well. I teach literature employing all these approaches, but not one exclusively. Through the reader-response approach and class discussion, many of the themes and approaches surface and can be subsequently addressed. In this way, I posit that the reader-response approach is a jumping off point into a more focused study of literature. For example, one student might read Macbeth and see it as a misogynist play. Another student may interpret the play as Shakespeare’s attempt to show that women can be equal to men, or an interrogation of the patriarchal fear of powerful women in Elizabethan society. Both interpretations are valid–correct even, and students are thus exposed to a plurality of views, which inevitably lead to a deeper and more critical understanding of a work. Students catch a glimpse of the multi-layered complex, ambiguous nature that characterizes literature, and can see that it can often be enigmatic and wonderfully elusive. This is one of the reasons why student-centered learning is valuable; it takes the pressure off the student to find the “right answer” and, instead, allows them to enjoy the act of questioning.

I am reminded of a  story of a man who seeks out a great and erudite mystic; when he finally attains his presence, he asks, “what is the essence of truth?” The mystic responds by hitting him over the head with a heavy book! Dismayed, the man leaves and complains loudly and bitterly. His kvetching is overheard by a local man who responds saying, “the mystic has given you your answer and some good advice! He has told you that one must never surrender a great question for a mere answer.” I love that anecdote because it expresses the idea that there is value in the hidden, the unknown–the question. Indeed, there are more things in this world that are known in our philosophy!

So, as teachers, we may be the mystic encouraging students to see that there is not always an answer–or a singular one. There is no absolute. Students become richer, and deepen their thinking process by learning to ask good questions, thinking critically–questioning it all.

Carl Leggo offers some good questioning techniques for student-centered classes. One technique is called “Problem makers.” Here, readers compile lengthy and wide ranging lists of questions of a reading. Another technique is called “Stream-of-Consciousness,” in which the reader responds to whatever comes to mind as they read a given passage.

One method that students can use to ask questions as well as develop their understanding of literature is through journal writing and response journals. As Jim Cope contends, “by sharing responses, students can learn that there are multiple interpretations…for a piece of literature.” Therefore, students are not simply waiting for the teacher to “give them the answer”(Cope).  R. Burniske writes that journal writing encourages students to take risks and enables  them to write for the joy of it. I think the latter point is paramount. Students should be able to write expressively without anxiety of editing and peer-judgement. Other methods that can be effective in responding to literature are diary entries, letters, newspaper articles, blogs, Wikis, and writing as a character. Many of these methods allow students to relate to literature in a much more personal and relevant way than simply answering questions about plot summary.

Journal writing, as proposed by Benton and Fox, enables students to explore literature and, more importantly, to become introspective. Students question their values, morals, ideology and biases, which, once again, help to create not only critical thinkers, but independent ones. I would posit that society has no need for academic automatons–we need creative, courageous thinkers which journal writing and other expressive writing methods encourage.

There are a myriad activities that allow students to engage in literature using a student-centered approach. One activity that I find particularly effective is called “literary circles.” This activity allows students to break into small groups. Each group member is assigned a job (discussion director, connector, passage picker, literary analyst). I find that this method engenders meaningful debate among students and each job tends to focus on a particular approach (gender, mythological, deconstruction, etc…), enabling students to entertain a plurality of views and angles from which to interpret literature. Moreover, the teacher becomes facilitator and guide rather than authority. Other methods such as debates, and  “think-pair-share” also allow students to engage in the exploration of literature while allowing the teacher to facilitate, guide and instruct.

While these activities allow for a student-centered class and a plurality of views, they can also have the appearance of looking messy and chaotic. However, I submit that creativity and active learning are often loud and chaotic. We must not be afraid of this–controlled chaos and noise often means that  learning is taking place. For example, Jim Cope contends that students come to hate Shakespeare because of the traditional efferent reading and un-creative teaching of it. “Plays are meant to be heard and seen, not read, they are not to sit on the page and be dissected…we do neither our students nor Shakespeare’s works any favours by slogging through them line by line.” Indeed, there are many more interesting and “chaotic” ways to teach Shakespeare, such as creating a “Tableaux” of a scene or act. This allows students to work in groups to interpret a scene as they envision it. The student audience can then discuss the scene and debate its meaning and purpose. This is far more effective and engaging than, say, a pop quiz, which only tests superficial knowledge and will undoubtedly engender disdain.

Other ideas for teaching Shakespeare (or any work, for that matter) include creating a dialogue between two characters, a newspaper article, a mock talk show or television interview, costume design, group soliloquy, storyboarding, dumbshow, blog, youtube video, Prezi or Glogster presentations, just to name a few.

Another advantage of using a variety of activities when teaching literature is that we know there are many different ways to learn. According to Gardener, there are 9 intelligences. Therefore, by employing activities that play to all students’ strengths, one creates greater inclusivity and comes closer to creating a true community of learning. Everyone is challenged and no one’s strength is denied or favoured.

A variety of activities means choice. I think students should be allowed greater choice of what they read, as many simply can’t get access authors like Shakespeare or Dickens. I believe that forcing them to read will only bring about hatred or disdain for literature. As Cope says, “if we want students to become life-long readers, then we must trust them to choose literature that they can connect with, that will inspire them to read more.”  



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