Reader Response Theory

Have you ever read something and gained completely different message from the text than others around you? Perhaps you didn’t misunderstand the author’s meaning. Instead, consider the reader’s role in comprehending the author’s writing. One of my favorite theorists is Louise Rosenblatt, who wrote that “text is just ink on a page until the reader comes along and gives it life.” Rosenblatt’s (1978) transactional theory describes the relationship between the reader and the text. As a literacy educator, I continue to examine ways I have my students respond to text, and I want to share this time-tested theory as food for thought.

Transactional Theory

According to Rosenblatt (1978), the meaning of a text does not reside exclusively within the text or within the reader. Instead, she suggested the meaning of a text occurs as a result of the transaction between the reader and the written word. The transaction, or exchange between reader and text, suggests a reciprocal, or mutual, relationship (Rosenblatt, 1986) between the reader and the literary text. During this transaction, the text acts as a stimulus for the reader, who responds in a personal way, as feelings, personal connections, and memories come into play during the act of reading.

Reader Response

In order for the transaction between text and reader to occur, Rosenblatt (1978) recommends an aesthetic, rather than efferent, approach to the text. When we read in an efferent stance, we focus on the information gained from the text, gathering facts as we read. In contrast, when we read in the aesthetic stance focus on the “lived through” experience during reading. Have you ever cried as you read a literary work? You were likely reading from an aesthetic stance, making personal connections with characters, etc.

Often, the lived through experiences that occur during reading differ for individuals, depending on their background or events they are encountering in life. Take the Bible, for instance. Certain Bible verses may really “speak” to you, depending on where you are in life. Our understanding of a Bible verse may transform as we experience life and apply our background to what we read.

A major contribution of Reader Response theorists has been an emphasis on the reader in the making of literary meaning. In responding to literature, teachers are encouraged to ask students questions: Who is your favorite character? How did you feel about…? or What might you have done differently?

Application in the Modern Day Classroom

When it comes to reading comprehension, printed words are essential, but the knowledge and experiences of the reader are also an important part of the process of gaining meaning from a text. To apply transactional theory, teachers must show students how to use what they read and what they know to build meaning. Teachers should continue to provide ways to aesthetically respond to texts, rather than only reading for facts.

Aesthetic response need not apply only to narrative texts. We can apply reader response to our textbooks as well, by promoting interactions with the text that require students to apply the material to their personal lives or the real world. For example, students in a science class may be asked about personal connections in relation to text on erosion and weathering.

Food for Thought

When you sit to read your favorite magazine, are you reading from the efferent or aesthetic stance? What about your textbook? Which do you enjoy more? My guess is that you enjoy the text you read for pleasure, rather the textbook you read for an assignment. Teachers may think about this theory in terms of finding ways to improve student motivation to read textbooks. Consider encouraging personal connections or asking aesthetic questions as your students discuss information in your textbook.


Rosenblatt, L. M. (1978). The reader, the text, the poem: The transactional theory of the literary work. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Rosenblatt, L. M. (1986). The aesthetic transaction. Journal of Aesthetic Education, 20, 122-127.

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