The transactional theory of reading is another relatively modern theory which borrows from cognitivism and constructivism, which theorize that learning is a social matter at heart, and expands upon them even further. While cognitivism and constructivism argue that each individual, upon reading a book, will have at their core a very unique perspective of what they have just read, transactional theory hypothesizes that the words on the page have no “true” meaning until the reader reads them, thus making sense of the squiggles on the paper. Furthermore, this “true” meaning which is given to the words on the page is only true in one person’s mind: the reader. As all literature (and all art, for that matter) is open to interpretation, it is the reader who uses his background, his prior experiences, and his active thought process to make sense of the reading, and to find “truth” within it.
By “truth,” I simply mean the reader will give to, and take from, the reading, that which makes sense to himself. That is not to say that any one “truth” is more correct than any other, or that a teacher should be looking the “correct” answer from only one of his 25 students. On the contrary, it should be made evident to the classroom of learners that not a single one of them can be “correct,” because each individual’s concept of “truth” differs, making it impossible to reach a single, unifying conclusion. The result is less competition in coming up with “the answer the teacher wants to hear,” and more interaction and sharing of ideas, with the focus on just that: hearing what everyone has taken from the story, combining other perspectives with one’s own, and building upon the initial reading experience. R. E. Probst states, “Students are encouraged to enter into a ‘reciprocal, mutually defining relationship’ in their discussions with students and teachers, as well as in their readings of texts.” Again, transactional theory contends that the reader gives as much back to the book as he takes from it. Take for example the concept of symbolism. The literary concept of symbolism is the prescribing of certain ideas and emotions to an abstract, often inanimate object. Because of its abstractness by nature, a symbol within a work of literature can only be defined by the reader himself. Therefore, it is not only the ideas the reader takes from the reading which conceptualize his understanding of the text, but the ideas the reader gives to the text as well. A hypothetical classroom situation comes to mind:
After reading a passage in which a boy finds his deceased dog’s old chew toy in the attic and begins to cry, a student raises her hand. “Aww, he misses his doggy!” she exclaims. The teacher (playing Devil’s advocate, naturally) questions the student: “What? Where in the text does it say he misses his dog? All I read was he saw an old toy and started crying…” “No! Don’t you see?” explains the student, “He remembers playing with his dog with that toy, and he’s remembering the times he used to have with his friend, and how that’s all over now!” Grinning, the teacher commends the student: “Oh wow! I completely understand now…if we didn’t have this discussion, I would have gone on thinking this kid was just throwing a tantrum!”
As all reading and writing is symbolic at heart (as in, these words only make sense if the author and reader share at least a very similar idea of the concepts they represent), it again is obvious that reading and writing is both a give and take activity. A 4 year old who draws a picture of a cat and dog, and labels them “ct” and “dg,” has not spelled the words “cat” and “dog” incorrectly. On the contrary, that 4 year old has given the abstract symbols “ct” and “dg” the concrete meaning of two furry animals with four legs that live at home. To that child, “ct” and “dg” mean “cat” and “dog,” and because it is true for the child, it is simply that: true. Again, the transactional theory states that, although the words on the page are set in stone, the concepts they represent are forever up to interpretation.