The Significance of Louise Rosenblatt on the Field of Teaching Literature

by Gladdys Westbrook Church

from Inquiry, Volume 1, Number 1, Spring 1997, 71-77

Copyright 1997 Virginia Community College System

Brief Abstract

Louise Rosenblatt first advanced the Reader-Response Theory in 1938. Currently, this theory remains a dominant teaching approach with Rosenblatt’s influence readily apparent in contemporary research. English professors today can work the magic of the literary experience through the use of the Reader-Response Theory in the teaching of literature.


While the geometric progression of advances in computer technology has resulted in virtual reality games and learning simulations, Internet feats of library access, and world wide web exploration, as well as twenty-four hour electronic mail and other cyber space innovations, English education in the 1990's still includes a major emphasis on the teaching of literature from books. Even though the current teaching of literature reflects the wide scope of all the literary and pedagogical movements of the twentieth century, and in spite of all the technological advances and disparate theories of literature, one practitioner's theory of literature education seems to be more widely cited and referred to than any other's since it was first published in 1938. During the six decades of teaching and learning which have passed since Louise Rosenblatt first published Literature as Exploration, critical theories have risen and crashed, but the preeminence of her theories, particularly since the mid 1960's, underscores most of the “innovations” in critical theory associated with the dominant teaching approach since then: Reader Response to Literature.

Basically, reader response theories reject the New Criticism of the late 1930s through the 1950s which assumed that the texts themselves were central and that teachers were to teach the skills of close, concise, attentive analysis while discouraging expression of and attention to differences in students' own individual responses. Thus, in the 1960's and early 70's there occurred a paradigm shift in the teaching of literature away from viewing the text as authority to a view that focuses on the reader's relationship with text (Rosenblatt, 1938, 1964, 1968, 1978; Squire, 1964; Squire and Applebee, 1968; Purves, 1975; Purves and Beach, 1972; Bleich, 1975). While Rosenblatt's seminal influence was acknowledged by Squires in his 1968 Foreword to the second edition of Literature as Exploration which he credited with being “one of the very few books on the teaching of English that I believe all teachers should read” (vi), her contributions were more broadly acknowledged in 1977 when the University of Buffalo under the leadership of Charles Cooper, Lee Odell and Bruce Miller convened the Colloquium on Reader Response to Literature. The final papers were subsequently collected and published by Cooper in 1985 as Researching Response to Literature and the Teaching of Literature. While some practitioners of reader response were heralding the movement as a “new ” approach, Rosenblatt was able to demonstrate that she had been promoting it since 1937 and that she was responsible for many of its terminological and grass root concepts ( 1946, 1949, 1956, 1963, 1964, 1968, 1969 and 1970). However, the significance of the Colloquium was that it marked the official acceptance of the reader-response approach to the teaching of literature which has since been taught in the education departments at colleges and universities across the United States.

Central to the theory of reader response is Louise Rosenblatt. Rosenblatt's work is primarily interested in describing readers' processes of engagement and involvement for composing their own “poem” [the reader's construction of a text] (1964). Her theories which allow for the whole gamut of different response strategies, first expressed in her 1938 edition of Literature as Exploration, focus on responding as an “event.” While examining responding as an “event,” Rosenblatt writes:

The special meaning, and more particularly, the submerged associations that these words and images have for the individual reader will largely determine what the work communicates to him. The reader brings to the work personality traits, memories of past events, present needs and preoccupations, a particular mood of the moment, and a particular physical condition. These and many other elements in a never-to-be-duplicated combination determine his response to the peculiar contribution of the text. (pp. 30-31)

The 1978 publication of Rosenblatt's second major workThe Reader, The Text, The Poemexamines more closely a classroom approach and application to this literary transaction. Her critical reaction to the narrow focus of much literature instruction on literal recall or recitations of teacher-made meaning prompted her to provide a useful distinction between two opposing modes of experiencing a text—the “efferent” and the “aesthetic.” When responding from the efferent stance (from the Latin effere to carry away), readers are motivated by specific needs to acquire information; they basically just want to understand what the text is saying. On the other hand, when readers are responding in the aesthetic stance, their own unique lived-through experience or engagement with a text is primary.

Rosenblatt notes that during any one reading experience readers may shift back and forth along a continuum between efferent and aesthetic modes of reading processing. Thus, in adopting an aesthetic stance, a reader may briefly focus on analyzing the techniques interacting in a text. Or, in an efferent stance, a reader may be stimulated to remember a related personal experience (The Aesthetic Transaction, 1986). However,

despite the mix of private and public aspects of meaning in each stance, the two dominant stances are clearly distinguishable: someone else can read a text efferently for us, and acceptably paraphrase, but no one else can read aesthetically—that is, experience the evocation of—a literary work of art for us. (p.125)

She also argues that teachers need to help specific human beings—not some generalized fiction called the student—to discover the pleasures and satisfactions of literature. “There is no such thing as a generic reader or a generic literary work; there are in reality only the potential millions of individual readers of the potential millions of individual literary works” (Literature, 1938, p. 32). She argues that much of literature instruction employing “correct answer” worksheet, test, and textbook questions requires students to adopt an efferent rather than aesthetic stance. Instead, she focuses on the concept that shared criteria of validity of interpretation in a particular social context allows for different interpretations of the same physical text to be acceptable while some readings may satisfy the criteria more fully than others. Thus we can be open to alternative readings of Hamlet, but we also can consider some readings superior to others according to certain criteria. “Always, therefore, a full understanding of literature requires both a consciousness of the reader's own 'angle of refraction' and any information that can illuminate the assumptions implicit in the text” (p.115).

Rosenblatt's focus on the uniqueness of a particular, momentary transaction has become known as the “transactional theory” (1969) which proposes that the meaning of a text derives from a transaction between the text and reader within a specific context thus

emphasizing the essentiality of both reader and text, in contrast to other theories that make one or the other determinate....'Transaction'...permits emphasis on the to-and-fro, spiraling, nonlinear, continuously reciprocal influence or reader and text in the making of meaning. The meaning — the poem — 'happens' during the transaction between the reader and the signs on the page. (p. xvi 1995)

Because each individual reader extracts his or her own unique, subjective meanings (“evokes”), this theory calls into question the New Criticism assumption that the meaning resides solely in the text, accessible only to the trained eye of the critic/teacher. Rather than emphasize formalist analysis of a text, the primary goal of instruction from a transactional perspective is to foster students' trust in the expression of their individual experience with a text. Thus, teachers of literature play a pivotal role in influencing how students perform in response to a text. If today's teachers are not incorporating an approach which includes Rosenblatt's theories, how far are they straying from the professionally recognized standard? If they do employ techniques from Rosenblatt's Literature as Exploration and The Reader, The Text, The Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work and her extensive list of articles and monographs, are they justified in this according to the work of the professionals in the field?

While Rosenblatt has been tacitly and explicitly accepted as an important influence on the teaching of literature, the fact that Rosenblatt has increasingly been recognized during the last nine years is demonstrated by several major publications. Indeed, in 1988, to celebrate the fiftieth year since the publication of her milestone work, Literature as Exploration (1938), the Fall 1988 issue of Reader was dedicated to essays acclaiming Rosenblatt's half century of importance. In addition, the National Council of English Teachers dedicated their annual convention to her in 1988. Special presentations by leaders in the field were then collected and published under the guidance of James Squire and Edmund Farrell (Transactions with Literature, 1990). Then in 1991, John Clifford's The Experience of Reading: Louise Rosenblatt and Reader-Response Theory presented thirteen essays offering rich insights and an Introduction which begins with the claim:

When histories of the reader-response movement are eventually written, Louise Rosenblatt's Literature as Exploration (1938) is sure to be cited as the inaugural text.....Rosenblatt's ideas about the dialectical simultaneity of the reading process, about the contextual complexity of language in its social and private dimensions, about the multiplicity of interpretation, and about the inextricable link between reading and democracy were simply a generation ahead of their time. (p.1)

And most revealing, Beach says that “on the basis of Rosenblatt's transactional theory, theorists have delineated a number of specific response processes (Purves and Beach, 1972; Beach and Marshall, 1990)” (1993, p. 52).

It is significant that Louise Rosenblatt seems to be the most commonly cited figure in the teaching of literature. In 1980, when the first two anthologies of reader-response criticism were published, the editors of each cited Literature as Exploration as the first to set forth the importance of the reader (Suleiman and Crossman; Thompkins) and in 1981 Robert Probst stated that “Louise Rosenblatt has been, since the first publication of Literature as Exploration in 1938, the most articulate proponent of patterns of instruction in literature that emphasize the reader's immediate experience with the text” (p. 43).

Indeed, the sheer number of Rosenblatt's publications which develop and elaborate her essential theories should strike a chord of interest in determining how much impact her work has had on the teaching of literature. If she simply reworked the same material and published it in the same limited periodicals, then we might doubt its value. But the variety and integrity of the sources which have published her work and the expertise of their readership must be seen as further evidence of her work's import. Just as major aspects of the twentieth century have often been described according to Freudian, Jungian, Einsteinium or Vygotskian theories, a review of the literature reveals that Rosenblatt has been frequently cited as a similar authority in the teaching of literature. Further, Wayne Booth in his Foreword to the 1995 fifth edition of Literature as Exploration proclaims:

I doubt that any other literary critic of this century has enjoyed and suffered as sharp a contrast of powerful influence and absurd neglect as Louise Rosenblatt.....She has probably influenced more teachers in the ways of dealing with literature than any other critic. But the world of literary criticism and theory has only recently begun to acknowledge the relevance of her arguments.... (p vii)

The teaching of literature in the last six decades is a field which has persisted through World War II, and the Korean, Viet Nam and Gulf Wars; has coped with radical New Criticism and “The Medium is the Message;” has survived baby boom classrooms, open classrooms, collaborative and cooperative classrooms; has endured the structured curriculum and the elective curriculum of general education; and is now competing with the world of instant communication and virtual reality for students' interest in creating meaning and experience from black symbols on white pages, some of which represent the unfathomable worlds of pre-TV, pre-wireless, even pre-printing-press experiences. How can teachers of literature be certain that they have a chance to meet their students' needs to experience literature in a way that enriches them, prepares them to participate in a democratic society, and allows them pleasure? By incorporating Rosenblatt's work, the most widely regarded theories in the field, and understanding them, they will have a chance to work the magic of the literary experience.



Beach, R. (1993). A teacher's introduction to reader-response theories. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Beach, R. and Marshall, J. (1990). Teaching literature in the secondary school. San Diego: Harcourt.

Bleich, D. (1975). Readings and feelings: An introduction to subjective criticism. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Clifford, J. (Ed.). (1988). On Louise M. Rosenblatt [Special issue]. Reader: Essays in reader-oriented theory, criticism, and pedagogy, 20 (Fall).

Clifford, J. (Ed.). (1991). The experience of reading: Louise Rosenblatt and reader-response theory. Portsmouth, NH: Boyton/Cook.

Cooper, C. (Ed.). (1985). Researching response to literature and the teaching of literature. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Farrel, E. and Squires, J. (Eds.). (1990). Transactions with literature: A fifty year perspective. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Probst, R. (1981). Response based teaching of literature. English Journal, 70, 43-47.

Purves, A. (1975). Research in the teaching of literature. Elementary English, 52, 463-66.

Purves, A. and Beach, R. (1972). Literature and the reader: research in response to literature, reading interests, and the teaching of literature. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

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Rosenblatt, L. (1946). Toward a cultural approach to literature. College English, 7, 459-466.

Rosenblatt, L. (1949). The enriching values of reading. In W. Gray (Ed.), Reading in an age of mass communication (pp. 19-38). Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries.

Rosenblatt, L. (1956). The acid test in the teaching of literature. English Journal, 45, 66-74.

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Rosenblatt, L. (1964). The poem as event. College English, 26, 123-8.

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Rosenblatt, L. (1980). What facts does this poem teach you? Language Arts, 57, 386-94.

Rosenblatt, L. (1985). The transactional theory of the literary work: Implications for research. In Charles Cooper. (Ed.), Researching response to literature and the teaching of literature. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Rosenblatt, L. (1985). Viewpoints: Transaction versus interaction — a terminological rescue operation. Research in the Teaching of English, 19, 96-107.

Rosenblatt, L. (1986). The aesthetic transaction. Journal of Aesthetic Education, 20 (4), 122-128.

Rosenblatt, L. (1991). Literary Theory. In J. Flood, J. Jensen, D. Lapp, & J. Squire (Eds.), Handbook of research on teaching the English language arts (pp. 57-62). New York: Macmillan.

Squire, J. (1964). The responses of adolescents while reading four short stories. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Squire, J. and Applebee, R. (1968). High school English instruction today: The national study of high school English programs. New York: Appleton-Century-Croft.

Suleiman, S. and Crossman, I. (1980). The reader in the text. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Tompkins, J. (Ed.) (1980). Reader-response criticism. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.


Gladdys Westbrook Church teaches in the English Department at the Manassas campus of Northern Virginia Community College.  Previously she taught for the State University of New York, College at Brockport.  She is completing her Ph.D. dissertation in English Education at the University of Buffalo.  Her dissertation uses descriptive and quantitative research to demonstrate the significance of Louise Rosenblatt in the field of teaching literature.