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The Best Reading Style for Tomorrow’s Voters

Great things grow from readingIn the October 2005 Talking Points, Angela S. Raines offers some thoughts on how the teaching of reading can prepare students for participating in our democracy, if the teacher takes the right approach to reading.

Drawing on the work of Louise Rosenblatt, Raines explains there are two different stances readers can take in their approach to reading material: aesthetic and efferent. Efferent reading is done to gather information. Aesthetic reading is done for pleasure. The aesthetic approach is more personal, as the reader applies her own interpretation, drawing on her own individual background and taste. Efferent reading is a more public act, as the reader is driven to find the teacher’s interpretation of the material more than her own or to find objective information that should mean the same thing to all readers.

In an English class with an aesthetic approach, students are more likely to share their interpretations and responses with one another rather than receive the teacher’s “correct” interpretation. And in a democracy, Raines argues, this is the more valuable approach:

Rosenblatt also emphasized in Literature as Exploration the importance of reading and discussion of texts to participation in democracy by championing “the value of interchange among students as a stimulant to the development of critical and self-critical reading, essential to citizens of a democracy.” It is in this transactional experience that students learn to construct their own meaning of literary texts, and perhaps more important, learn to articulate their own construction. As students participate in discussions of their transactional experiences, they learn to listen to multiple perspectives and make comparisons between their own transaction and others’ transactions. Most assuredly, citizens in a democracy are required to construct knowledge based on multiple perspectives and to make informed choices.

Raines adds:

As educational leaders apply transactional theory and practices at all levels, especially in literature classes, students will be able to create those habits of mind that are required for participation in a democracy. Students want to be critical thinkers, and they want teachers who help them read to fully experience literature as works of art and as sources for insights and connections related to their life experiences. If educators wish to foster students’ critical reading and thinking abilities, then certainly students need to be able to develop, trust, and give voice to their own aesthetic experiences with literature. However, if students are taught that the goal of reading, even for literary texts, is to extract a correct, public meaning (usually one established by the teachers’ guide), they will adopt efferent stances for reading that promote factual rather than thoughtful comprehension, inhibit critical-thinking skills, and limit preparation for enfranchisement in a democracy.

Unfortunately, Raines reminds us, English classes traditionally use an efferent approach to reading. Students are often “given study guides for answering specific literal-level, in-the-text questions about the literary works they [are] required to read.” If students can complete the assignments by reading SparkNotes instead of the actual novel, then they completely miss the aesthetic experience and focus exclusively on the efferent.

How can teachers lead students to approach reading aesthetically? Raines, herself a teacher, shares a few of her own strategies.

First, of course, is to give students a choice in what they read. Raines helps her students find books tailored to their tastes but also encourages them to abandon a book early if it doesn’t engage them and to start another book.

Then comes the next step:

After students selected books, I emphasized to them that they would not take a test on the books they read. I truly wanted students to focus on the aesthetic experience—to enjoy and “live through”—their literary texts. … However, some were still skeptical… They did not believe that I would give them class time, typically 30–45 minutes per day, to read a book of their choice.

When the class does read something together, a teacher can create a more aesthetic experience by having students exchange their views rather than the teacher giving his own views:

Students often feel inadequate about their own construction of meaning and get the impression that teachers are the ultimate authority and that there is just one correct meaning for literary works. However, when given opportunities for literary discussions, students are able to hear their peers’ connections to and interpretations of the text and realize that the connections made by their peers are not the same as those made by teachers. Thus, students realize that construction of meaning is very personal, and that one person’s construction will not be the same as another’s for the same text. In addition, during these literary discussions, students are able to hear multiple perspectives, which sometimes results in lively debates about specific aspects of the text. As a result, students return to the text to defend their perspective, which results in a more powerful comprehension of the text. An added benefit is that students also learn to value each other as contributors to the learning community.

Read more tips in Angela S. Raines’ complete article “Louise Rosenblatt: An Advocate for Nurturing Democratic Participation through Literary Transactions.”