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Teaching Opinion

Response: Close Reading Can Be ‘Fun or Awful’

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 13, 2014 20 min read
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(This is the first post in a three-part series on this topic)

This week’s question is:

What is “close reading,” is it important and, if so, how should I teach it?

The term “close reading” appears to be on every English teacher’s lips, though it’s not used in the Common Core standards. It seems to mean a lot of things to a lot of people, and in this three-part series we’re going to explore what it is, what it is not, and what, if any, value there is in it. In addition to invited guests, I’ll be publishing comments from readers in Part Three.

Today’s guest responses come from Christopher Lehman, Cris Tovani, Pernille Ripp, Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris.

You can also listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Christopher on my BAM! Radio show.

Before I turn the column for to my guests, I’d like to share some of my own thoughts on the topic.

There’s some difference among active K-12 teachers, consultants and bureaucrats about the definition of “close reading.” Some wonder if the strategies that many of us have had students use over the years (connection to self, visualizations, highlighting etc.) are effective, and if they can be included in its “official” definition (even if there was such a thing).

However, those challenges overlook the key element that, before students can apply any kind of “close reading,” they need to first feel motivated enough to read it. I would suggest that “close reading” is, in fact, just about anything that can help get a reader engaged with a text.

When we provide students with an unfamiliar text that they might, at least initially, not be interested in (especially informational text in English and in content area classes) reading strategies like highlighting, visualizing, connecting, asking questions, evaluating, and summarizing provide a tool for students to extend their thinking, invest themselves in the text and also a provide a system for accountability. Explicitly being challenged to ask questions, expand those questions to higher level orders of thinking, and then share them with their classmates agitates everyone to wonder and explore what the answers might be. Some reluctant readers become more engaged when they know they can draw and visualize what they are reading. Pushing students to consciously agree or disagree with what they read and provide evidence for their beliefs (even if it is from sources other than the text itself) helps students develop needed critical thinking skills. And, yes, all that engagement reinforces comprehension, too.

Of course, we want to set the stage for increasingly complex texts and pair them with increasingly sophisticated student analyses of it. At the same time, however, we should remember and recognize that these texts can take many different forms -- short Read Alouds; data sets (a series of excerpts that students categorize and explore); and sequencing activities can all be first steps along with the way towards helping our students develop the reading skills required by the Common Core State Standards and, more importantly, by the challenges and opportunities that await them in life.

So, as we are considering what “close reading” might or might not look like, let’s remember that it doesn’t really matter what experts or the standards tell us it is if students won’t do it.

You might also be interested in my post, The Best Resources On “Close Reading.”

Now, here are commentaries from others:

Response From Christopher Lehman

Christopher Lehman is the Founding Director of The Educator Collaborative and author/coauthor of several popular books on education including Falling in Love with Close Reading. He can be reached at TheEducatorCollaborative.com or on Twitter at @iChrisLehman:

A good analogy for close reading is to imagine someone standing in front of a painting at a modern art museum, trying to figure it out:

“What’s the gray circle there for?”

“Is that a bird in the background?

“I wonder what that blue line means?”

It involves looking at something again and again, studying details, and being curious.

Though “close reading” has been around for decades as a method of analyzing texts, it has recently come to prominence once again. Some people associated with the Common Core State Standards have claimed that close reading practices should be central to the teaching of reading because, they say, that it gives students the ability to understand complex texts (Publisher’s Criteria, 2012).

While it may help some kids understand a particular complex text, especially when you are providing a lot of support for one, let’s be clear: it will not magically give children the ability to read on grade level.

Instead, close reading methods can support students in looking more carefully, more slowly, and often more thoughtfully at details in texts that they may already read well but might otherwise speed through too quickly or with only surface level thinking.

It can be tons of fun to study with kids--or mind-numbingly awful. It all depends on how we approach it.

In my book with Kate Roberts, Falling in Love With Close Reading: Lessons for Analyzing Texts--and Life (Heinemann, 2013), we first argue that the teaching of close reading methods, like all teaching, is only worth its salt if students can learn to do these skills independently. That is, our teaching needs to ensure that we are less and less needed in front of the room and they can do more and more on their own.

We go into much more detail in our book and offer a lot of lesson suggestions, but in a quick response here are a few things that seem to really help close reading teaching transfer and be enjoyable for everyone involved:

Consider why you and your students would even care to take on these methods. Choose and commit to a philosophy that matches your core beliefs.

You could choose to teach “close reading” because an administrator, politician, or textbook told you to. Though, unless what you are doing matches your beliefs and taps into your students’ interests, it will just be one more “school thing” that kids go through with little long term impact.

In terms of philosophy, Kate and I, and many others teachers we are lucky to work with, often think about close reading as what we naturally do when we love something or someone. You know intimately well the smell of the wood on the cabin steps you and your family would frequent back in your younger days. You can recite exact lines of that dog-eared novel next to your bed. You study closely the facial expressions of the people in your life that you love most. So, when we talk about close reading with students, we aim to help them see how looking closely can be natural and even reserved for the things we most cherish.

We also believe children and young adults are curious about the world, collectors of best-loved details, and have brilliant ideas worth sharing. So, we aim to give them many opportunities to explore their own lines of thinking, to talk about and share what they are finding, and value their big thinking more than our own. If you connect the teaching of close reading to these things, it can be not just rigorous, but joyful.

Study methods of looking closely not just in texts, but also in songs, television shows, advertisements, and even in daily life.

Instructionally, this gives our students multiple opportunities to practice, across a variety of contexts and purposes. If you show students how to, say, study word choice in a poem, you can help them see how those same skills can be practiced while watching a toothpaste commercial, while a popular boy band plays on the radio, and even when listening to their friends gossip at lunch. Multiple exposures, across contexts, supports students in mastering a new set of skills.

In terms of engagement, bringing in popular media and other texts gives students access to challenging reading skills in a familiar, even fun, context. This helps more students have success early on and can lead to longer term application of skills later as texts they interact with vary.

Lastly, looking across texts, media, and life also helps our students become more wide awake and active participants in our global society. Learning to more carefully listen to a politician’s argument for why they deserve your vote, to asking questions about the content of a new sitcom, to being more thoughtful with one’s own word choice in a letter to a friend; good reading practices can become good life practices.

Devise a replicable structure that students can learn to apply themselves, in almost any context.

There are some suggestions for how to teach “close reading” that are so teacher-centric that it is hard to imagine how any student could learn to do this independently. Long lists of text-dependent questions or tons of steps for rereading that each involve a teacher to stand and deliver. While these can certainly give students interesting experiences, it seems less important to teach texts to kids and more important to teach kids how to read texts.

For an example of teaching a structure kids can learn, in our book we suggest a three step structure, each step having a clear purpose:

  1. Pick a Lens: Choose how you will reread something and then read looking for those specific kinds of details
  2. Looks for Patterns: Study the details you collected and group, compare, or analyze them
  3. Develop Understandings: Based on the patterns you’ve found, say a new idea or deeper understanding about what you have studied

Now, we don’t believe for a minute that this is the only way to organize this. You could decide that your students would be better off with four steps, or maybe only two. You may call them different things, even. What matters, however, is that you devise your teaching so students can easily take it on when they are working alone.

Each step of this structure, then, can become more sophisticated as you and your students move across the school year.

You can teach students different lenses to choose during that first step: text evidence, word choice, even argument, for example. You could teach them how to apply these across different contexts: in nonfiction, in narratives, with documentaries, even video games. The structure becomes a habit, and then your teaching can make each step more sophisticated.

Then, the most essential piece is this: do not just teach kids to close read, but also continually close read your kids. Note their strengths and needed next steps, their joy (or misery), and ultimately if what and how you are teaching aligns to your beliefs and best hopes for them and for their futures.

Response From Cris Tovani

Cris Tovani is the author of So What Do They Really Know? and Do I Really Have to Teach Reading?. She continues to teach high school in Colorado where she is working hard to learn how to support English Language Learners:

Close Reading--To Do What?

When I hear people talk about close reading and I hear how they ask their students to do it, I want to blurt out, “Close reading--To do what?”

I strive to give students opportunities to do real work as often as possible. Knowing how to “close read” or actually reread when they don’t get what they need the first time is crucial to making meaning. Rarely do readers make sense of complex text with a quick once over. However, just rereading for the sake of rereading isn’t enough. When I set out to build a new piece of furniture from IKEA, I have to close read and reread. First, I examine the directions to see what the final product will look like. Then I reread to see what tools or extra parts I will need. Next, I reread to decide if I can assemble the furniture by myself or will I need to seek help from a more experienced furniture builder. I close read again and again making sure my work looks like the diagram. All the while, I’m imagining how my friends and family will appreciate the new addition to the family room. When considering how to read closely, purpose is important to consider but often we underestimate the power of having an authentic audience with whom to share the work.

I’ve learned from 20 years of working with struggling adolescent readers that it’s difficult to get them to reread anything without a purpose or an audience bigger than me. Ironically they aren’t much different that adult readers in this regard. Few readers are eager to close read anything just for the sake of close reading. There has to be a purpose and audience. And that purpose can’t just be, “Reread to notice tone.” And the audience can’t just be the teacher.

In the fall my students host a Military Roundtable where 25 military stakeholders join us for a 90-minute lunch to discuss different perspectives on the US’s involvement in international conflicts. For this day, my students have to close read. But not because I say, “I want you to close read.” They do it so they don’t sound ill informed.

Weeks before, while preparing for the event, I overhear Samantha say to Kenny in disgust, “Kenny, everyone knows the reason the US entered Afghanistan was because of oil.”

Hearing this comment tells me it’s time for Samantha to do some close rereading. Before digging in though, she needs to be reminded of the purpose and audience she is doing the work for. Instead of telling her the reason, I direct her to the several articles we’ve collected about the US’s involvement in Afghanistan and explain that oil is not the reason we are there. I remind her that some our guests will have served in this region risking their life and it is important we all know the reason for the US’s involvement. I suggest that she might want to build some background knowledge around Kenny’s question so our guests aren’t bothered by her uniformed opinion. Promptly, Samantha gets up and chooses an article to read about the topic. She will now reread closely on her own to build her background knowledge not only about the US’s involvement in Afghanistan but also to be prepared for our military stakeholders.

I Close Read to Get Smarter

Students learn quickly that when they reread they do it for a purpose. Samantha knows different ways to reread because it’s one of the learning targets we’ve worked on all semester, “I can reread to uncover new layers of meaning.” Sometimes students will reread to clear confusion or build background knowledge. Other times the purpose is to answer a question or draw a conclusion. Often students will reread to improve their writing by noticing how an author has constructed a passage of his own. These are just a few of the ways one can reread closely.

When I started introducing an audience more authentic than just me their teacher, I noticed the quality of student work improving. My students know I care about them and sometimes they will do the work to please me. There are some students who could careless what I think and so “pleasing me” isn’t high on their To Do List. Sometimes there are kids who are grade driven and will do the work to “earn” points. Other students aren’t grade driven and so holding points over their head isn’t very useful. But when I introduce an audience that will actually view their work and hear their thinking, students tend dig in. I don’t have to threaten them with grades or kill myself trying to get them to like me. The audience does the work for me. As soon as I explain that their work will go out to an “real people”, like the military roundtable guests or commentaries that will be sent to the Denver Post, students are much more inclined to not only reread closely but also rework, rewrite and revise.

People in the World Outside of School Close Read So They Can:

  • Figure out something that they need to know
  • Convey a message to another person
  • Share their thinking about a problem that needs to be solved
  • Assemble parts or combine ingredients to create and build something that they or someone else will consume or use
  • Direct themselves or others from point A to point B
  • Construct meaning about something that makes themselves or others think differently
  • Make/write something that will have an impact on another person/reader

Simply put, the act of close reading, has to actually help the reader get smarter at doing something better. Doing it to get a good grade, pass the state test, or please a teacher only works for the students who are compliant. Fortunately, I’m getting fewer and fewer of those kinds of kids. Instead, I seem to be getting students who want to do real work in the world and know that their effort has meaning and purpose. And to me this is a good thing.

In the world outside of school, people reread closely to accomplish something and that something usually has an authentic audience tied to it. My students balk at the request to do close rereading if there isn’t an outcome or a pay-off for the extra work. Having a purpose for re-entering the text is crucial because it helps the reader determine importance. An audience that will critique the fruit of the reader’s labor often guides how a reader decides what matters most.

Response From Pernille Ripp

Pernille Ripp is a passionate teacher in Wisconsin, USA, who has taught 4, 5th, and 7th grade, author, and creator of the Global Read Aloud. Her first book, Passionate Learners - Giving Our Classrooms Back to Our Students, can be purchased now from Powerful Learning Press. Her second book, Empowered Schools, Empowered Students - Creating Connected and Invested Learners, is out now from Corwin Press:

Close reading to me simply means paying closer attention to what we read and viewing it through multiple lenses. So rather than using a brand new text for every reading strategy we present or discuss, we can use the same text because with each reexamination of it through a different lens we should discover something new. It is important for students to learn how to close read, not just because Common Core says so, but because it will deepen their understanding of the world. Just like we choose different lenses to view a text through, we choose different lenses in how we view the world. That world connections to what we do in reading is vital as we help students become great thinkers.

I never tell my students that we are doing close reading. Instead, we discuss how our perspective changes as we look at a text again. We mine the text for information we may have missed and we fill in the holes as best as we can. We discuss throughout, perhaps jot down notes, but the big piece is that shared experience through the text and realizing just how much we can gain from it. Then we leap into our lives, how does this text help us think about ourselves? How does this text relate to our world? How do we use these same skills when we meet new people? Does our lens affect how we see someone or how we react to a situation?

I have loved teaching close reading because of what it helps my students with: becoming more thoughtful people. Just as we would not skip from friend to friend every day as we go through our lives, we revisit our friends much like we revisit our texts in order to learn more about them and to fill in our picture of them. Close reading is a vehicle for greater reading discussion, but that’s not all. It helps us think and expand our thinking, and that is an important skill that we all need as we navigate through our lives.

Response From Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris

Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris are the authors of Reading Wellness: Lessons in Independence and Proficiency (Stenhouse, 2014) and the creators of the Common Core Toolkit. They blog at Burkins and Yaris--Think Tank for 21st Century Literacy where they offer insights to teachers working to implement instructional standards without sacrificing their inner teacher. As consultants, Burkins & Yaris also support schools and districts by facilitating staff development, conducting in-class demonstrations, and developing curriculum:

It seems that in the majority of educational settings, close reading, a term popularized with the roll out of the Common Core State Standards, is generally interpreted as purposeful rereading. If close reading was intended to offer children practice in mining text for its deepest meaning, few educators, if any, would argue against the practice. We are concerned, however, that the intent may be getting lost in translation. So, the million dollar question is: How? How do we instill habits that support children’s efforts to understand text deeply?

Publishers have been quick to heed this call and, by now, the market is flooded with materials that promise to help children think “thoroughly” and “methodically.” In many of the resources we have reviewed, students are provided with purportedly “complex text,” interspersed with questions, tasks, and specific directions about where to pause and what to think about. We are concerned that this level of specificity oversimplifies the process of reading closely and carefully, and we doubt that repeatedly working with these materials and this approach will help students become the independent and proficient readers we all want.

Instead, we believe children need a variety of close reading experiences that consider the following three instructional essentials, or the 3 Ts:

Essential 1: Text

Reading is a transactional relationship between reader and text and when the text is compelling, the reader desires to deepen that relationship. When we give children text worth thinking about, they are motivated to reread, which helps them to understand the intrinsic value of reading closely and carefully.

Essential 2: Talk

Giving students opportunities to talk with others about text invites them to formulate ideas and articulate opinions. Listening as others do the same can lead students to new and deeper understandings. Because rich classroom discussions around text create a positive, palpable energy, close, careful reading gains social capital which, again, increases the likelihood that students will see the intrinsic value of this practice.

Essential 3: Transfer

In teaching children to read closely and carefully, our hope is that they learn to do this work independently. If we always tell them where to stop and think, where to reread, or where to focus their attention, then we do not give them opportunities to practice independence. While students may need extra support with vocabulary or concepts in more challenging texts, the scaffolding work needs to prompt students to do the heavy lifting themselves. Ultimately, what students can do without us will be the indicator of our success with close reading.

While we see nothing inherently wrong with pressing forward with curricula that emphasize “close reading,” it is important to remember there is no “one best way” to teach children how to reach deeply into a text. Children need a multitude of authentic reading experiences that remind them that the value of reading closely and carefully is the gratification that comes from working to construct meaning.

Thanks to Christopher, Cris, Pernille, Jan and Kim for their contributions!

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