Four Roles for All Readers

Last week, I answered a question about teaching context clues to English learners who are at the lower levels of English proficiency. That got me thinking about other ideas related to teaching reading.

I have always been fascinated by Freebody & Luke’s 1990 article, which describes the roles readers take on when engaging with texts. It applies to all readers, but its application can be vital for English learners because the very concept of what it means to be “literate” is culturally defined.

Freebody & Luke contend that all readers need the skills necessary to adopt each of the roles described below.

Code Breaker

The skills for this role are at the heart of every phonics based literacy program. Students are taught how to crack the code of written text. They learn to recognize the letters of the alphabet and the sound-symbol correspondences in all of their regular and irregular forms.

Is it “a” as in apple or “a” as in ape? How is the “g” pronounced in giraffe and goat?

No one would deny that this knowledge is important, but ELs often languish in developmental literacy programs that focus almost solely on this role, limiting their exposure to the skills needed for the other three roles.

Text Participant

We all know students who are great at decoding, but their comprehension skills are lacking. They can accurately “call out” all of the words on the page, but when you ask them what it meant, they look at you blankly. This demonstrates the necessity of the text participant role.

“Meaning does not reside solely in the words and structures of the text, but is constructed in the interactions between the text and the in-the-head…knowledge of the reader” (Gibbons, 2015, p. 140).  See Dr. Mooney’s review of this resource.

A good reader knows how to take the words on the page and connect it with what they already know of the world. In this way, they come to understand what the text means. They can begin to infer what the author intended their words to mean as well as what meaning they, as the reader, will take from the text.

Text User

Readers learn how to decode and comprehend a text, but they also learn from the society around them how they are supposed to use the text. Without realizing it, many parents in the US acculturate their young children into viewing the reading of picture books as a pleasant bedtime routine. Children learn that parents will hold them and read a story, and that their role is to listen quietly or answer any questions the parent asks about the book. There are no formal comprehension checks when the story is over. 

However, school-age children soon learn that the teacher will not be satisfied with them simply reading and enjoying a text. He/She will ask questions that require the student to respond with answers accurately grounded in the text. They may even be assessed on how well they remember specific aspects of what they read.

These two different uses of text highlight the reader’s role of determining what they should do with a text in their current context. How should it be used, and how should the reading of the text adapt to different situations?

ELs come from a variety of cultural backgrounds, and as such, have a wide range of understandings about the uses of texts. When their teachers understand some of these differences, they’ll realize that they can be a foundation for the expected school-based uses of text. Cultural misunderstandings can occur when teachers and students are on proverbial “different pages” when it comes to the ways we use text.

Text Analyst

This final role is often equated with critical literacy. Readers need the skills and awareness to determine what the author, through the text, is attempting to accomplish. What does the author think about the reader, and how are they positioning them? What do they want the reader to come to know, believe, or do? 

As teachers, it is important to read texts critically ourselves, but it’s also important to teach our students how to be critical. This isn’t criticism, as in finding all of the faults of a text. Instead, it is learning to “read between the lines” or to think about what is not being said and questioning why that might be. Students who employ the first three roles, but not this one, are susceptible to blindly believe everything they read. Proficient readers know they have a responsibility to learn to think for themselves.

All children can be taught to critically analyze texts. Check out these articles by Vivian Maria Vasquez. She describes many experiences leading young elementary students to deeply analyze the texts around them. I particularly like one of her book chapters, “We Know How McDonald’s Thinks” (Vasquez, V. M., 2004)!


Think about your literacy instruction. Do you provide opportunities for students to develop the skills necessary to take on all four reader roles? If not, what changes could you make this week to better incorporate another of the roles into your lessons? 

Your students’ goal of becoming literate in English depends on it!


Take a Deeper Look

Freebody, P. & Luke, A. (1990). Literacies programs: Debates and demands in cultural context. Australian Journal of TESOL, 5(3), 7–16.

Gibbons, P. (2015). Scaffolding language, scaffolding learning: Teaching English language learners in the mainstream classroom. Heinemann.

Vasquez, V. M. (2004). We know how McDonald’s thinks. In Negotiating critical literacies with young children. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

These books and article may be available from Google Scholar, through your university library databases, or your local public library.

Coming in February…
Well-known second language acquisition theorist, Dr. Stephen Krashen, was recently in my city, and I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with him. In a few weeks, see what he had to share and get his own explanation about some of theories he developed. Plus, Dr. Krashen shared interesting tidbits about his personal life, such as what instrument he loves to play. Want to find out? Watch out for the upcoming two-part article!

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