This topic has come up in conversation a couple of times in the last few days, and then again during yesterday’s #eltchat on adapting coursebooks. Shortly afterwards, I was rummaging through some old papers, looking for something completely different, when I came across my notes for a seminar on reader response codes and an old copy on one of my favourite reading texts from years and years ago.
So I dusted it off, to see if it had stood the test of time, and here it is, a quick summary of what I knew then and how it still rings true to me today.
So, what is a reader response code? ( A question that was asked a couple of times on twitter during the #eltchat.) And here’s my short answer:
🙂 I like this idea/description – I agree
😦 I don’t like this idea/ description – I disagree
X this is wrong
√ this is correct – I knew that already
! I didn’t know that – that surprises me
? I don’t understand – or – I don’t think this is correct but I’m not sure
These are only examples, any simple symbol can work. It’s important that everybody is clear about what the code represents – and this can changed from text to text. And I think it’s important to limit the number of symbols to three, max four. Sometimes one is enough, e.g. draw an exclamation mark next to anything that surprises you. It’s also important to write the code clearly on the board before you turn to the text so that it’s there as a clear reference.
The basic idea, and the basic activity, is very simple. Students read the text and track their reactions as they read by writing the symbols alongside the text. Or it sounds simple in theory. In practice it needs a bit of, well, practice! And quite a lot of initial gentle nudging.
After explaining, I model the activity, reading the text silently to myself and writing a symbol in the margin. I continue to read as the students read. If they’re not writing, I point to the code on the board and quietly say something like, remember the code. When the students have finished reading they compare their notes in pairs or groups. They explain and discuss where necessary and then the discussion opens to the whole class. I find that using the code helps us pinpoint sections in the text that are particularly interesting or particularly dense. It often helps us focus on language that students are having problems processing, and it always throws up aspect of the text that the students have something to say about.
This is at the heart of the philosophy behind reader response codes. The reader’s reaction is as important, if not more important, than the text. Its origins lie in literary criticism and the belief that “the text itself is incomplete, it needs a reader’s experience to make it understood” (Hirvela 1996). This means that there are no wrong answers, all responses are valid, all responses tell us something about both the text and the reader and the relationship between them. It’s a great starting point for discussion as well as detailed exploration of the text. It can be used with any kind of text, and it takes little, or no, preparation.
Of course, some preparation is needed, it isn’t time-consuming, but it is important, in fact it can be vital. Each text will need a slightly different code, just as each text, or text type, or genre, triggers different types of responses. The best way to decide on the best code is to read the text yourself and gauge your reactions to its contents. Is it a text that provokes an emotional reaction, a smile, a laugh, a tug at the heart strings? Then the code will need to tap into that kind of reaction. Is it an informative text? Is the information questionable, dated, incorrect or irrelevant? This can be accessed through a different code. Is the text teaching us something new? This too will need a new code. I think you get the idea!
Once students become familiar with using the codes, I ask them to choose the codes themselves. We’ll look at the headline or title or opening paragraph and I’ll ask the students to choose the appropriate symbols. If the code doesn’t work, that’s fine, we can talk about why it didn’t work, and what would have been a better code and re-read the text with the new code. (By the way, this works fine for codes chosen by the teacher too if you realize half way through the first reading that you’ve gauged the reactions wrongly and chosen the wrong code).
Sometimes I take a text into class and explain that I want to use it with another class, but can’t decide on the best code and ask the students to help me come up with a good code.
Which brings me to the text I rediscovered amongst those old, dusty papers. A recipe for a traditional dish from Madrid, cocido madrileño.
The text comes from an English language magazine produced in Madrid. It describes the ritual of eating cocido at the Ritz. It also includes a recipe. I use this code with the article:
! that really surprises me
X that’s completely wrong
√ that’s right
The article has been written by a British food critic. To my Madrileño students a lot of what he says is just completely wrong – unheard of in fact, to the point of heresy. The level and intensity of response to the text is fantastic, as is the passion in the conversation that follows. And I think the intensity and the emotion were highlighted and focused by the very simple means of using and discussing the code.
I first came across reader response codes when I read this article on my MA course in Reading in 1997. Hirvela A. (1996) “Reader-response theory and ELT” ELTJ Vol 50/2