There has been a lot of discussion on Twitter recently on ways to allow pupils to develop their own responses to texts – such as poetry and novels. Some teachers might feel that pupils’ responses are ‘a waste of time’ and they should be focused on writing ‘the correct answer’. I completely disagree with this approach to teaching. I believe the reader’s response is vital as it allows pupils to think about their own feelings about texts in terms of their individual life experiences. It also allows me to think about texts in a different way: as teachers we can often get ‘caught up’ in what we believe and, subconsciously or not, influence the way pupils feel about characters, the plot and the language used.
I have been using reader-response theory with my classes for a couple of years and the improvement, in terms of their engagement and understanding, has been significant. One of the great things about it is anyone can give their own response without the pressure of a ‘right or wrong’ answer: pupils have the space to think about their own views without trying to predict what I, as the teacher, am thinking. It has been a great way to introduce pupils to poetry as they can think about their own response before I ‘influence’ them with my views. I have also found it to be a useful tool for when pupils are thinking about characterisation in a novel.
I decided to use reader response theory to help understand pupils’ views of George and Lennie in ‘Of Mice and Men’. Pupils were shown a reader response theory grid and were asked to write down likes, dislikes, puzzles and key moments for each of the main characters. I used ‘puzzles’ as an opportunity for them to think about elements of the character that they were not sure about/ did not understand. Key moments was used for them to think about moments which they felt were ‘key’ for each character. It was interesting to see the differences between George and Lennie’s ‘key moments’ considering how much time they spend together in the novel.
Pupils were then given the opportunity to share their responses with their groups and they were also asked to think about the similarities and differences they all had. It was fascinating to see how they felt about the characters so far in the novel and to see them expand on their notes once they had shared their views with their groups. One of the most interesting parts for me is hearing about pupils ‘puzzles’. I often open up pupils’ questions to the class and we all think about why that might be a puzzle – views will often differ in terms of a ‘solution’ but that just makes the debate even more compelling.
As well as the reader-response grid, I ask pupils to respond to statements rather than questions. This gives pupils another opportunity to think about their own reactions. They agree or disagree with a statement and give reasons to back up their point of view. Statements are also useful when discussing poetry with pupils as they don’t try to get the ‘right’ answer but instead respond to a text and back it up with evidence to fight their case. I will often be ‘the devil’s advocate’ and put in statements which can cause a split in the class in terms of agreement and disagreement.
For me, reader-response theory is a beneficial tool which allows pupils to have their own say and then develop responses through discussion with the class. It is a great starting point for class dialogue and it is fascinating to see the way responses grow and develop. The theory also allows pupils to express any ‘puzzles’ they may have and these can be addressed – sometimes they can be answered and sometimes we can only speculate about what a potential ‘solution’ might be.
I have written another couple of blogs looking at similar topics: Applying Reader-Response Theory to Media and Texts and Statements or Questions?