Responses to literature and how facilitate growth

The most important response a child can have with a piece of literature is enjoyment. The pleasure a child gets from a story will determine their desire to seek other stories and ultimately if they develop a life long love of literature.


To facilitate learning and communication it helps to know the different kinds of responses a person can have with literature and how they change as children grow.

This page discusses the kinds of responses and the development of children to adolescence with respect to literacy and literature.



People seek pleasure from a story, but are limited in their responses by their physical, cognitive, and affective abilities. Abilities, which develop over time and the level of development is facilitated by communication and life experiences they bring to a story. These interact with other variables as they read, view, or listen to literature; creating a unique transaction between them and the story in a literary piece to shape their responses.

Response may be immediate or deferred; internal or external; emotional, interpretive, or evaluative; and literal, inferential or evaluative as well as at different levels of involvement and understanding.

These responses are illustrated in the following model and described in the text below.

Response model

Response model

Kinds of Responses

Immediate and deferred

All responses are immediate or deferred and the timing of a response can vary considerably. An immediate response can be good or problematic as when it interrupts the flow of understanding and involvement. A deferred response, can be good if it is deferred until a discussion starts. Or sometimes it might be even years later when it might be recalled and related to something else. Deferred until another influence sparks a memory, making those responses valuable. However, sometimes the source, as being literature has been forgotten.

Internal and personal or external and social

A person's response to a piece of literature will always include an internal or personal response, this quality is important for creating and sustaining personal involvement with literature. Without it, people stop interacting, and voluntary involvement with literature is halted. The choice to be involved and maintain involvement, usually lead to a positive emotional responses or positive feelings toward literature, which is required to establish a life long love of literature.

As important as the internal and personal response is the external. An external response is required to communicate information about the piece of literature. Examples include: body expressions, oral remarks, written remarks, drawings, diagrams, webs, creative movement, dramatics, play activities, and many other kinds of activities. It is vitally important for educators as it is the only way to communicate about literature and to assess a person's understandings and feelings about a piece of literature. It provides the information needed for teachers to model critical analysis and appreciation of literature to facilitate an individuals and groups better understandings and appreciation of its value. Therefore, it is critical to learn how to encourage students to share their responses socially so they can develop their self-efficacy to enjoy literature at their choosing alone or with peers.

Physical, Cognitive, Aesthetic

These responses are related to different ways literature is experienced. While a literate adult may wonder about the inclusion of physical it is most likely the physical responses young children enjoy that encourages them to continue to seek literature for enjoyment.

Cognitive or intellectual (literal, interpretive/ inferential, critical analysis/ evaluative)

The response made after mentally manipulating the information from the story and communicated can be classified as literal; interpretive/ inferential, critical analysis; and evaluative. All of these response may also be immediate, deferred, internal, external, or aesthetic/ emotional.


Responses that can be supported directly with evidence from the text, pictures, illustrations, charts, diagrams, music, sound, or action without making an inference.

Interpretive or inferential

Interpretive or inferential responses: Are interpretations that go beyond the specific information provided by the author or illustrator. The reader/ listener/ viewer interpret words, visuals, or sounds singularly and in combinations using his or her experiences to interpret beyond the literal meaning of the story. He or she make inferences about the story and the author's motives usually by reacting to the elements: plot, setting, style, mood, point of view, tone, and the genre attributes of the work. While these responses are interpretive or inferential they are also supported with evidence.

Critical analysis and evaluative

Evaluative responses: an example is when the reader/listener/viewer selects an example or multiple examples and explains why they think the author did ... or what the author should have done based on a standard. If a child says the book is one of the best s/he have ever read and tells why, compared to another piece of literature or a standard, she is giving an evaluative response. If a child says that a character should do something. You wouldn't know if it was an evaluative response unless it's explained in relation to a standard. The standard for being aesthetically beautiful is what we we call art.

Aesthetic (affective or emotional)

People who are involved emotionally comprehend and evaluate their reading/viewing/listening better than those who aren't. Therefore, if we know what the reader/listener/viewer's responses are we can anticipate his or her emotional reactions and interact to facilitate his or her growth.

Teaching applications

Personal involvement is required to create meaningful responses and to communicate those responses externally. It is the external responses which are evaluated by others which may result in others desire to increase their involvement with the same literature or to share their personal responses as a result of their interactions with others. It is listening to learners or looking at the artifacts they create that we can gather information to make decisions to offer readers choices to facilitate their literacy by helping them to respond with increased understanding: literal, interpretive, or critical analysis to evaluate and appreciation literature.

Responses and interactions which can be complex and wide ranged as illustrated in the responses model.

It is important for educators to celebrate and encourage learner involvement with literature. The best time to facilitate better understanding, enjoyment, and appreciation of literature is when learners communicate their response from their personal transaction.

Teachers make and take advantage of these through the questioning strategies they use to encourage and scaffold deeper thinking through critical analysis. As learners achieve higher quality responses they will also develop a greater appreciation of literature and desire to communicate with others to share their transactions and ideas. As they have more experiences with quality literature and outstanding teachers their responses can improve from novice to emerging, to mature, to critical responses as described by the outcomes on this scoring guide. Additionally as students are introduced to story elements and genre they will also develop their abilities to use these ideas to understand, interpret, analyze and appreciate literature.

To better understand and predict students' responses to literature and how to anticipate how they might development it is interesting to consider different developmental theories and how they might be applied to facilitating literacy as learners develop from childhood to adolescence.

Development of responses to literature from child to adolescence

Responses improve with cognitive and affective growth and development. Let' explore some.

A child's first response to literature is usually a physical touch or grab.

The first response an adult hopes for is - a request for more.

A child's development to tell stories begins with a response of retelling a story beginning with a restatement of words, then phrases, and eventually a literal retelling of the story. All of these responses can be sprinkled with short interpretive responses (laughter, smile, or descriptive words or phrases).

Later interpretive responses are added to the retelling narration (when I was..., I had a dog that...) where children interpret the story and relate it to similar personal experiences they have had. With practice the responses become a more comprehensive personal retelling of the story with emotional, interpretive, and evaluative responses.

In the elementary school these emotional and interpretive responses are critical as they allow readers to enter into a story and make it their own. Resulting in better evaluative responses through increased comprehension (literal, inference, critical analysis, and evaluation), and appreciation.

Expression of ideas: Small children have problems stating themes of stories. We should realize, however, that although a small child cannot define "home" or "mother" they know what the concept is. Security, love, comfort, warmth, protection, honesty, are abstractions they may know but are unable to articulate. For children, knowing and saying are rarely the same.

Vocabulary: The better the reader's / listener's / watcher's understanding of vocabulary used in the literature and to describe literature pieces the more significant the involvement and the better they are able to communicate a response. Therefore, discussing and developing vocabulary is essential. However, we need to be careful to do it well and not make it dull or drudgery. Suggestion and additional information for developing vocabulary.

Attention span: The better the reader's / listener's / watcher's attention span is maintained during the story the greater the involvement.

Amount of digression: Increased digression in the literary piece decreases involvement.

Relationships of character and actions:

Social character development Social skills and understanding is learned through interactions with people. Children with limited social experiences are not be able to understand social character development. However, if a story is within their zone of proximal development (ZPD) they can with support.

Amount of action and order of action: Students' memories are limited in the number of events they can remember that occur at the same time. Even adults are limited to about seven ideas at a time. Students can remember more if the ideas are told sequentially and chained together in some manner. Flashbacks are confusing to children who have not developed a fairly sophisticated concept of time (remember your first experience with them?).

Children are more literal than adults: Fred Gwyn'e Moose, Amelia Badelia are examples of what students enjoy about second grade when they begin to understand beyond strict literal interpretations.


Learners' development of story elements by grade level

Created in EDU 600 summer 2000 and refined summer 2003
Story Element Kindergarten 1-2 grade 3-4 grade 5-6 grade
  • Recognize the main character.
  • Identify characters' moods (happy, sad, angry, helping, mad ...).
  • Recognize that character's actions are related to their moods and personalities.
  • Identify personality traits of characters (good, bad, selfish, greedy, mean, shy, friendly, caring, cooperative, ...).
  • Recognize main character in a story.
  • Understand that the story is about the main character.
  • Understand that the story's creator often uses feelings to describe the characters and make a more interesting story.


  • Recognize that characters may change from the beginning to the end of a story.
  • Recognize characters' development may or may not be important for the story.
  • Identify the feelings that characters are described as having.


  • Recognize that characters are able to have all the characteristics a human can have and more.
  • Recognize that characters may be created with any characteristic that a creator chooses weather it is real or imaginary.
  • Recognizes that characters are developed by their actions, speech, appearance, comments, and other characters' actions and the author's choice of words.
  • Recognize and sympathize or empathize with the plight of the character.
  • Recognize that characters usually change within the plot of the story.
  • Recognize implied thoughts and feelings related to the characters.
  • Can retell simple linear stories by chaining events.
  • Recognize the beginning, middle, and end of a story.
  • Recognize a problem and resolution within a story.
  • Recognize the climax as the most exciting part of a story.
  • Predict the outcome of a story using the clues provided by the creator.
  • Identify conflict and tension in a story.
  • Recognize that creators use a variety of strategies and patterns to make stories interesting.
  • Recognize that several conflicts can happen in a story and may or may not build toward the climax and resolution.
  • Recognize that many stories have conflict caused by a struggle between characters (a protagonist and antagonist).
  • Understand complicated plots.
  • Recognize stories within stories.
  • Recognize strategies that authors use to create suspense during the development of the plot.
  • Recognize that most plots follow a general pattern.
  • Recognize a variety of interactions or conflicts (person vs. person, person vs. self, person vs. society, person vs. nature...).
  • Can relate where the story happened.
  • Can tell the time as day or night, winter, summer, fall, or spring, holiday.
  • Identify where the story takes place.
  • Begin to understand that the selections of different kinds of settings are important for story and tone (it was a dark and stormy night).
  • Explain how the setting is or isn't important for the story and tone.
  • Describe how the story and characters are affected by the setting.
  • Recognize all stories have settings.
  • Recognize time can move steadily forward or jump forward or backward in leaps of time.
  • Recognize that settings can be used to create tone and develop plot.
  • Tell theme as a simple morale (It's good to help. Its not nice to be mean.).
  • Recognize that stories have a main idea.
  • Identify general explicit themes in some stories.
  • Begin to identify implicit themes in some stories.
  • Understand that the story is about the theme.
  • Recognize a variety of themes.
  • Recognize that a story may have multiple themes.
  • Understand implied themes.
Point of View
  • When asked who is telling the story will answer a character or creator (author, writer ...).
  • Recognize first person narration.
  • Recognize that the author isn't always the story teller or main character.
  • Recognize the omniscient (knowing everything) narrator.
  • Recognize all points of view.
  • Recognize that a point of view may change in a story.
  • Recognize that point of view can be used to assist the development of a style and tone.
  • Recognize word patterns and repeat ones they think are interesting.
  • Recognize style that is most concrete (rhyme, alliteration).
  • Recognize with a little more practice (assonance, consonance, rhythm).
  • Picture in their mind's eye, from reading or listening to imagery, images from real their life experience that relate to the author's description.
  • Recognize figures of speech (simile, metaphor, hyperbole, allusion).
  • Understand puns, word plays, and figures of speech.
  • Can recognize most kinds of style with samples or other kinds of assists.
  • Recognize symbols in literature.
  • Can look at picture books and describe the tone with regards to the illustrations (Happy, sad, stormy ...).
  • Recognize sad, happy, and other emotions that are in a story.
  • Describe how the creator described the characters and told a story.
  • Recognize humor
  • Describe how the tone relates to the story.
  • Read aloud with inflection that indicates an understanding of the creator's tone
  • Can recognize a wide variety of tones (absurd, parody, condescending, didactic ...).


Using developmental theories to predict and understand children's responses to literature

Understanding what and how children think can help us understand how they respond to literature. Therefore, theories of child development that suggest how children grow and develop socially, intellectually, morally, and physically can help us understand how they think, what their interests are, and their different needs across different ages. Information to help guide your selections and to guide their selection of literature.

Six developmental theories, on children's growth through childhood and adolescence to adulthood, related to examples of children's literature that correspond to the developmental characteristics.

Development of Quality Responses to Literature or
Characteristics of Written Journal Response Levels

 Novice Responses includes -

  • Brief communications, spontaneously communicates thoughts and feelings better than when asked to compile his or her thoughts more formally.
  • Communicates a number of brief responses, which merely fulfills an assignment, rather than sharing a commitment to the story and characters.
  • Summary or retelling of the story, rather than interacting with it.
  • Information limited to a general comprehension of the story - no personal involvement with it.
  • Expressions of frustration with the response journal.

Emerging Responses includes -

  • Attempts to share spontaneously, but still gravitates toward a transitional response prompt format.
  • Reasonable predictions using information from the story.
  • Communicates reaction's that seem detached without a commitment or connection to the story.
  • Several questions to make sense of the story or to avoid confusion.
  • Detached insights into the characters without achieving deep character involvement.
  • Other response characteristics from the Novice Responder category.

Maturing Responses include -

  • Expressions of a personal interaction with the story that are similar to most common responses shared.
  • Demonstrations of a willingness to communicate personal opinions/ emotions/ thoughts.
  • Evidence of involvement with the main character by talking about them as if he or she knew them. By suggesting advice or recommending different ways to act in situations in the story.
  • Plausible predictions based on information from the story and substantiates those predictions.
  • Evidence of a willingness to try new ideas suggested by others for better understanding.
  • Other response characteristics from the Emerging Response category.

Critical Responses include -

  • Personally derived unique information supported by the story and communicated in an appropriate stylistic manner and tone.
  • Evidence of deep involvement with the story and powerfully incorporate personal opinions/ emotions/ thoughts.
  • Statements that judge and assess characters against his/her own personal standards and may share advice, criticism, empathy, or disparity.
  • Reactions to the story as a literary piece and analysis of literary elements, communication techniques, and quality genre characteristics.
  • Comparisons of the story to other pieces of the same genre, by the same author, or with a similar theme.
  • Other response characteristics in the Maturing Response category.

Adapted by Robert Sweetland from Marjorie R. Hancock - Response Rubric for literature response journals




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