A Close Look at Close Reading

As teachers and schools continue to wrestle with implementing the Common Core Standards, I hear more and more talk—and more and more questions—about the term ‘close reading’. Interestingly enough, the term doesn’t appear in the actual Standards, though it crops up repeatedly in many Standards-related material, including the now famous—or infamous—videos of Standards author David Coleman dissecting Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” And Text Complexity co-author Douglas Fisher has said that close reading is “the only way we know how students can . . . really learn to provide evidence and justification,” as the Common Core requires.

So what exactly do we mean by ‘close reading’? According to Timothy Shanahan, who’s become something of a spokesman for the Standards, close reading is “an intensive analysis of a text in order to come to terms with what it says, how it says it and what it means.” I agree completely that close reading allows a reader to understand what a text says and what it means, with what it means directly related to the author’s decisions about detail and language and structure—i.e., how it says what it says. But for me, analysis is an off-shoot of close reading, something I can produce, if I’m asked to do so, after I’ve read closely.

I think this because, by definition, analysis involves thinking about how the parts contribute to the whole, which presupposes an understanding or vision of the whole. Putting analysis in front of understanding seems a bit like putting the cart before the horse. And asking students through a text-dependent question to analyze a part before they’ve had a chance to consider the whole risks putting them in the position of the blind men in the old Indian tale who sought to understand what an elephant was by attending to its parts. One man touched the trunk and thought an elephant was like a snake; another felt the tail and concluded it was like a rope; while a third stroked the ear and thought it was a fan. None was able to make sense of the whole when asked only to consider a part.

My own vision of close reading is better captured in some of the guidelines colleges provide students. The Purdue Online Writing Lab, for instance, advises ‘tracking’ your understanding of a text through margin notes that often consist of questions, with an example that bares more than a passing resemblance to the kind of questions that come up when students are using a Know/Wonder chart, noticing patterns across a text, and wondering what the writer might be trying to tell them through the details he’s chosen.

Example of close reading annotation using Doris Lessing’s short story “A Woman on a Roof,” from the Purdue Online Writing Lab

Harvard also provides a “How to Do a Close Reading” guide to students, which breaks close reading down into a two-part process: First the reader observes facts and details in the text, then he interprets what he’s observed through inductive reasoning—that is, he builds an interpretation bottoms-up from the details, rather than by deductively starting with a claim and then finding evidence to support it. And they offer the following tips, which sound similar to the kind of thinking the fifth graders I described in a recent post engaged in (with the teacher transcribing their thoughts in lieu of annotating the text):

1. Read with a pencil in hand, and annotate the text, noting anything that strikes you as surprising or significant, or that raises questions.

2. Look for patterns in the things you’ve noticed about the text—repetitions, contradictions, similarities.

3. Ask questions about the patterns you’ve noticed—especially the how and why.

This two-pronged process has always seemed to me a lot like the scientific method. The reader attends to the details an author gives just as a scientist attends to the details of whatever phenomena he’s studying. And from those observations, each develops a hunch that attempts to explains what they’ve noticed, which in science we call a hypothesis. Then just like the scientist, the reader continues to probe and observe, testing her hunch out as she encounters new details and looks back on ones she’s read, revising, refining and developing her ideas until all the pieces fit—at which point she comes to a final understanding, which is like a scientist’s theory. Only then, I would argue, can the reader’s thinking be turned into a claim whose validity can be proved in a deductive fashion using many of the same details that helped her understand as evidence.

Unfortunately, however, some of the approaches that aim to support close reading rob students of the opportunity to notice and to develop ideas of their own—which, as Harvard says, “is central to the whole academic enterprise.” Take Achieve the Core’s 8th grade Close Reading Exemplar for “Long Night of the Little Boats” by Basil Heatter, which recounts an incident from the Battle of Dunkirk when a ragtag flotilla crossed the English channel to rescue soldiers who were stranded on a beach during World War II.

My hunch is that the exemplar writers followed a process similar to Harvard’s to arrive at their own understanding of the piece (noticing, questioning, and interpreting, perhaps, automatically in their heads). They then rephrased their understanding as a question for the final writing task: “How did shared human values, both on the part of the little boat rescuers and the soldiers, play a part in the outcome of Dunkirk?” With that in place they then designed a series of questions and steps that would focus the students’ attention on details that were key to their own understanding’s development, such as:

The students neither own the noticings here, nor the development of the ideas. And the ‘help’ that teachers are asked to provide in order that students ‘see’ what they’re supposed to runs the risk of being as much an act of spoon-feeding as some of the pre-teaching practices that have come under fire are. Of course, it does increase the likelihood that students will meet the Standards. But they’ll do so by plugging in someone else’s language about details someone else has noticed to support an idea someone else has formulated. And that’s a far cry from the independent thinking that colleges want students to have.

To support that kind of independence, we have to design instruction that engages students in both components of the close reading process: to first be observers and questioners and then to use their observations and questions to, as Harvard puts it,  “reason toward our own ideas.” That may, indeed, involve asking students questions, but those questions need to be open enough for students to engage in real close reading, not an overly-prompted knockoff.

And so to ensure that we don’t put the cart before the horse, let’s remember this when it comes to close reading:

Questions before Answers

Hunch before Claim

Understanding before Analysis