Monday, June 24, 2013

The Blue Guitar: Towards a Reader Response Approach to Close Reading

In any reading for meaning activity the text matters, but so does the experience, feelings, thoughts and imagination of the reader.

"They said, 'You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.'
The man replied, 'Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.'"
                                    Wallace Stevens

In a blog entry two months ago, I defended reader response theory from what I saw as an attack from proponents of the Core Content State Standards (CCSS). In that entry I said in part, “Teachers use reader response to get students engaged in the reading so that deeper discussion of the text has a basis in student connections to the text (Walsh, 2013).” This month I have been reading a very important new book that I highly recommend to all, Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading, by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst. The first thing I noticed about the book is that it is dedicated to Louise Rosenblatt, the great literary theorist who is the creator of reader response theory.

Beers and Probst take on close reading is very different from that posited in the CCSS. They argue that a narrow focus on the “four corners of the page” as the CCSS suggest, ignores what we know about meaning making. “Meaning is created not purely and simply from the words on the page, but from the transaction with those words that takes place in the reader’s mind (Beers and Probst, p.34).” Close reading, they assert, means that we should bring the reader and the text close together. The reader matters and the text matters. As Stevens says in the poem above, we all play upon our own “blue guitar” and the creation of meaning cannot be separated from who we are.

Further, Beers and Probst are concerned that the text-dependent questions that are the cornerstone of the CCSS approach to close reading will not foster student engagement in reading. Text-dependent questions are teacher created questions. The teacher becomes the repository of knowledge and the keeper of the answers (whether from her own study or from the teacher’s guide). Students will see that reading is an exercise in guessing what is in the teacher’s head, rather than an act of grappling with text to create meaning. This is a recipe for disengagement.

In any reading for meaning activity the text matters, but so does the experience, feelings, thoughts and imagination of the reader. Each reader brings a personal “blue guitar” to the printed page. Skillful teachers use that blue guitar to foster genuine engagement and deeper understanding of text. Beers and Probst advocate a kind of close reading that honors what we have learned over the past 70 years about readers and reading.