In this article series, I’m going to outline different literary lenses that you can use in your English classroom to engage your secondary ELA students with multiple perspectives. Start by reading this article about what are literary lenses and why you should use them in your classroom. Today’s article is all about Reader Response Lens, or as I like to call it reader lens.
Reader Response Theory, or reader lens, is a perspective that I bet you already use in your classroom. Anytime you ask your students, “What do you think this story means?” you’re validating their perspectives and their connections to what they read in your classroom, which is reader lens. Let’s dive deeper into the basis for reader lens and then explore ways to maximize student engagement with this literary analysis strategy.
Reader Response Theory Background
Reader lens is inspired by reader response theory, a school of literary criticism. To give you a little background, reader response theory has roots in ancient Greek philosophy. In fact, it is based on Plato and Aristotle’s concern about the passive reader. It wasn’t until the 20th century that Reader response theory became a formal school of literary criticism. It started when Louise M. Rosenblatt took Plato and Aristotle’s ideas a step further by insisting that only an active reader could discover textual meaning.
Therefore, the primary goal of reader response theory is to validate the reader’s own feelings and interpretations when reading a text. To center these principles on the reader, I call this lens reader response lens or reader lens. This simple title reminds students that this lens is all about them.
Reader Lens in the Classroom
An ELA Lesson on Mood
In the classroom, reader lens encourages students to make connections to the story, characters, and situations. Mood as a literary device is an important lesson to discuss with reader lens. To teach mood, I love using movie trailer re-mixes on YouTube. These short YouTube videos take a famous movie trailer and re-mix it to change the mood of the piece. My favorites are Elf as a Thriller, Dumb & Dumber as an Oscar-Worthy Drama, and Frozen as a Horror Movie. If you search “Movie Trailer Re-Mix” on YouTube, you’ll find so many more. Since the videos are short, I suggest choosing three to five popular films so that your students will be familiar with at least one of them. Once you’ve chosen a few re-mixes, here is how the lesson works:
- Make a list of movie titles on the board or on a slide.
- Ask students to choose at least one that they are familiar with to identify the mood of the piece. You could potentially show the actual film trailer for a great comparison.
- Discuss the mood of each trailer as a class.
- Then, one by one show the trailers.
- Ask students to reflect on how the mood changed for them and why.
This is a great way to introduce reader lens since so much of this discussion focuses on viewer’s perceptions of the atmosphere of the trailer. To transition to reading, encourage students to tap into their mood and mood shifts as they’re reading to help make connections with the story. Literary bookmarks are a great way to engage students with active reading by tapping into their connections with the plot, characters, themes, etc.
Reader Lens Activities
Once students have read a work with an eye for connections, then there are several in-class activities that can help engage students in their reader lens analysis:
A free write is a low-stakes writing activity that encourages students to make instinctive connections to their reading. During a free write, students should write for a set amount of time (five to ten minutes works well with secondary students) with no regard to structure or conventions. The point is to get ideas, namely connections to the work, out of the head and onto paper. This exercise is a great way to brainstorm and would serve as a good starting point for the next two activities. I find it helpful, especially with younger students, to give them an overarching reader lens topic or focal point to guide their free write.
Journaling is more formal and structured than a free write, but is still low stakes versus a formal essay. A journal could be a stand alone activity, or it can support the rest of your lesson a bellrigner or exit activity. It can be helpful to provide a word limit and guided reading questions for more focused responses. Here are some examples:
- In what ways did you connect with the experience of the main character?
- Have you experienced anything similar?
- In their position, what would you have done differently?
Because reader lens is all about personal interpretations, it can be really helpful for students to hear their peers’ interpretations. Panel discussions, silent discussions, and Socratic Seminars pair nicely with reader lens. In fact, reader lens is a great way to prepare students for other academic discussions because they often find it easiest to talk about their connections before diving into other lenses.
Guidelines for Strong Reader Lens Analyses
There are a few caveats with reader lens that are important to clarify for our secondary ELA students. While reader lens accepts that all interpretations are valid, it clarifies that they’re not all equally valuable. In other words, it’s valuable to give our students a way to connect and interpret. Still, they should understand that their use of expression, detail, and sources can strengthen their responses. This distinction is important because we want to empower students to make meaningful connections to the work. There are a few ways to encourage meaningful responses:
- Provide guidelines. Providing guidelines for what makes a reader lens analysis stronger can be helpful. Here are some guiding questions that students can use to develop quality reader responses:
- Are my connections to the work based on a solid understanding of the plot?
- Did I consult credible sources, when I was confused, to enhance my understanding of the story?
- To what extent did I provide examples from my own experiences to support my connections?
- Did I provide rationale that explains why I connected to the work in this way?
- Model your own reader responses. Showing students an exemplary example can help them make sense of the guidelines.
- Encourage self-assessment. Giving students time to reflect and revise their responses (either verbal or written) is a valuable activity for any assignment but especially with reader lens.
Upping the Engagement With Reader Lens
Reader lens is versatile because it’s all about the reader. Therefore, you can get creative with how you engage students with the lens.
In fact, one of the main reasons I use the term lens is because it helps students assume a role to “see” the analysis. In fact, some of my favorite ways to use this lens is through role play. For example, I love using this fun twist on literature circles with a role play for reader response. You can read more about how I facilitate literature circles here. To get a feel for what I mean, download my free literary lenses novel roles.
Reader lens is valuable on its own, but the magic really happens when you challenge students to analyze with a variety of diverse perspectives. For example, this novel study uses reader lens as one of six literary lenses to analyze a text.
Finally, if you’re looking to teach students about all of the different lenses, check out my Literary Lenses Workbook. This workbook includes student-ready 12 different lenses activities that can be applied to any text.