Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Importance of Reader Response

1. Understanding reader response

Several years ago on an international flight from London to Sydney I recall after finishing the reading of a novel (I think it was Louis de Bernieres’ ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’) becoming aware some 5-10 minutes after closing the book, that I was sitting head down, book in both hands, with it clamped between my knees. What was I doing? I was responding by quietly pondering the story, reflecting on the power of the plot, characters and its emotional impact. Literature does this to you. A story can grab hold of you. It can evoke many emotions, memories, language associations with other books and so on (see my previous series on the ‘Power of Literature’). It does this to adults and little children. For the young a book can evoke fear, curiosity, hilarious laughter, silence, tears, puzzlement, anger and so on.

For the very young preschool child the response is often simple (but nonetheless significant):
  • “I love that book”
  • “Read it again”
  • “Why did he squash the snail Grandad?!”
  • “I don’t like that picture”
  • “That’s a bit scary”
  • “I don’t know what it means”
  • “I like his baby sister, she’s funny”
Reader response for the very young sometimes doesn't involve words and can be as simple as repetitive lifting of flaps, tracing of images with the finger, laughter, or tears. It might simply lead to the child hugging the book, carrying it around, taking it to bed etc.

Of course response doesn’t just apply to literature. You might curse the IKEA instructions and rip them up when that piece of furniture just won't go together. You might want to draw a picture to make clear what you understand about volcanoes. You might feel the need to talk to someone else about your science, philosophy or geography text. Any genre can evoke response as can non-print experiences (e.g. movies, video, games, events etc). But in this post I’ll stick to response that is related to literature. The content is drawn mainly from my books ‘Pathways to Literacy’ and 'Other World: The Endless Possibilities of Literature' and was used as part of a presentation I gave at a conference last week (see this post here).

2. Do we need to do anything with children’s responses?

The simple answer to this question for the parent is, mostly no. We don’t want to destroy the child’s experience of the book by turning it into a lesson after the event. But a good understanding of response is helpful for parents to understand their children’s reactions and to help with insights about your child, their interests etc. It can also offer you occasional teachable moments when fears, doubts, frustrations, areas of interest, language gaps etc surface. But don’t try to be a teacher and create literature classes.

For the teacher, likewise we should not look to structure response after every instance of independent reading or shared reading. But there are more possibilities for the teacher than the parent, and hence the teacher should use it more deliberately. Here are a few points that I’d make about response before offering some ideas concerning how teachers (in particular) might use reader response in the classroom.

Try not to get in the way of the readers first response – as I’ve indicated already, first responses can be deeply personal and are best left alone. As well, we don’t want to disrupt the pleasure of reading by turning positive experiences of literature into lessons (unfortunately some teachers do this all the time with poetry).

Response is a natural consequence of reading and is helpful for building common ground – While not all responses should be shared (some encounters with books are very private affairs), our shared reactions to books are an important way in which we build common ground in families, classrooms, workplaces etc. While TV, YouTube, music etc have tended to take over much of the space for sharing narratives in our lives once held by books, sharing our responses to books is part of the way we deepen relationships and get to know one another. It also has a lot more to offer than some of the alternatives pushing it off centre stage.

Reader response allows us to re-evaluate (re-live) the experience of a text - By reflecting on our responses to a book the reader elaborates the meanings in their head, tests their understanding, seeks answers etc. As well, as we seek reactions from others we inevitably reflect on their interpretations, revising and reshaping our own personal interpretations.

Readers learn as a consequence of being party to the responses of other readers - There are advantages and disadvantages here. Literary interpretation is always in some sense a 'communal act' (as David Bleich suggests drawing on Bahktin), and hence there are forces stimulating more diverse meanings and others narrowing interpretations. There are dangers here. First, the discussion might lead to an accepted reading of the book that isn’t what the author had intended to communicate. Second, some voices might be silenced before legitimate interpretations have been carefully considered. Teachers need to exercise great care here.

Response permits the teacher to make judgments and predictions about the students' reading processes - The responses of our students are laden with many potential insights about them as readers. As I have suggested elsewhere (‘Teaching Reading Comprehension: meaning Makers at Work’) we can learn a great deal from students' responses to their reading whether spoken, drawn, written or dramatized. Every response is laden with information about the student's meaning making. Response enables all members of a class (including the teacher) to have access to the understandings that individuals are gaining. This in turn is an invaluable means to enable group members to support each other's growth and development as readers.

3. Talk and discussion, one key form of response

Response to literature can take may forms. I have already written on this blog about the place of drawing (here), mapping (here) and craft (here) and I might well talk in future about drama, music, movement etc.  But the most readily available, and in many senses the most powerful way to respond, is through discussion. This might be in small reading groups (3-4 students), large group/table discussion groups or even as a class (less effective). If using small groups you will need to train your class to take part in such groups and you might want to provide some known rules and procedures to moderate discussion, for example this set might be appropriate for a Grades 3-6:
Rule 1 - Everyone has the right to speak or remain silent
Rule 2 - Try to let everyone have a turn speaking before you speak again
Rule 3 - Respect all views but you can disagree politely or suggest other interpretations
Rule 4 - Listen to the group leader and each other
Rule 5 - Be ready if you are the recorder to report back to the class about your thoughts
If you as teacher are involved in any discussion it can be more free ranging but there is benefit in placing a structure around a discussion by having thought through possible avenues or angles for response. You should think through (almost systematically) the types of issues that you try to focus discussion on. The following are just some of the options and direction might take for a broad range of literature. While you won't want to talk to the average 5 year old about ideology, many of the questions below can be modified and used at varying grade levels.

A FIRST REACTION - What was your first reaction to this book? Explain it briefly. do you think you reacted that way?

FEELINGS - What feelings or emotions were you aware of while reading (or listening to) the book?

PLOT - What were the major events in the story? What was the complication in the story? The climax?

IMAGES - What images came to mind during the reading of the book? If it's a picture book you might read it again. If so you might ask: Were the images the same the second time? How did they change? What new things were seen?

ASSOCIATED MEMORIES - What memories did the book stimulate - people, places, events, sights, smells, feelings, attitudes....?

TEXTUAL ELEMENTS - Were there any features in the book that caught your attention - words, phrases, images, devices, ideas....?

JUDGEMENTS OF IMPORTANCE - What was the most important aspect (best thing) or feature of the book for your?

PROBLEMS - Was there anything in the reading of the book that caused you problems (this might relate to content, language, form etc)

AUTHOR - Do you have any feelings concerning the kind of person that the author is?

INVOLVEMENT - Did you feel involved with this book or distant from it? Did it have an impact on you? Why?

OTHER RESPONSES - How did your reading of the book (and response) differ from other group members? Did any difference really surprise you? Why?

EVOLUTION OF UNDERSTANDING - Did your understanding of the book change while you were reading it?

EVALUATION - Did you like this book? Why or why not? Would you classify it as a good book? 

ASSOCIATIONS - Did this book remind you of other literature (poetry, play, story)? What about films, videos, events in your life? What was the nature of the connection (e.g. image, word, event, personal experience, style)?

IDEOLOGY - Does the author appear to hold a particular point of view concerning ...? What is his/view? Why do you say this? Do you agree with it?

* The above list is based on a list in my book 'Pathways to Literacy'

4. Summing Up

Tolkien once said that one of the teacher's most significant functions is to stir the "cauldron of stories" that make up the collective textual history of our classrooms. That is, we need to create classrooms that are rich in textual meanings. Reader response is one of the ways that teachers and parents can do this. Use it with care and it will be a valuable way to encourage your children to grow in understanding of literature, language and the world.

5. Other resources and posts

'Teaching and Supporting Children's Reading Comprehension' (HERE)
'Improving Comprehension: Sketch to Stretch' (HERE)
'Improving Comprehension: Map Making' (HERE)
'Improving Comprehension: Advance Organisers' (HERE)
All posts on 'Children's Literature' (HERE)
'The Power of Literature' series (HERE)
Cairney, T.H. (1991). Other Worlds: The Endless Possibilities of Literature. Portsmouth (NH): Heinemann.
Cairney, T.H. (1995). Pathways to Literacy, London: Cassell.


Samax said...

good stuff!

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks Samax, I appreciate your comment. Trevor

Samax said...

no problem. this is a great blog! I have a toddler, and your insights have helped me more than once!

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One of the most important issues of writing a high-quality course works is picking an appropriate topic. It often poses a serious problem for students as they have little experience in this matter.

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