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

21 thoughts on “A Close Look at Close Reading

  1. Nice. Great selection of graphics and a good closing.



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  2. Vicki,
    This couldn’t have come at a better time for me. I was just discussing this very issue in a meeting with administrators and staff developers this morning. I will be forwarding your blog post to them. Thank you for your always thoughtful important ideas. Recently a network recommended to a principal that he read an article called: “Let Strategies Serve Literature” by Diane Senechal. I found it so problematic and I would love to hear from you your thoughts about it. If this is what networks are recommending we are in trouble. The writer is not a literacy expert by any means!
    I will email you a copy of the article.

    • In addition to my email thoughts, Dinah, I’m also really discouraged that methods like the one Diane Senechal is proposing isn’t getting a real public airing, which means that cities like New York are making decisions with little to no teacher input.

  3. With many, many years of experience being a student in classrooms, I have come to the conclusion that very few, if any, teachers really care what students think or care to have them struggle, out loud, by asking questions. I’m talking about letting students ask the questions they are struggling with and having stimulating conversations with the teacher and other students about the topic.

    As long as we focus on covering content rather than creating life-long learners and thinkers, we will continue to stifle deep, creative thinking.

    I am a teacher and after trainings and many conversations on the Common Core, I have struggled with the idea of leading students to reach a conclusion about the meaning of a text. I argue that, even though Common Core only wants evidence from the text, there is no way students can empty past experiences from their minds and their beings when trying to discover the meaning of what they read.

    I strongly believe there is no one meaning to any piece of text. The author has something in mind when creating the text, but the reader brings his own understandings, imagination, experiences, meanings, beliefs, etc. to the story. That’s why we always say “read the book before you see the movie”. So we can THINK.

    • I completely agree with you, Mona—as does the wonderful educator Tom Newkirk who says it’s literally impossible for anyone to check all their experiences, feelings and understandings at the door before opening a book. In fact, in his wonderful article “The Text Itself,” he actually calls it inhuman (http://api.ning.com/files/sTv6OI-5jpCBbNX*ZRsErz0JRsmhSX2rIlcsMvr7U0PXQq70vvMvgKxzPFCvuiXZ7I-8IaCRVwgTWvCFZc*8Rf20qjdL87H7/TheTextItself_Spring2012v311.pdf) For my own part, whenever I have the time to read with teachers, we all see how we take different paths into a text and come up with slightly different meanings, depending on what details we notice, how we fit them together AND what we bring to the text. I do think, though, that there are more teachers out there who agree with you—and there would be even more if people didn’t feel so pressured to produce results someone else is looking for. But you’ve definitely found like-minded people here.

  4. Well said VIcki. I loved the comparison to the old Indian tale. I agree that we need to allow students to build their own interpretation and then provide evidence for it, rather than spoon feeding them our own interpretation. If necessary, I believe we can nudge them along with suggestions such as, “Sometimes readers find it enlightening to examine the pattern of the weather across a story.”

    • I was pretty happy when I thought of the blind men, too! And, yes, there are certainly time when I nudge and name other things that readers can notice to expand students repertoire. Though I usually like to see what the kids can notice first and what they can make from that, knowing that there’s different ways to anchor yourself in a text—and that no reader has to see everything. And patterns sometimes seem contagious. Once you see one, you frequently start seeing others, which is exciting for both teachers and students.

  5. Thanks, Vicki. Good food!

    All the talk about close reading and analyzing texts brings up a couple questions.

    First, a close reading and, especially a textual analysis, takes a lot of energy and effort. Why would someone go through all that effort in the first place? (I don’t mean this to be flippant.)

    Second, I was wondering if you’ve considered this question explicitly in your posts or other writing (I think probably all of your work considers it implicitly!), or,
    if those who are thinking about implementation are writing about it, or,
    if the CCS developers have considered its importance to the project?

    Here’s why it seems important to think about. Close readings require careful attention. Attention is an energy sink, neurologically speaking. For example, I’m reminded of the wonderful experiment that demonstrated –of all things! — that resistance of dieters to delicious cupcakes goes way down when they are asked to attend to even simple tasks like backward counting. It seems the brain can only pay attention to so much before it gets tired and gives in to temptation. 🙂

    What I can glean from the CCS folks is that close readings and textual analysis are supposed to get learners ready for college and careers. That seems like not a particularly persuasive answer to the “Why?” question, mostly because the “cupcake” (career and college readiness) is pretty abstract to some young folks (I teach third grade!), and the amount of “backward counting” (close reading and textual analysis) is pretty intense. The cupcake of free time overcomes the attention it takes to do close reading and analysis. How much do the CCS developers think about, or recognize, the importance of motivation, engagement, or, my new favorite after a recent reading of James Britton: learner intention?

    So…there must be some other reasons, more centered on the learner himself that provides the enticement to read closely. For me, I know my “learner intention” is honed and refined by being in a community of learners. I love ideas, but I think more deeply when there are others around who are interested in thinking, too. I love the way my thinking gets sharper while tossing ideas around. I love the “cupcakes” I get from those interactions with people and ideas; a deeper understanding of this beautiful world, new insights into my life and the life of others, all that stuff. But then the real reason I do my own close reading has little to do with career and college readiness, with gaining skills for later, and a lot to do with the cupcakes I mentioned in the sentence above…which, it seems to me, suggests that my teaching, at the very least, has to make explicit the existence of said cupcakes for learners who haven’t savored them yet. And it also suggests a lot of attention has to be placed on the learner, as a person.

    Ding. I think the cupcake metaphor might be overdone now. Time to take it out of the oven.

    • I think I eluded to my feelings about textual analysis in this post but didn’t come right out and say directly that it’s not what I consider to be at the heart of transacting with a text—though when I’ve transacted deeply I’m able to analyze if I have to. But dissecting a text in an analytic way risks draining the life out of reading, and I still deeply believe that we should be aiming to help students become passionate learners and readers, not text dissecters—especially in the lower grades.

      I’m not sure why the CCS writers decided it was so important for lower school students to engage in analysis; it seems part of their infatuation with New Criticism, which many see as an inherently conservation approach and is not even practiced in every college English department, let alone across disciplines. And I fear that there isn’t any other reason behind it other than a narrow definition of college and career readiness, which is why there’s no talk about student engagement in virtually any of the CCS documents. (And I love that phrase, learner intention!) I think, though, that we can—and should—read closely in a way that would look very much like what your kids were doing with Grandfather’s Journey. They’ll eventually meet the Standards that way and also get all the benefits of the cupcakes you mention above, all of which will make it more likely that what they’re learning about reading will stick and transfer from book to book, which is the ultimately sign of independence. I just hope that at some point we, as a country, can have a larger conversation about this so that we can come to some more common understanding of what constitutes best practice, which in my mind is student-centered. But that might be only a dream.

      • “I just hope that at some point we, as a country, can have a larger conversation about this so that we can come to some more common understanding of what constitutes best practice, which in my mind is student-centered.”

        Thank you so much for the work you do to promote that larger conversation. It sure is refreshing, stimulating, and the best thing to happen to my brain and teacher-soul in some time! I’m looking forward to more of your thinking and writing.

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  7. Thank you for this post. Prior to reading your post, I read a blog post by Timothy Shanahan where he talks about F&P and guided reading as “spoon-feeding”, without having to use that word. This new way of teaching (is it really new?) being spoused by CC supporters is forcing students into a soldier like mentality where their thoughts are not their own but carefully planted by others as the “right” thoughts to have. What a sad, sorry state this is turning out to be.

    • Having been away from my desk for more than three weeks, I’m afraid I’m only now getting back to comments now. But yours reminds me of something one of the Reggio teachers said about why they give children so many opportunities to express themselves in all different media—our what they call ‘the hundred languages of children”: “We don’t want children to grow up to be artists, we just don’t want them to be slaves.” I, too, clearly worry about the implications of some of the new practices being touted—and agree they’re not new. They reflect the same belief about reading that turned students by the droves to Spark Notes. But I think we really need to hold on to our right to control how we meet the Standards—and know that there are many of us out there wanting to do that in humane, authentic and meaningful ways.

      • Hi,
        Thank you for your response. I understand what you’re saying about needing to hold onto the right to control how the Standards are being met (funny, that people don’t call them standards but CC) and at the same time, we need to fight all of the things that the CC stands for. Because the CC and all of the things that come with it in very attached, significant ways – testing, rigidity, grade level standardization – need to be challenged as best we can. This would seem to be a schizophrenic way to live the life of a teacher but if teachers feel they are mandated to “do” the CC, and they come to realize that the CC isn’t humane, authentic and meaningful then it might be very difficult to teach in authentic, meaningful and humane ways. The bottom line is that we need to be informed and proactive rather than ill informed and respond retroactively. Otherwise, we’ll never turn this thing around!
        Respectfully yours,

      • Just checked your blog, Elisa, and discovered that you were in Las Vegas, too, last week! I’m afraid my post on the convention won’t be up till Monday, but as you’ll see then, I was really encouraged that a more united voice seemed to be developing that was questioning the CC—or at least the stuff that’s come up around it telling teachers how they should teach. I hope, though, that you came away as inspired as I was, because you’re right, if we’re not proactive, we’ll simply be run over.

      • Hi!
        Sorry I missed you. There were so many people there that it wasn’t always easy to find friends.
        Yes, I do feel there has been a shift, every so slightly, but noticeable around the CC. Let’s keep at it! I hope you enjoyed the NCTE convention; it is one of my favorite PD experiences of the year. Along the same lines, but more intimate, is the WLU Literacies for All Conference that is being held at Hofstra University this July. Cheers! Elisa

  8. I loved this. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and giving me some clarity! I teach primary and am in search of examples of close reading (videos) in a K-2 classroom. Ideas? Thanks again and thanks Choice Literacy for sharing!

    • And thanks in return, Lyssa, for leaving a comment! I’m afraid I don’t have any video suggestions up my sleeve, but inviting children to keep of what they’re learning from the text and what they’re wondering about (through the use of a text-based Know/Wonder) chart usually positions them to read more closely. It also helps to have books that are both engaging and have patterns that change. Some suggestions for lower grades include I Want My Hat Back, virtually anything by Mo Willems, including the Piggy & Elephant books, anything by Kevin Henkes, and my new favorite Prudence Wants a Pet. Good luck. And remember to have fun with it!

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