Teaching Opinion

Response: Teaching ‘Close Reading’ - Part Three

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 18, 2014 21 min read
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(This is the last post in a three-part series on this topic. You can see Part One here and Part Two 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.

Part Two’s guests were Sonja Cherry-Paul, Dana Johansen, Stephanie Harvey, Julie Goldman, Diana Sisson and Betsy Sisson.

Today, Kimberly Carraway, Katherine S. McKnight, Harvey F. Silver, Amy Benjamin, Nancy Boyles, Rita Platt -- along with readers -- share their thoughts.

Response From Kimberly Carraway

Kimberly Carraway, EdM, is a learning specialist and educational consultant focusing on the intersection of cognitive neuroscience and educational practice. She founded The Carraway Center for Teaching and Learning in 2001. The Carraway Center works with schools, organizations, and individuals through private consulting, student workshops, parent seminars, professional development presentations, and specifically designed curriculum to help students, teachers, and parents understand how learning occurs, and to create superior educational programs and courses. She is author of Transforming Your Teaching: Practical Classroom Strategies Informed by Cognitive Neuroscience (W. W. Norton; 2014). Visit her at carrawaycenter.com:

Reading involves a complex set of neural processes that develop over time. Skilled readers possess phonemic awareness, the ability to decode words, fluency, understanding of vocabulary, comprehension strategies, metacognitive techniques (thinking about your thinking), and the ability to derive varying levels of meaning from the text. Some students read with good fluency and sound out the words well, yet still have difficulty extracting, constructing, and analyzing meaning from the text. Close reading is a term that describes some of the cognitive processes used in determining meaning in a text, the processes that result in deeper levels of comprehension.

Students can be taught how to read texts closely, critically, and carefully through a variety of methods. When teaching students how to engage in close reading, it is important to be sure to choose passages that are on their independent reading levels. When a text is too difficult, students’ ability to extract and construct meaning with deep comprehension will be compromised.

Teaching students the following close reading processes will help improve their comprehension:

  • Annotate the text. Teach students how to annotate the text by writing key words in the margins, circling words, and underlining key phrases. Give students a list of types of words to circle as they read (i.e. new places, new characters, big events, dates, etc.) They should write words or draw symbols in the margins to express their emotional responses to the story or text as well.
  • Model skilled reading. Read a text aloud and verbalize the internal dialogue going on in your head as you read so students can hear what skilled readers do while reading. Have students take turns verbalizing their internal dialogue to each other.
  • Create graphic organizers of the story or text. To help students learn how to identify supporting details or how ideas and themes are developed, use various forms of graphic organizers. These visual tools help students organize the information and manipulate it. Skills such as sequencing, predicting, comparing and contrasting, and reflecting can be taught with graphic organizers.
  • Periodic summarizing. Teach students to read a paragraph or several paragraphs and then pause to verbally summarize their reading or put in writing a one or two sentence summary of the text. Summarization is a difficult task for many students.
  • Create character drawings on sticky notes. Have students draw a picture of a main character on a large sticky note that is placed at the end of the book. As students learn information about the character they can add descriptive adjectives and details to the sticky note, which helps them learn to look for character details and analyze the characters as they read.
  • Highlight central themes and ideas. Teach students how to identify central themes in the text and highlight examples that support those ideas. Give students sticky flags or small sticky notes to “flag” pages in the text that contain examples of literary devices like symbolism, irony, or foreshadowing.
  • Analyze sentence structure and unfamiliar vocabulary terms. Have students draw a box around words that they do not know and draw a squiggly line beside sentences that they do not understand. Teach students how to find context clues and derive meaning from the text with these words and sentences. Have them write definitions of the unfamiliar words above the word in the text.
  • Ask questions while reading. Give students a list of varying levels of questions on a bookmark. Have them refer to this bookmark as they read to help them generate higher-level questions while they are reading.

It is important to teach students how to be actively engaged with the text as they read. Close reading means paying attention to what you are reading, being self-aware and self-reflective during the reading process, and engaging in multiple cognitive actions while moving through the text.

Response From Katherine S. McKnight

Dr. Katherine S. McKnight is an educator, author and consultant. Her career in education began as a high school English teacher in the Chicago Public School system more than 20 years ago. Today, she serves as a Distinguished Professor of Research at National Louis University. Dr. McKnight regularly publishes in professional journals and is the author of many books including The Teacher’s Big Book of Graphic Organizers, Grades 5-12 (recipient of the 2013 Teachers’ Choice Award). See her other books here:

Close reading refers to analytical reading of text. It’s an important means of developing the high-level comprehension and interpretive skills that are so highly valued in the Common Core State Standards. But make no mistake, these skills were important before the CCSS, too! Think about it for just a minute and I’m sure you’ll realize you’ve already been developing your students’ close reading skills - even if you’ve been calling it something else.

Teaching students how to identify the main idea of a text and recognize its supporting arguments and details has always been one of our goals as teachers. Now, with the adoption of the CCSS, the phrase “close reading” has entered the educational lexicon. And the importance of text analysis and interpretation has taken on added significance.

This is especially true in the content area classes. Finding facts in a science or history text is no longer enough. In order to be considered college- and career-ready, students are expected to recognize how those facts are related to each other and to the author’s overall claim. Students are expected to begin developing these interpretive skills in early elementary school and continue expanding and reinforcing them all the way through high school.

If you’re not already familiar with them, take a minute to check out the first six CCSS anchor standards for reading. These anchor standards represent the overall goals for all students, from kindergarten through grade 12. They all reflect the importance of close reading.

I’ve found that the simplest and most effective way to teach close reading is to focus on three types of strategies:

  1. Before reading
  2. During reading
  3. After reading

Ask any teacher and you’ll find we all have our favorite close reading activities. For Before reading, I like anticipation activities like GIST (where students preview a content-area text by focusing on headings, subheadings, graph, charts, and pictures) and Entrance Slips (which draw out students’ prior knowledge or schema, and helps them prepare to relate personally to a text).

I’m a big fan of Sticky Notes (where readers write comments, questions, and observations on sticky notes and stick them right on the pages) as a During reading strategy. I find this activity really encourages readers to reflect as they read, and helps them focus on developing personal connections with the text.

And I find strategies like Questioning the Author (which provides additional opportunities to inquire about a text) and Exit Slips (which encourage students to develop final conclusions about a text) to be particularly useful After reading activities.

The Internet is loaded with variations of Before reading, During reading, and After reading strategies. So there’s no excuse not to try some new ones!

Response From Harvey F. Silver

Harvey F. Silver has forty years of experience as an educator, trainer, and coach. His best-selling books include The Core Six: Essential Strategies for Achieving Excellence with the Common Core (ASCD, 2012) and Thoughtful Education Press’s Tools for Thoughtful Assessment: Classroom-Ready Techniques for Improving Teaching and Learning:

To better define “close reading,” let’s start by identifying what it is not: It is not re-reading. Close reading is as much about uncovering what is not explicitly stated by a text as it is about comprehending the words on the page or screen. Simply encouraging students to read more closely or twice isn’t going to train them in how to extract meaning, make inferences, evaluate evidence, and draw conclusions--all components of truly understanding rigorous texts. Teachers need classroom-proven tools and strategies.

There are many powerful close reading techniques, which can be found in publications like Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading (Beers & Probst, 2012) and Reading for Meaning: How to Build Students’ Comprehension, Reasoning, and Problem-Solving Skills (Silver, Morris, & Klein, 2010). One technique not commonly associated with close reading is Compare & Contrast (see Compare & Contrast, Silver, 2010). However, we’ve learned that this strategy can be a powerful way to develop students’ close reading skills.

Instead of using Compare & Contrast as an end-of-chapter essay question, teachers can use the strategy to teach students how to comparatively analyze two or more texts. For example, we’re currently working in a district where educators are developing model Compare & Contrast units to build students’ close reading skills. A team of ELA teachers designed a unit on epic and everyday heroism using two poems: Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” and Nikki Giovanni’s “A Poem for My Librarian, Mrs. Long.” In this unit, students...

  • Define what a hero means to them using their prior knowledge and personal experiences.
  • Read and explore the two poems, using a close-reading technique called Sticky Notes to collect important information about the perspective, tone, imagery, and message of each poem.
  • Use their notes and textual evidence to compare the poems according to key criteria (perspective, tone, imagery, and message/meaning).
  • Decide what the most important difference between the poems is.
  • Write an argument supporting their ideal description of a hero using textual evidence from the poems.
  • Look back on what they’ve read, written, and learned about heroism and how their ideas and thinking may have changed.

By using Compare & Contrast in this way, teachers can efficiently structure a learning sequence around two or more rigorous texts to help students practice close reading and comparative analysis--two surefire ways to build their overall literacy and communication skills.

Response From Amy Benjamin

Amy Benjamin is a teacher, educational consultant, and author whose most recent book is Big Skills for the Common Core (Routledge). Her website is www.amybenjamin.com:

A claim on your homeowner‘s insurance has been rejected. Miffed and indignant (and pinched in the pocketbook), you are determined to find that clause in your policy that clearly validates your claim. Well, maybe not clearly, but certainly, the implication is there. Somewhere. You read again and again to find it. And what exactly does “act of God” mean in this context?

It’s Christmas Eve, and that kitchen set requiring “some assembly has a plastic granite countertop that doesn’t look anything like the picture, and did they really give us an extra hinge, or is this thing supposed to go... Let me see those directions again.

You need to recite a poem; or, you are an actor who needs to perform memorized lines from a script. You find that the task is easier if you divide the poem or script into smaller and smaller units of meaning, and as you learn them, you stitch them together by thinking about the relationship of one idea to the next. You let the punctuation guide you.

You’ve done close reading, and not for a test. No one even called it close reading. You called it reading slowly and carefully for a purpose, reading between the lines, reading with the help of a partner, reading with a questioning eye.

You probably don’t “close read” newspapers, magazines, bedside and beach reading, or most of your inbox correspondence because these are the kinds of reading material that simply don’t demand a high level of concentration. Their meanings are not subtle, indirect, metaphorical, or dependent on fine interpretations. Think of close reading as driving in bad weather, at night, on unfamiliar roads. You use extra tools: fog lights, wipers, windshield spray. You might turn off the radio to eliminate any possible distractions. In ordinary driving conditions, you operate on intuition learned through experience, but now you turn off the automatic piloting mechanism that you’re not even aware you have developed. You consciously recall and apply those special rules that you explicitly learned, such as turn in the direction of a skid, or never venture into a flooded area. But most of all, you slow down.

Close reading necessitates slow reading, but slow reading is not the same as word-by-word reading (disfluency). And there’s a difference between slow/close reading for literary text and slow/close reading for informational text. We’ll talk about literary text first:

Slow reading for literary text is what I like to call reading at a literary pace. When we read at a literary pace, we give masterful writers the time they deserve, mentally hearing the author’s voice. Robert Frost said: “The ear is the only true writer and the only true reader. I’ve known people who could read without hearing the sentence sounds and they were the fastest readers. Eye readers we call them. They get meaning by glances. But they are bad readers because they miss the best part of what a good writer puts into his work.” Frost is talking about reading with respect for craft. It’s the difference between a leisurely walk down one of the world’s great avenues as opposed to barreling through in a taxi, multi-tasking on your cell phone. In both modes of travel, sure, you can say you’ve been there, but one is rich with memorable detail, and the other stays with you only as a blur.

So, my suggested strategy for reading literature closely is to train students to read it slowly. “Train” is the operative word. We can’t just say, “Read this slowly.” Their world (and ours) runs too fast for them to even know what it feels like to read at a literary pace. Start by timing yourself as you read a text aloud for one minute. Mark where you left off. Now enact that with students. Time them for one minute. Stress that the idea is not to be way past everyone else after one minute of reading. The idea is to experience literary pace. As the saying goes, in literature, as in life...going slowly puts you in control.

But, we live in a world where speed is valued, associated with skill. It’s embarrassing to read too slowly. I’ve led workshops with teachers where I’ve directed them to read a passage having about 1,600 words. I’ve asked them to take eight minutes to read it. This is after we’ve done the one-minute timing exercise to establish a pace. And what do you think happens? Invariably, a third of the teachers in the workshop declare, with a hint of superiority, that they used the eight minutes to read the passage twice. Three times. And had time left over to catch up on their e-mail.

True confession: When the going gets tough for me, I use a bookmark. A bookmark helps slow me down, helps me concentrate, and reminds me that I’m reading something that demands my full attention. Reading teachers and librarians of my youth disparaged bookmarks just as they turned their noses up at lip-moving while reading. I assume that was because young children need to avoid word-by-word reading.

Close readers read literary and informational text differently. They pay attention to different kinds of things. Literary writers live by the rule of “Show, don’t tell.” But writers of strictly informational text “Tell. Then show.” Literary text, full of surprises, flirts with the reader: Oh, you think this part is just a diversion? Well, guess what! This little trip down what looks like the primrose path actually reveals secrets that will unveil the whole point of the story. You might miss it now, but you’ll think about that seemingly small detail will mean something quite different when you look at it in the light of the book’s ending. Then, you’ll see that it was foreshadowing significant events all along.”

But with informational text, the writer is not coyly hinting at meaning. The close reader of informational text understands its straightforward structure: Topic sentences are followed by predictable developmental ingredients, such as examples, cause and effect statements, embedded definitions, anecdotes, et. al.

When students lack the stamina to read (what they consider to be) lengthy complex text, it is much better to give them shorter pieces than it is to “simplify” the text. If you feel that you must give students Simplified Shakespeare, at least mix it up with increasingly larger doses of the real thing.

Close reading corresponds to complex text. Complex texts, like a complex movie, can have twists and turns, easy-to-miss foreshadowing, seemingly insignificant details that are actually rich with meaning, and carefully chosen words. Close reading of literary text should feel like a leisure stroll through a botanical garden, not a dash into the mall to knock another item off the weekend to-do list.

I recommend that teachers take the time to make their classrooms places where close reading is modeled, valued, and practiced. Your classroom may well be the only place and time when students can experience the slowness and patience of close reading.

Response From Nancy Boyles

Dr. Nancy Boyles is Professor Emerita from Southern Connecticut State University and the author of Closer Reading, Grades 3-6 (2014) published by Corwin Literacy:

Close Reading: Plumbing The Depths of Comprehension

Close reading isn’t a new concept, but it’s one that educators haven’t thought much about in the past few decades. So when the Common Core came to town promoting this approach to reading instruction, teachers took notice. What’s the big deal about close reading? “A significant body of research links the close reading of complex text -- whether the student is a struggling reader or advanced -- to significant gains in reading proficiency and finds close reading to be a key component of college and career readiness.” (PARCC, 2011, p. 6)

Even as some states rethink their Common Core connection, close reading has remained at the forefront current instructional practice because in the end, we all want our students to succeed in college and beyond. So what exactly do we mean by close reading and how can teachers help students to read more closely?

Essentially, close reading means reading to uncover layers of meaning that lead to deep comprehension. More specifically we want students to be careful observers and analyzers of text. We want them to read methodically and deliberately. We want them to examine central ideas and key supporting details. We want them to drill down to the meaning of individual words and sentences, and to reread when necessary to achieve even deeper understanding.

Teachers can help to develop closer reading habits by shifting the way they support students before, during, and after reading. For close reading students need to learn to get their information from the text, not the teacher. Hence, teachers should minimize their frontloading of information before readers dig into the text itself. Supply guidance to ELLs or other students who really need the support, but offering assistance to those students who could handle the reading on their own leads to dependence, not independence.

During close reading teachers should pause frequently to ask text dependent questions that help students tease out the nuances of content and craft: What details surprised you on this page? What do you know now about this character that you didn’t know before? What words contribute to the tone of this text? Why did the author choose those words?

After close reading provide students with the opportunity to synthesize what they’ve read and integrate learning from multiple sources. Revisit the text to examine a specific complexity, for example, the author’s point of view or evidence to support a claim. And especially, make sure that students have lots of chances to apply the close reading practices they’ve seen modeled to their own reading.

How much can we understand and appreciate from reading a particular text, either literary or informational? That’s the big question that close reading begs us to answer.

Response From Rita Platt

Rita Platt (@ritaplatt) is a Nationally Board Certified teacher who enjoys nothing more than thinking, talking, and writing about issues f teaching and learning. Find Rita’s articles on education here:

Close reading is getting a lot of buzz as schools rush to implement the Common Core mandate for complex texts. Before choosing it as a go-to literacy strategy, educators must ask if the “bang” of close reading is worth the “buck?”

The answer? In most cases, probably not.

Close reading has readers interacting with short complex texts for several structured re-readings.

Advocates claim close reading will:

1. develop deep comprehension of the practiced text.
2. give students a strategy and the stamina to help them understand future challenging texts.

No one would argue the need to help children deeply understand what they read in terms of author’s purpose, craft, and message. That is and should be the focus of teaching reading. But, the skill cannot be boiled down to a list of steps including what to do the first, second, or third time a text is read.

Unfortunately, close reading is being applied in wildly inappropriate ways and is displacing real-world reading experiences. Multiple reading requires large amounts of class time that might have otherwise been devoted to allowing students to read, think and talk about engaging, level-appropriate texts.

Is there ever place for close reading? Yes! There some hard-to-read texts that are important to our shared culture. Think: primary documents, poetry, and period literature. But, close reading is appropriate only in those circumstances. Since most of the real-world reading we do and will ever do does not use this type of text, close-reading must be used sparingly.

Close reading should not be getting the attention and time that it has been. Teachers must be careful that the process does not supplant the purpose, we do not have the time to get caught up in rereading for rereading’s sake. Close reading simply does not have enough “bang for the buck.”

Responses From Readers

Thanks to Kimberly, Katherine, Harvey, Amy, Nancy and Rita, and to readers, for their contributions!

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