Reader response codes

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:

Of course, there’s a little bit more to it than that – but not much.  The code can be any set of symbols – and the symbols can stand for different things. Here are some examples:

🙂  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.

Detalle del Codido Madrileño del Restaurante Albahaca

image by jlastras

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

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20 Responses to Reader response codes

  1. Alan Tait says:

    Hi Ceri – nice to hear from you again.

    This RRC is totally new to me. Will try it out.

    But can we get a good cocido recipe to try out, pleez. By the way, I subscribe to who does brief foodcasts.

    • Ceri says:

      Hi Alan!
      It’s good to be back 🙂
      I couldn’t get any consensus on the cocido recipe – they couldn’t agree on anything except the fact that the Ritz is NOT the place to eat and the article had got it all wrong. Don’t you just love food debates!
      Gonna check out the cocinero tomorrow – definitely way too late for cooking right now 😉

  2. Sandy Millin says:

    Hi Ceri,
    That’s fascinating. Had never heard of them until you mentioned them yesterday. Sounds a lot more interesting than just having one initial pre-reading question too.
    Thanks for doing this,

    • Ceri says:

      Hi Sandy!
      You’re welcome – thanks for spurring me on to write a post after such a long time away 🙂
      I forgot to add that they’re great for giving peer feedback on written work as well.

  3. Andrea Wade says:

    Great post, Ceri!

    I have used a similar technique myself, but didn’t have a name for it – good to have a more structured template to work to – thanks!

    • Ceri Jones says:

      Hi Andrea,
      Thanks for the comment. It’s nice to put a name to things sometimes 🙂
      And it’s been great connecting over at eltchat.
      Looking forward to more conversations!

  4. Thanks for introducing me to this system – never encountered it before!
    At first I thought it is only suitable for adults but when I saw the recipe example I realized its a matter of finding texts that my adolescent students feel strongly about – then it could work with weaker learners too!

    • Ceri says:

      Hi Naomi!
      Yes, I’ve used it with teens too. Works really well. As you say, depends on the text, but they love the non-verbal initial response, which is great as a starting point for mixed levels as everyone gets a say. I tried it recently with a text about parkour/tricking in the local area. Got lots of responses and lots of energy split over into the rest of the class.

  5. David Warr says:

    Hi Ceri, like 3 out of the 4 repondents, I had never hear do of this. I did a makeshift in-my-head one while reading your blog ow – lots of ! and 🙂

  6. Ceri,

    This is new to me too! I like the idea of no wrong answers, that everything is valid as it enables us to learn about the relationship between the reader and the text.
    Thank you for sharing! If I were using RRC, I would put many 🙂 🙂 🙂

  7. lizziepinard says:

    Hi Ceri,

    Thank you for posting this! I was one of those who hadn’t heard of reader response codes before and hadn’t understood your explanation (though also hadn’t realised I’d misunderstood it!!)

    I look forward to giving this a go in class…

    Meanwhile, I want to try and link this into my blog by your suggestion, hope that is ok. (And hope I can figure out how to do that haha!!)


    • Ceri Jones says:

      Hi Lizzie,
      Glad it made more sense than it did in 140 characters!
      And yes, of course it’s OK to link. I’ve linked to your summary (as no doubt you’ve seen 🙂 ).

  8. kylieliz says:

    Thanks for this post! I’ve been teaching Reading and Vocabulary the most this year, and had never heard of or thought of this! It is great! I will try to find ways to incorporate it into my lessons! Thank you for the detailed and clear explanations as well as examples! This is great!

  9. breathyvowel says:

    Another one in the never heard of club. Could this also have some kind of application for video work, if the students were given a timeline?

    • Ceri Jones says:

      Great idea, Alex, the listener response code! I’m sure it’d work. You could maybe ask them to write down the symbols as they watch with a key word next to it and then compare notes with a partner after viewing. And maybe then go back and watch those particular scenes/moments in detail and comment on them. Let me know if you try it out!

  10. Pingback: » ELT news feed » Using reader response codes

  11. Pingback: ELTchat » How can we keep our learners engaged in receptive skills lessons? #ELTchat Summary 21/09/11

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