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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Response: Close Reading Is A ‘Life Skill’

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 16, 2014 13 min read
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(This is the second post in a three-part series on this topic. You can see Part One here.)

This week’s question is:

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

Part One in this series featured responses from Christopher Lehman, Cris Tovani, Pernille Ripp, Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris.

Today’s guests are Sonja Cherry-Paul, Dana Johansen, Stephanie Harvey, Julie Goldman, Diana Sisson and Betsy Sisson.

Response From Sonja Cherry-Paul and Dana Johansen

Sonja Cherry-Paul and Dana Johansen are classroom teachers and the authors of Teaching Interpretation: Using Text-Based Evidence to Construct Meaning . They are educational consultants, presenters, and doctoral students at Teachers College, Columbia University. They can be reached on twitter @LitLearnAct or their blog:

Close reading is a life skill, not a reading strategy confined to the classroom. As adults, we do close reading everyday. We slow down to reread certain emails, advertisements, maps, and articles. We do this in order to gain important information, interpret a message, and reflect. In our classrooms, we want our students to become lifelong readers who do not allow text to simply wash over them. We see close reading as an opportunity to contour our teaching to provide strategies for examining texts in ways that help readers to interpret them and to understand the author’s intent.

Close reading is the detective work our students do as they read. They look for clues, gather evidence, and ask questions. Opportunities to model and teach close reading can be done with read alouds, poems, or multimedia. In our classrooms, we’ve found the following components of close reading instruction especially helpful:

1) Rereading: Ever reread a parking sign multiple times? First you ask yourself, “How long can I park here?” Next, you reread the sign searching for information about alternate side parking or street cleaning. Last, you read it again searching for anything you might have overlooked. This is one of the essential components of close reading- teaching our students to practice rereading, noticing, and reflecting.

2) Lenses: We can help our students find clues in a text by teaching them to wear different lenses. This helps them focus on looking for clues and gathering text evidence. For instance, students might read a text in hopes of identifying symbolism. They read looking only for clues and evidence related to possible symbols in the text. Next, they might reread through the lens of identifying important themes.

3) Patterns: Ultimately, we want our students to become independent, critical readers. Just like a detective asks, “What is a clue and what is not?” we can teach our students to notice what stands out through repetition. Students can question the author’s intent and why these patterns may be important. Teaching our students to become close readers is important because it helps them become independent readers who interpret the text and ultimately connect with it on a deeper level, bringing their own ideas and perspectives.

We recommend reading Notice and Note and Falling in Love with Close Reading for more information about teaching close reading.

Response From Stephanie Harvey

Stephanie Harvey has spent the past 40+ years teaching and learning about reading and writing. The author of various books and resources including Strategies that Work, Comprehension and Collaboration and The Comprehension Toolkit Series, Steph works as a staff developer in schools and districts around the world. Insatiably curious about student thinking, Steph is a teacher first and foremost and savors any time she can spend working in classrooms with kids:

Doubling Down on Strategic Reading

You can hardly swing open a car door without bumping into a close reading post these days! Close reading and its first cousin, text complexity, are the “IT” buzz words in the reading lexicon of late. So let’s take a closer look at close reading. First off, when do we really need to read something closely?

Simple answer- when it’s hard. Readers need tools to construct meaning when the text is complex. One of the primary reasons we use comprehension strategies is to hurdle the background knowledge gap. When text is tough, we come upon words and ideas we don’t understand. This is when strategic thinking really pays off----using what we know to expand understanding, asking questions to make sense, merging our background knowledge with text evidence to infer the meaning of unfamiliar words and concepts, synthesizing the details to come up with the big ideas and themes . The tougher the text, the more strategic the reader needs to be. The more complex the text, the better tools the reader needs to construct meaning.

Let’s be clear--we want all of our kids to develop the capacity to read complex text closely so they can understand it and grow their thinking from it. We want them to pour over sophisticated content, immerse themselves in great literature, engage in rich talk about text and read “widely and wildly”. But simply reading and rereading text over and over again has no purpose. Staying within “the four corners of the page” simply doesn’t work. Reading the Gettysburg Address without immersing kids in a study of the Civil War is senseless. As P. David Pearson has said “Asking readers to read without thinking about what they already know is like asking people to breathe without oxygen.” Nothing colors our learning and understanding more than what we bring to it.

Text complexity is about much more than Lexile level. Defining text complexity merely in relation to a software leveling program is way too simple. To be or not to be, that is the question likely has a pretty low Lexile level, but it incorporates one of the most most complex questions ever addressed in the English language. We reduce text complexity to its lowest common denominator by simply considering the Lexile level. Complexity resides in complicated ideas with multiple perspectives that can be presented in a myriad of ways. Complex text demands the reader’s recognition and thoughtful consideration of the multi-faceted nature of an issue or a problem. To understand complex text, readers need to consider a wide variety of aspects and implications of a problem or an issue, including but not limited to the:

  • Economic implications
  • Historic implications
  • Cultural implications
  • Political implications
  • Religious implications
  • Practical implications

So when we teach our students about complexity, we do them a disservice if we refer mainly to Lexile level. We need to focus on the ideas, concepts, issues and problems they uncover in text. We need to explicitly teach the difference between complex issues and problems and simple issues and problems.

In this time of clarion calls from across the country for kids to read increasingly complex text, I am doubling down on strategic reading. As if sitting at a Black Jack table at Caesar’s Palace, I am increasing my bet and upping the ante on strategic thinking, because the more complex the text, the better tools the reader needs to expand and deepen understanding. Reading and writing are always better when they are tools not goals. Using comprehension strategies flexibly and, at will, allow readers to uncover big ideas, issues and problems that are not readily apparent in text. So encourage your kids to slow down their reading, think carefully and rely on the quiver full of strategy arrows that we have taught them to comprehend difficult text. Because in the end close reading is strategic reading!

Response From Julie Goldman

Julie Goldman facilitates professional learning and writes curriculum for the WRITE Institute, a nationally-recognized program in K-12 writing instruction. Connect with WRITE on Twitter:

Close reading is long-standing reading strategy that involves thoughtful dialogues around language and meaning. Classic close reading practice characteristically engages learners in recursive reading, layered questioning, and intense analysis of meaningful texts. During the process of reading the same text two or three times, learners incrementally investigate topics and themes and probe structures and syntax. Another stock close reading trait is the granular examination of context clues, which not only helps students find factual answers, but also encourages critical thinking around, typically, powerful, compact texts. According to this ASCD resource, close reading “means reading to uncover layers of meaning that lead to deep comprehension.” While sifting through a variety of routines associated with close reading, the following steps can frame the general process:

1. Summarize: What are the key points or main idea? How do we know? What specific examples support the main idea?

2. Question: Who is the audience? How does this impact the author’s organization or word choice? Why does the author use the specific word/phrase ________?

3. Connect: How does this sentence or phrase connect with the text as a whole?

The renewed prominence of this time-honored strategy is significant for several reasons. First, it marks a dramatic shift in practice from the widespread focus on reading fluency over critical thinking across language classrooms in recent years. Second, discussions, like this one, around what close reading is, its importance, and how to teach it -- help educators grapple with what it means to share responsibility for academic literacy across content areas. Third, close reading can help teachers leverage this new integrative literacy instruction through a flexible, layered process.

Seasoned close reading supporters find this strategy relevant because it helps us improve our students’ reading comprehension and critical thinking. I experienced this strategy as a student throughout my high school and college education in the Midwest and began using it as an instructional strategy while teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) in Taiwan in the early 90s. Close reading provides me with a practical process to improve my students’ academic literacy through dynamic dialogues around vibrant texts.

Response From Diana Sisson and Betsy Sisson

Dr. Diana Sisson & Dr. Betsy Sisson specialize in school improvement and professional development and have recently published a book about close reading entitled, Close Reading in Elementary School: Bringing Readers and Texts Together (Routledge/Eye on Education):

The Common Core Standards brought the concept of close reading to national attention as educators began to learn how it can be utilized for students encountering complex texts. Close reading strategies offer a solid bridge to bring students together with text and support them throughout the reading process. Close reading can be defined simply as purposeful re-readings and analysis of short pieces of complex text. We recommend a ten-step framework.

Step 1: Identify the text. Close reading strategies should not be implemented every day nor with every text. So, don’t conduct a close reading activity for a piece of text unless you believe that without these strategies, students will struggle and may fail to understand the text’s content.

Step 2: Determine the purpose for reading. To harness the power of close reading, you must have an instructional purpose that will guide the entire process. Is it simple comprehension? Is it to illustrate the use of a particular reading objective (e.g., identifying theme)? Is it as a mentor text to generate student writing? Without a purpose, student reading will be unfocused and lack a concrete aim for them to target.

Step 3: Choose a model. Each ten-step close reading lesson you design becomes a model that you can use for a specific purpose, such as a model for supporting students in summarizing texts. Think about how each of the steps works in tandem to support the purpose for reading.

Step 4: Decide how students will access texts. Every time that students visit the text, you must decide how they will approach it, i.e., read aloud, shared reading, choral reading, small groups, dyads, individually. Your decisions should be based on moving students closer and closer to independent reading and analysis.

Step 5: Complete the first cycle of reading and present a question or task. The first reading will be the students’ introduction to the material and should either pose a question or a task to help them develop a literal understanding of the text.

Step 6: Provide time for discussion. It is during this step that students make their thinking “visible” to you. It allows you to assess their current level of understanding, any misconceptions, and what additional support you need to build into the subsequent steps.

Step 7: Complete the second cycle of reading and present a question or task. Your goal during this step is to select a question or a task that will propel your students forward in their ability to interpret the text and to meet your instructional goal.

Step 8: Provide time for discussion. Again, ensure that you allow time for students to debrief their thinking and for you and to continue monitoring their active thinking about the text.

Step 9: Complete the third cycle of reading and present a question or task. The final reading cycle must build that last link to your instructional purpose. (One way to ensure this is to follow a backward design: identify the instructional target you want your students to reach by the last reading cycle and then work backward to determine how to scaffold student thinking through each previous reading cycle to support the development of their textual understanding.)

Step 10: Provide time for discussion. Step 10 embodies the concluding piece of the cognitive framework that close reading builds for readers to equip them to speak with confidence about the text. If, however, you feel that your students require additional scaffolding or time to analyze the text, you may elect to add a fourth reading cycle.

Following this close reading framework allows students to peel back the layers of a text with increasing understanding and appreciation in a measured, deliberate course.

Thanks to Sonja, Dana, Stephanie, Julie, Diana and Betsy for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post. I’ll be including comments in the final installment of this series.

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Education Week has published a collection of posts from blog -- along with new material -- in an ebook form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Watch for Part Three in a few days....

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