Close Reading: A History, A Tasket

What's all the fuss about close reading? And what are experts saying? Actually, they're saying a lot. And (gasp!) they don't all agree!

But since many of us are suddenly expected to teach our students how to read closely, and many teachers are being asked to do so without much guidance or development -- it's important we understand what it is, where it came from, and how we bring it into our classrooms.

It's also important to understand that it isn't as scary as it seems.  So put down the box of wine and read on!



In the Beginning
Many teachers of literature have been teaching students to read closely for decades.  Remember that haggard old High-School English teacher with nude pantyhose, gray hair and coffee breath? Yeah, you know the one.  Remember how she would point out one word in a poem and the class would talk about the author's choice of that particular word for what seemed like a post-pubescent eternity? I'm not saying that it was as effective as it could have been, and sure, you would have rather been slipping notes into Johnny Quarterback's locker slats and giggling with the girls over your hot pink socks and crimping iron.  But nonetheless Old Hag was, in essence, leading a 'Close Reading' lesson.  Was it engaging? I'm thinking... no.  But that act - the act of focusing on a craft choice, how that choice impacted the other elements of the work, and how that choice impacted the overall meaning of the piece is at the heart of close reading.

So yes, you're basically becoming an English teacher.  Hopefully a much cuter one.

Why now?
For a long time, we've been teaching students comprehension strategies that exist 'outside the text'.  We isolated those strategies and taught them explicitly.  Clarifying.  Predicting.  Connecting.  Et cetera.  But many experts now think that doing that is 1. Only part of the necessary reading instruction puzzle since really, we do those things simultaneously as expert readers and 2. That it draws the focus out of the text and allows students to fake it because they can use their own background knowledge to draw inferences without really understanding the meaning of the text.

I don't know about you, but I have never-once-not-ever in my whole *22* years of life ever passed a reading test by completely bu**sh***ing.  Never.  Not ever. Neither have any of my students.  Because they're perfect. 

So that's what we're after here.  That doesn't mean predicting or making connections is a bad thing or that you should never allow such words to be spoken within the walls of your room.  It just means we have to make sure the kids aren't you-know-whatting, that what they say actually has to do with the real meat of the text, not just what they did with Uncle Allen four years ago.  And by putting the focus on the text and not the reader's mind, the hope is that that happens.

In the text or out?
Here's where some experts don't agree.  Some think in order to read closely, the students should only be answering text-dependent questions.  They think that background knowledge and the use of it in reading closely "poisons the well" a bit.  That students must exclusively rely on the text.

Others argue that it's impossible to isolate understanding and background knowledge. That as readers, we're blending this information and we can't help it.  We can draw attention to the text during instruction but our background will influence our interpretation of that text.

One way to help this is by using short texts - or short portions of texts. (Think: Particular words, sections about a character, specific sentences) By focusing on small sections, students are forced to look at the actual text closely.  It's hard to make a broad connection or prediction based on a single sentence or word.

Or you can read an entire fairly short story with one intention. (Think: How's the character evolving on each page?) By providing a guiding focus throughout the reading, students are forced to think about the text that supports the question.

Experts do agree that citing evidence is important.

They also emphasize that the understanding of a single text is always the vehicle for the understanding of all texts.  {For more about that, read my post on Minds in Bloom.}

Read and Read Again
This is a slippery slope.  Repeated readings are necessary for students to read closely.  But not all repeated readings are close reading.

Reading a story, poem, or chapter start to finish three times and answering questions about it is not close reading, even though you're reading it multiple times.

Revisiting and rereading a particular sentence three, four times and analyzing why the author used it - that's a close repeated reading.

Finding a single word or phrase that was used repeatedly in a text, locating it throughout the text, and analyzing and discussing how it reveals plot development - that's a close reading.

The repeated reading is necessary to look closely at specific ideas,  pieces of the text, or individual choices made by the author.  Those things, in turn, affect the meaning.  Understanding by reading multiple times helps us understand the text - and texts in the future.

Simply reading again does not.

And... the text
Passages or literature? What's the best tool?

Nothing beats using authentic text to teach students the art of literature.  Stories, novels, and poems that have lasted through the ages have done so for a reason: There is good stuff in there and lots to think about! The more there is to think about, the more successful and engaging your close reading lessons will be.

A short comprehension passage that has students highlight and underline sentences likely doesn't really have what it takes for a meaty close reading lesson.  But that doesn't mean they can't be used for a specific purpose.  The act of pulling out evidence is tricky! And when there is so much meaning in an authentic text, students can get overwhelmed.  Passages that are easy on the eyes, short, with meaning that is fairly easy to discern can be a terrific scaffold for your students.

Just remember this: The text is what it is.  And it isn't what it isn't.  Just know your goal when using either.

What now?
I'd encourage you to do a little digging of your own!


Here are some great articles I found that are well worth the read:

This article talks about close reading and ELLs:

http://www.reading.org/Libraries/lrp/ira-lrp-policy-brief--close-reading--13sept2013.pdf

This article talks about the difference between reading for a single text understanding vs. universal text understanding: 

http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/dec12/vol70/num04/Closing-in-on-Close-Reading.aspx

This site has a great resource for writing text-dependent questions:

http://www.achievethecore.org/page/710/text-dependent-question-resources

I'd love to hear how you're implementing reading closely in your classroom!


5 comments

  1. Kate,

    Thank you for this post! I have been hearing this term recently and it was bugging me because I felt as if I really didn't know what they were talking about. This was an amazing, in-depth post! SO appreciated!

    And my english teachers in HS totally did this, except they were men in gray suits with gray comb overs! lol

    Katie

    http://teachingvoraciouslearners.blogspot.com/

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  2. Thank you so much for this information! I have heard so much about close reading and knew some of the basics, but you definitely debunked some of the myths that I have heard and was wondering about. Haha, by the way, you crack me up with your boxed wine comment!
    ~Heather
    Loose Shoelaces

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  3. I've read both this post and yours over at Minds in Bloom. Both posts are loaded with such great information to clarify how best to approach this skill. Thank you for taking time to research and share ideas and for adding the outside articles... looks like I've got some more reading to do tonight. :)

    Kelli
    Tales of a Teacher

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  4. Wow. Thank you. Our school asked us to do it without much guidance or support! This was helpful :)

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  5. Kate - I have nominated you for a Sunshine Blogger Award on my blog. I love your style and always look forward to your blog posts! Check out my blog for more details. :)
    ~Heather
    Loose Shoelaces

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