Reader Response Theories and How They Might Be Integrated in the ERWC Template

ERWC has always had the word “expository” in its name. Back in 2003, English Language Arts was still mostly about teaching literary texts, although the California English Language Arts standards required the teaching of multiple genres including expository texts. The role of the course was to provide teachers with a structured way to teach expository and persuasive texts, which we always defined broadly. ERWC allowed teachers to meet standards that were often left behind as they focused on literature, which was what they knew and loved.

However, ERWC has always contained literary texts. Now, as ERWC is offered on some campuses as a replacement for traditional senior English, and as ERWC expands into other grade levels, it is important to define the ERWC approach to literature. I think it is based on Reader Response theory.

Reader Response theory is naturally rhetorical because it allows authorial intention and reader affect back into the game after being sent to the penalty box for many decades by the New Criticism, under the guise of the “Intentional Fallacy” and the “Affective Fallacy.” I think that “Guided Reader Response” (my term for it) is the ERWC way. But I don’t think that this is actually something new for ERWC. It is just a different way of thinking about what we have always done. ERWC has always been interested in how authors achieve their aims and how students think and feel about what they read.

Different Versions

The descriptions that follow are based on a summary of various versions of Reader Response theory in Critical Theory Today: A User Friendly Guide by Lois Tyson (173-82). I have indicated where these activities inspired by Reader Response theory might fit in the ERWC Assignment Template.

1. Transactional Reader Response (Reading/Annotating and Questioning the Text)

This approach emphasizes determinate meaning versus indeterminate meaning, which could be rewritten as “facts” (in the universe of the story or in the mind of the narrator) versus “implications” or “inferences.” So we can ask students, “What are the facts? What are the implications? Have any previously noted “facts” become questionable as the story progresses? Have any implications resolved into facts? Following Wolfgang Iser, we can also ask about “gaps” in the text that the reader must imagine. Sometimes this is a matter of “scene” and “summary,” i.e. some action is described in full, some is simply summarized. Other action happens offstage and must be imagined. A good creative writing exercise is to take something that is summarized or offstage and ask students to write it as a scene.

2. Affective Stylistics (Reading/Analyzing Stylistic Choices)

This approach involves a slow motion, phrase by phrase analysis of how the text structures the reader’s experience. We can ask, “As the sentence unfolds in time, how does it affect you, the reader? What effects do the words, the sentence structure, and the punctuation have on you?” (This approach is somewhat phenomenological.)

3. Subjective Reader Response (This is based on David Bleich.)

Experience-Oriented Response (Postreading/ Summarizing and Responding)

Discuss your reactions to the text, describing how specific passages made you feel, think, or associate. What do you think of the characters, their behaviors, characteristics and actions? How do specific word choices make you feel?

Response-Analysis Statement (Postreading/Reflecting on Your Reading Process)

Look at your “Experience-Oriented Response.” What was your response to the text as a whole? Did the text engage you? Why or why not? Did you enjoy the text, or did it make you uncomfortable or disappointed? What emotions did you experience while reading it, and why?

An Example

An example of a mini-module based on reader response: A Reader-Response Approach to Poetry.

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