Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Re-Thinking the Transactional Theory of Reading

According to Louise Rosenblatt’s highly-regarded Transactional Theory of Reading, there are two different stances (or approaches) to reading—aesthetic and efferent. The difference between the two approaches lies in where the reader’s attention is while reading.

Rosenblatt's theory states that when readers adopt an aesthetic stance, they read for enjoyment and focus on how they’re experiencing the book. For example, are they connecting emotionally with the main character? How do they feel about the main character’s response to the situation? 


In the efferent stance, readers are focused on learning and retaining information. One example Rosenblatt often used was reading the label on a cleaning product after a child has accidentally swallowed some. At that moment, all the reader cares about is how to save the child. They want to digest the information on the label as quickly as possible, so they can take action. 

There’s no doubt that no matter how much a reader loves stories and storytelling, in an emergency situation, they’re going to adopt an efferent stance. Rosenblatt claimed that same the reader will switch to the aesthetic stance as soon as they’re handed a novel. This belief is based on the “common knowledge” that everyone loves stories.

For years, I’ve questioned this idea. Based on my own experience as a reader, conversations I’ve had with children and educators, and a growing body of research, it seems that some children are, indeed, naturally drawn to narratives. But others aren’t.

Instead, these children prefer expository nonfiction because they’re passionate about facts, figures, ideas, and information. Ron Jobe and Mary Dayton-Sakari call these young analytical thinkers “info-kids” because they read to learn.

Every day.

All the time.

In other words, they never adopt the aesthetic stance.

So rather than a transactional theory of reading in which readers easily switch back and forth between two stances, I envision a narrative-analytical thinking continuum.

According to this model, some readers do naturally have the flexibility Rosenblatt suggests. Because they’re at the center of the continuum, they enjoy narratives and expository text equally. But other readers have a noted preference for narratives. And still others have a strong and persistent preference for expository nonfiction.

Why does this distinction matter?

Because, as the table below shows, the reading preferences of many teachers and librarians are significantly different from those of the students they serve.

Writing Style Preferences*

 

Expository

Narrative

Both

Grade 1 Girls

38%

24%

38%

Grade 1 Boys

67%

14%

19%

Grade 4 Girls

19%

19%

62%

Grade 4 Boys

48%

19%

33%

Educators

8%

56%

36%

For info-kids to become strong, passionate readers, educators must work hard to build book collections that include a diverse array of expository nonfiction as well as a healthy mix of narrative nonfiction and fiction.

*This table combines data from Repaskey, L., Schumm, J. & Johnson, J. (2017) “First and Fourth Grade Boys’ and Girls’ Preferences for and Perceptions about Narrative and Expository Text.” Reading Psychology, 38: 808-847 and a survey of more than 1,000 classroom teachers, literacy educators, and school librarians I conducted in 2018.

12 comments:

  1. I love this! I prefer writing expository but it seems editors are more drawn to narrative. I hope we can turn it around. Both have merit.

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    1. It seems like things are beginning to change as editors look for nonfiction beyond picture book biographies. That's good news for kids and for writers like us.

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  2. Melissa, I have now gone into every link you've provided in this post and I'm completely rethinking how I will present a class on non-fiction texts. I'm a reader who leans toward narrative non-fiction and tend to use a wide variety of this type of book in read alouds and as a study. I'm making a shift right now! I realize I'm leaving out a lot of readers by limiting my examples. Thanks.

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    1. That's wonderful! It's so important to honor the reading preferences of all children.

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  3. Thanks for this interesting post. I do think there's a continuum. Furthermore, maybe narrative nonfiction serves as a bridge.

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    1. Here's my thinking about the kinds of books that form a bridge, or gateway:
      https://www.melissa-stewart.com/img2018/pdfs/GatewayNonfiction.pdf

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  4. This is excellent. As I child, I loved nonfiction, learning about all kinds of facts about nature, history, and people. To this day, I prefer straightforward information rather than narration. As a writer, I find editors asking me to be more narrative, which I find difficult. Thank you for the validation!

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    1. Yes, many editors are still working to understand the wide world of nonfiction, but that's starting to change. I think we will see more expository literature in coming years.

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  5. Great post. I am an unapologetic omnivore, devouring books of both types. Although, if my recent library trips are any example, expository books tend to fill up more than half my book bag.

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  6. For read aloud time in the library, my favorite type of book is narrative non-fiction. It appeals to both preferences, and starts some great discussions. I will dip into expository titles on the same subject--if available--to show the contrast in how the info is presented. I really love reading aloud a good (non-fiction) story to a class, and I am always looking for quirky and interesting nf stories.

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    1. Like fiction, narrative nonfiction has a narrative writing style. It's presented as a story.
      Info-kids connect more strongly with expository nonfiction. Research shows that 40 percent of elementary students prefer expository writing. Another 30 percent of students enjoy both writing styles equally. That's why it's so important to choose expository nonfiction for read alouds too.
      While many literacy educators and librarians are naturally drawn to stories, many of the children they serve aren't. It's so important to value the preferences of all kids.

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  7. Fantastic post, Melissa. I am going to lead a discussion with staff using your post as our text. This research on preferences for info-kids is eye opening.

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