What is reader-response theory?

elt reader response theory reading rosenblatt transactional theory Oct 22, 2021

By Dr Jeremy Koay

A limited view

In literature classes, a common focus for reading is aesthetic appreciation of a particular text. However, the focus of reading in an ESOL classroom tends to be on finding information. This focus in the ESOL context reflects an emphasis on the literal meaning of a text.

However, the idea of pure literal meaning is contestable because our culture, experiences and worldview shape our understanding of words. For example, a child who grows up in a health-conscious environment may regard ice cream as unhealthy food whereas a child from a different background may view it as a treat.

A holistic view

The main argument of reader-response theory is that readers, as much as the text, play an active role in a reading experience (Rosenblatt, 1994). This theory rejects the structuralist view that meaning resides solely in the text. Words in a text evoke images in readers’ minds and readers bring their experiences to this encounter. Because individuals have different life experiences, it is almost certain that no two readers or reading sessions will form the exact same interpretation of a text.

Another aspect of reader-response theory is viewing reading on an efferent-aesthetic continuum (Rosenblatt, 1982). The efferent stance focuses on information carried away at the end of the reading, whereas the aesthetic stance focuses on the reader’s thoughts and feelings during the reading itself. However, the two stances are not mutually exclusive. For example, one can read a novel to identify the characters for an assignment and also become inspired by the story while reading it.

Theory and practice

A reader-response theory informed understanding of text and meaning should lead to teachers focusing on both the efferent stance and the aesthetic stance in reading activities. To promote the love for reading, teachers should emphasise the aesthetic stance. In practical terms, this might mean that learners are not required to answer reading comprehension questions after a reading activity.

As there are as many interpretations of a text as there are readers, teachers should be more receptive to different responses from their students. Rather than focusing on the correct or wrong answers, it is worthwhile helping students explore their reasons for their interpretation of a text.


Rosenblatt, L. M. (1982). The literary transaction: Evocation and response. Theory into Practice, 21(4), 268-277.

Rosenblatt, L. M. (1993). The transactional theory: Against dualisms. College English, 55(4), 377-386.

Rosenblatt, L. M. (1994). The reader, the text, the poem: The transactional theory of the literary work. Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press.

Dr Jeremy Koay is a New Zealand-based Independent Researcher and a Research & Development Consultant at EduMaxi. He obtained his PhD in Applied Linguistics from Victoria University of Wellington in 2015. His research interests include Discourse Analysis, Genre Analysis and TESOL.

Image source: shutterstock.com/Tomsickova Tatyana