Picturing Reading as a Process

Friday, June 5, 2009.

Over the past fifteen years, I have taught primarily introductory courses in writing and in literature, and I commonly encounter students who dislike reading.  However, I am most frustrated when they blame texts for their own difficulties.  They say that a reading assignment is boring or hard to understand.  They indicate that the novel, story, poem, or play is acting in a way they don’t like.  Some talk about texts as if they were human, and then blame them for acting badly.  In other words, these students are reading passively, asking that the text perform for them, rather than seeing themselves as the actual performers in the drama we call reading.


In response to these frequent encounters, and on the advice of a colleague and long-time mentor–Tom Rivers, I reached out to Louise Rosenblatt’s Literature as Exploration.  In this book, a classic in the field of reader-response criticism and pedagogy, Rosenblatt argues for the democratic values of teaching literature because the English classroom is particularly well-suited to develop the self-awareness, critical thinking, and imaginative abilities necessary in a free society.  

I also thought that her transactional theory of reading would be useful to my students, especially because it acknowledges the relationship a reader builds with a literary text and how that relationship produces the experience of the text.  But more importantly, I found value in Rosenblatt’s theory because it helped me talk to my students about their own contributions to and responsibilities toward that relationship, such as their experiences, emotions, knowledge, and attitudes.  


I then decided that Rosenblatt’s ideas would be even more useful to my students if I could represent them visually.  So I began to sketch out a process to show students what commonly happens when we read.  

Reading as a Process

I drew an arrow to represent all of the things the reader brings to reading, a triangle to represent the rhetorical world of the text (its author, form, topic, and audience), a speech bubble to represent possible responses, and a box around these three figures to represent the opportunity for the reader to review the process by which and the relationship through which the response was created.

With this drawing, I meant to highlight how the reader is ultimately responsible for building a relationship with a text and how every response points back to what the reader brings to that relationship.  Reading as a Process with Labels

This way of depicting reading as a process has been particularly helpful to me when I explain to my students how and why readers respond differently to the same text.  In fact, I spend a good amount of time teaching students about the subjective nature of reading and how readers’ responses reflect what they bring to reading as much as what the text has to offer them.  (A fuller discussion of this depiction of reading as a process is here.)

After creating my picture of reading as a process, I also became interested in how students might depict their own versions of what happens when they read.  So before showing them my picture, I have made it a regular practice on the first or second day of classes to ask my students to draw one of their own. 

In an upcoming post, I’ll share some of my students’ drawings.