The Literary Apprentice



Models of Reading: Container Model vs. Reader Centered Model



What happens when we read texts? Let's recognize right away that there are many different types of reading to go along with different types of texts and even contexts. As these things vary, so do the reading acts we perform. Reading the graffiti on the street demands one sort of reading while reading the church bulletin on Sunday requires another.

Many things seem to be implied in the reading situation and many experts have tried to build useful models of it. Most literature courses have a model of reading in mind. These pages give you some background for models.

This Literary Apprentice web site presumes a model that emphasizes the Reader's role in constructing meanings. See also the definition of Reader-Response at this Web Glossary of Literary Theory.

Common Sense (Information Theory) Models

There have been many common sense ways to imagine a communication event, especially one involving reading. We sometimes talk of the container model in which we imagine a writer (speaker) whose mind "contains" an idea. This person then "pours" the idea into a text or speech, which the reader or listener supposedly "soaks up" or "drinks in" or "absorbs" like a sponge, until the idea or message is then "contained" in the second mind--to pursue the metaphor. Experts call this the Transmission Model because information is being transmitted from one mind to the next. We think we can tell in practice if the act of communication "works" by the uniformity of the idea now "in," according to the theory, two or more heads. In the everyday world we often think in terms of this model, such as when we attempt to learn an explanation like this one. The model seems to work for us--in a limited way. But it neither goes far enough nor works well with literature.

Daniel Chandler, in this article, The Transmission Model of Communication, <> thoroughly explains and criticizes this model.

  • For background on what is wrong with the container model, read Chandler's article. Pay particular attention to his criticisms of the model and his conclusions at the end, rather than to the history of the model in information theory. While he speaks in terms of mass communications rather than literature, his remarks are relevant to us.
  • When you have finished, return to this page and continue.

In his conclusion about the transmission (or container) model, Chandler says

Alternatives to transmissive models of communication are normally described as constructivist: such perspectives acknowledge that meanings are actively constructed by both initiators and interpreters rather than simply 'transmitted'. . . . [T]hey stress the centrality of the act of making meaning and the importance of the socio-cultural context.

When we practice the "constructivist" approach to reading, we assume an active rather than passive stance and a context which shapes the reader's action.

In this following article, Chandler presents an explanation of The Active Reader. < > This article is very useful for our in depth look at reading literature.

  • Though it is long, take the time to read it carefully. I suggest you print it and find a relaxing place to take it in. (Notice, I am assuming you read better from paper copy than from a computer screen!)

The key ideas you might want to understand, retain, and be able to apply are the following:

1. What are the differences among the Objectivist; Constructivist; and Subjectivist positions? Which position is identified with Negotiated meanings and with "Dialogism"? Where does "meaning" reside according to each position?

2. What are schemata and where do they come from?

3. How do schemata relate to the idea of the reader being active? How do schemata relate to inferences and gaps?

4. How can we distinguish Knowledge based schemata and Text based schemata?

5. How do schemata relate to memory?

6. How do gender, background knowledge, and cultural frames relate to schemata?

7. How does the reader's purpose for reading affect a reading?

8. What are the "six key functions" for schemata?

If you want to test your understanding of the above, take an online self-test on Chandler's article.

Go on to read about an Ideological Model of reading.



Copyright 2002 College of DuPage
Communications/Liberal Arts