Kristin Sample's Story
The Pitfalls of Reader Response
I was doing some volunteer work recently with Womens Storybook Project and found myself in the midst of retired and currently working educators. The combined experiences of a Texas Education Agency program coordinator, an Ethics professor at the local community college, and a retired English professor provided the backdrop for a rich conversation about teaching in the secondary and college classroom. While the conversation was mostly about virtual and hybrid classrooms, one woman relished the discussion that happened in the real classroom. Oh, the discussions were great. That is, once I got them to forget all the touchy-feely stuff they learned in high school, she noted with a tinge of sarcasm. Of course she was referring to reader-response theory, the dominant method for teaching literature that took hold of classrooms all over the nation in the late 20th century and is still widely used today. While reader response is a viable teaching tool for literature, it has been misused. Appleman in her 2009 book Critical Encounters in High School English offers several anecdotes of students misunderstanding, misemploying, and downright abusing reader-response theory. She states the main problem here: They do have a tendency to oversimplify the concept of reader response as simply personal meaning...That is, they conflate the concepts of personal meaning with the identification of personal characters that may affect their response (52). Im sure youve seen this problem at work in your own classroom, particularly if you teach secondary school. Students do the reading but assume that only their own interpretations matter. Moreover, students dismiss texts that dont have an immediate application to their own experience. Appleman goes on to discuss teaching Native Son to a group of predominantly white, upper-middle class students. Female students empathized more with the female victims of violence than with the main character Bigger. And while many students could understand how racism figures into Biggers rage, they had trouble delving deeper. (Incidentally, here is a great calendar activity on Richard Wrights Black Boy that uses a reader-response writing prompt.) Ive witnessed the pitfalls of years of poorly implemented reader response. Ive taught Pride and Prejudice, Beowulf, and The Canterbury Tales in my British Literature class. Many of my students dismissed the work as stuff written way before I was born and others engaged in discussion purely to stay on the better side of my gradebook. I would assign what I thought was reader response writing prompts and think of clever ice breakers for starting discussion. But students would rather use this opportunity to focus on their own problems and when it came to connecting to the literature, their responses were largely shallow. Thankfully, ReadWriteThink provides some excellent examples of Reader Response at work in real classrooms like this one that asks students to make a personal connection to pieces of literature with a strong sense of place (i.e. The Bean Trees). The lesson developer gives students multiple opportunities to demonstrate both their knowledge of the literature and their ability to work within the framework of reader response. Moreover, the methods and activities of the lesson could be adapted to fit other pieces of literature. Furthermore, one of my favorite tools on ReadWriteThink is the Webbing Tool. This tool can be used with almost any lesson as it helps students organize their ideas using free-form graphics and color-coding. Students can allot one bubble for their personal reaction to the literature on the left side, one bubble for an example from the text on the right, and one bubble for meaning in the middle. That way, students can see how their impressions and the texts intentions interact in a clear, organized way. Appleman notes the importance of such a graphic, The reader diagrams forced students to think explicitly about the mechanic of their responses and to map those factors in relation to what belonged to them and what belonged to the text. They made their transactions explicit to themselves, to their teacher, and to their classmates (47).
Grades 9 – 12 | Lesson Plan | Standard Lesson
Reader Response in Hypertext: Making Personal Connections to Literature
Students write a narrative of place, a character sketch, an extended metaphor poem and a persuasive essay then link all four texts to quotations they have selected from a novel.
Grades 3 – 12 | Student Interactive | Organizing & Summarizing
ReadWriteThink Webbing Tool
The Webbing Tool provides a free-form graphic organizer for activities that ask students to pursue hypertextual thinking and writing.
Grades 7 – 12 | Calendar Activity |  September 4
Richard Wright was born in 1908.
Students read an appropriate excerpt from Black Boy, discuss the incident in which Richard gets into trouble, and write found poems.
Reader Response Organizational Tools
The following documents may help your readers organize their reading response pieces, reading logs, etc. all in one place.
REMEMBER: Reading response doesn"t have to happen in a spiral notebook only via letters to the teacher. Students can respond through post-it notes, anchor charts, graphic organizers, multimedia, etc.
Sticky Note Tracker
Chapter Books vs. Picture Books Tally
Books I Plan To Read
Form of a Friendly Letter
Guidelines for Reading Workshop
Mini-lesson Handout Table of Contents
Opening Letter to Reader
Reading Notebook Rubric
Suggestions for Reading Response Topics
Click on links below to download examples for use in your classroom:
100 Reader Response Prompts - Intermediate
Reader Response Prompts - Primary
Scroll down to see some sample starter prompts:
- Explore how the main character changed throughout the story.
- Write about something that surprised you or that you found interesting.
- Describe an interesting or important character in your book.
- Write about your favorite part of the book and why it was important to the story.
- Tell your thoughts or feelings about the theme of the story.
- Write a letter to a character in the book or a letter from one character to another.
- Compare two characters in the book to each other by describing their similarities and their differences.
- Describe places where the author gives good descriptions of the characters, setting, problem, or solution.
- Write a diary entry in the voice of a character in your book.
- Compare a character in your book to a character in another book you have read.
- Describe what you notice about the illustration. What purpose do they have? Do they add to the story?
- Summarize the chapter you just read.
- Describe in details the setting of your book and how it fits into the story.
- Draw a picture of the climax of the story.
- List five adjectives that describe the book’s main character.
- Describe the setting of the story and illustrate it.
- List five facts you learned about the topic covered in the book or article.
- Retell the ending of the story AND write your feelings about it.
- How do you think the story will end?
- Which character do you think will change the most by the end? Why?
- Who do you think the culprit is? Why?
- Based on the title, what do you think the book is about?
- How do you think this conflict will be resolved?
- Draw a picture of what you think will happen next. Describe it.
- Write your predictions about the story and tell whether or not they were right.
- How is this book similar to another you have read by this author?
- Create a Venn diagram that compares the setting of this story with the area where you live.
- What were your feelings after the first chapter?
- What advice would you give a character in this book? Why?
- What character would you most like to be? Why?
- If you were a character in this book, how would it affect the plot?
- Describe a character’s personality trait that you’d like to possess. Why do you like this trait?
- Explain how the book reminds you of yourself, people you know, or of something that happened in your life (T-S Connections).
- Explain how the book reminds you of other books, especially the characters, events, or setting (T-T Connections).
- Describe how this book is like other books by the same author, on the same topic, or in the same genre.
- Do any of the characters remind you of friends, family members, or classmates? Explain.
- How have you changed after reading this book? Explain.
- If you could be related to a character, who would it be and why?
- Why do you think the author chose the opening line he or she did? Did you like it? Did it make you want to read further?
- Who is your favorite character? Why? Draw a picture of this character.
- What do you think of the antagonist’s actions? Are they right or wrong?
- What do you think is the most important scene in the book? Why?
- How would a different setting affect the story?
- Was the cover design effective? Did it make you want to read the book? Create a new cover design for this book.
- Did you like the ending of the book? How would you have liked it to end? Rewrite a new ending for the book.
- Write a question you would like to ask the author. How do you think he or she would respond?
- Do you agree with the point the author is making? Why?
- Did the graphs and diagrams help you understand the text better?
- Do you like the ending of this book? Why or why not? Do you think there is more to tell?
- Copy a sentence from the book that you think is well written. Why do you like this sentence? Illustrate the sentence.
- Find examples of figurative language in the text. Write them down.
- List five words from the book that you find interesting or unfamiliar. Write their definitions and use them each in a sentence.
- Describe the author"s craft: What was good about the author"s writing? What things might you try to do in your own writing that you learned from this author?
- Describe how the author makes you feel through their writing.
- Did you enjoy the book? Why or why not?
- Was the book hard or easy to read? Why?
- What didn’t you understand in the text?
- Would boys and girls enjoy this book equally? Support your reasons.
- Would you like to read more books by this author? Why or why not?
- Do you think the author chose a good title for the book? Why or why not?
- What did you learn about the time in which the story took place?
- Write about an important lesson that was learned in the story.
- Describe parts of the book that puzzled you or made you ask questions.
- Explain why you think that your book is popular with students in the class (if it is popular with other readers in the class).
- Would you recommend the book to another reader? Explain why or why not.
- Describe what you would change about the book if you could rewrite it.
- Explain what you want to remember about this book and why.
- Make a list of “lingering questions” you have after finishing the book.
- Make a list of things you don’t understand, find confusing, or have questions about.
- Write a “book-fommercial” to convince or persuade others to read this book.
- Write a poem about your book.
- Write a eulogy (a speech honoring someone after death) for one of the characters.
- Create a slogan for the book and explain why you chose this.
- Illustrate a book cover different from what is on your book.
- Write a feasible solution for a problem a character has that is different from anything suggested in the book.
- Pretend that you are the author and writing a sequel to this book. Explain what should happen.
- Give 3 reasons why this book should be taught to the whole class.
- Choose a food that represents this book and explain why.
- Create a theme song with lyrics for the book.
- Write a letter to the author of your book.
- Choose a character of the book, decide what would be an appropriate birthday present for that character and explain why.
- Discuss a portion of the book that was too predictable.
- Create an award for this book. Explain the award and why this book received it.
- Make a list of the characters in your book and then create a cast of famous people that you would choose to portray that character if you were making a movie.
- Write a letter to a character in your story.
- Make a comic strip story, (minimum of 3 frames)
- Make a timeline of the events (minimum 5 events) in this story. You must illustrate each even and label each event with a caption or description.
- Make a list of character in your book. Transform the major characters in your book to animals. Decide upon an animal for each based upon personality traits.
- List 10 interesting words from you book and…(choose one):
- Tell why each word is interesting.
- Write a definition for each word.
- Use each in a sentence of your own.