NEWLY EDITED 12/29/12:
I hate Reader Response Theory, one that considers readers’ reactions to literature as vital to interpreting the meaning of the text.
I hate how Reader Response Theory has been abused by standardized testing. Two most annoying questions for me in the Connecticut standardized testing for reading (CAPT-Response to Literature) are reader response based questions to a short story prompt:
- CAPT #1:What are your thoughts and questions about the story? You might reflect upon the characters, their problems, the title, or other ideas in the story.
- CAPT #4: How successful was the author in creating a good piece of literature? Use examples from the story to explain your thinking.
After 10 years of teaching with this standardized test, I can recognize how many of my students struggle with these questions. Many lack the critical training gained from extensive reading experiences in order to judge the quality of a text. Combine this lack of reader experience with the see-saw quality of the text on the exam year to year. Since classic short stories such as those by Saki, Anton Chekhov, Kate Chopin, Stephen Crane, and Jack London, to name a few, are considered too difficult for independent reading by 3rd quarter 10th grade students, more contemporary selections have been used on the exam. For example, these stories in the past years have included Amanda and the Wounded Birds by Colby Rodowsky, Catch the Moon by Judith Ortiz Cofer, and a story written by Jourdan U Playing for Berlinsky published in Teen Ink. While some stories are well-written, many lack the complexity and depth that would generate thoughtful responses to a prompt that asks about “good literature.” My students are in the uncomfortable position of defending an average quality story as good; the prompt promotes intellectual dishonesty.
So, I use a formula. I teach my students how to answer the first question by having them list their intellectual (What did you think?) and emotional (What did you feel?) reactions to the story. I have them respond by listing any predictions or questions they have about the text, and I have them summarize the plot in two short sentences. The formula is necessary because the students have only 10-15 minutes to answer this in a full page handwritten before moving to another question. The emphasis is one that is reader’s response; what does the reader think of the story rather than what did the author mean?
I teach how to answer the evaluation question much in the same way. Students measure the story against a pre-prepared set of three criteria; they judge a story’s plot, character(s) and language in order to evaluate what they determine is the quality of the story. Again, this set of criteria is developed by the student according to reader response theory, and again there is little consideration to author intent.
The newly adopted Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in Language Arts is designed differently. The focus is back on the text; what the reader thinks is out of favor. For example, in three of the ten standards, 10th grade students are required to:
- Analyze how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme;
- Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text;
- Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
Please note, there is nothing in the language of the standards that asks what the student thinks or feels about the text.
In an article titled, “How Will Reading Instruction Change When Aligned to the Common Core?” on The Thomas B. Fordham Institute website (1/27/2012), Kathleen Porter-Magee discusses the shift from the student centered response to the CCSS ”challenges to help students (and teachers) understand that reading is not about them.”
Porter-Magee describes how David Coleman, one of the architects of the CCSS ELA standards, is promoting the close reading of texts, sometimes over extended periods of several days. The article notes that currently, “teachers often shift students’ attention away from the text too quickly by asking them what they think of what they’re reading, or how it makes them feel. Or by asking them to make personal connections to the story.” Coleman states that, “Common Core challenges us to help students (and teachers) understand that reading is not about them.” Instead, he advocates the practice of close reading, a practice that ”challenges our overemphasis on personal narrative and personal opinion in writing classrooms.”
In addition to the movement away from reader response criticism, the CCSS will be upgrading the complexity of the texts. Porter-Magee notes that,
“Of course, there’s only value in lingering on texts for so long if they’re worthy of the time—and that is why the Common Core asks students to read texts that are sufficiently complex and grade-appropriate. Yes, such texts may often push students—perhaps even to their frustration level. That is why it’s essential for teachers to craft the kinds of text-dependent questions that will help them break down the text, that will draw their attention to some of the most critical elements, and that will push them to understand (and later analyze) the author’s words.”
In other words, the quality of the texts will be substantively different than the texts used in the past on the Response to Literature section of the CAPT. This should make the response about the quality of text more authentic; a genuine complex text can be analyzed as “good literature.” How the more complex text will be used in testing, however, remains to be seen. A student trained in close reading will require more time with a complex text in generating a response.
I confess, the movement away from reader response is a move I applaud. A student’s response to a complex text is not as important in for the CCSS as what the text says or what the author intended, evidence will supplant opinion.
However, I am very aware that the momentum of the every swing of the educational pendulum brings an equal and opposite reaction. Swish! Out with reader response. Swoop! In with close reading of complex texts. Students,this swing is not about you.