Reading Closely versus Close Reading: A Cautionary Tale

Caution Tape

Since I first wrote about close reading last fall, the practice seems to have settled into one of two prescribed methods. The first, which I looked at in an earlier post, is modeled on Achieve the Core’s original unit exemplars, which many of the new packaged programs are emulating. The second comes by way of Timothy Shanahan, who demonstrates the planning process behind his approach in a PowerPoint presentation, using the picture book The Big Orange Splot by Daniel Pinkwater.

In this example, students read a text three time to answer three sets of text-dependent questions that correlate to the bands of the Common Core reading standards. Thus the first time round, students answer questions about Key Ideas and Details, as aligned to RL.1-3, in order to comprehend what the text says. The second read is guided by questions related to the Craft and Structure standards (RL.4-6), which ask students to consider how the text works or says what it did. And in the third read students are asked Integration of Knowledge and Idea questions (RL.7-9) in order to evaluate the worth of the text and compare it with others.

It’s a nifty and rather elegant construct: three reads of a text, three bands of reading standards, with each read devoted to a band. And I love the idea that’s implicit in this: that when we read for deep understanding, we actually engage in all the reading standards, not just one or two. But it’s also something of a formula, which Shanahan, himself, has cautioned against. And below is another reason to be wary of overly prompted and structured close readings.

The Pity Party CoverSome fifth grade teachers I worked with had used both methods with their students in preparation for New York’s now infamous test, and after watching their classes struggle on the test, they wondered how well those close readings had helped them and whether or not the students were transferring that thinking to their independent books. To explore that second question, we decided to confer with students to look for evidence of transfer. And given that I’ve billed this a cautionary tale, you can probably guess the answer: not much. Here, for instance, is what happened with a student named Jade who was just beginning Alison Pollet‘s The Pity Party.

As Jade opened the book and thumbed to the first chapter, I noticed that she’d passed a page that may have been a prologue. Curious to know both what the page was and what made her decide to skip it, I asked to see the book for a moment and took a look at this page:

The Pity Party Excerpt 1

Beyond recognizing this as a reading list, a thoughtful reader who’s reading closely—versus ‘doing’ a close reading via text-dependent questions—might notice that all the annotations include references to orphans, which would naturally lead to the question, “Why?” What’s with all the notes about orphans? Is the character who wrote them an orphan? And could that be connected somehow to the pity party of the title?

Those questions, in turn, would position a reader to read forward with intention. But when I gave the book back back to Jade, she once again opened it to Chapter One. Then looking at me, she did flip back, and when I asked what she made of the page, said, “It’s just a book list.” Then she turned the page and started the first chapter, with no questions or seeming awareness of orphans.

A Cautionary TaleOf course, if the word orphan is important (as it turns out to be) there will be other opportunities for a reader to realize that the main character is one and to think about the impact of that. But Jade’s cursory read of the book’s first few pages made both me and the teachers think that all that close reading work they’d done hadn’t led this students to read more attentively or engage in the thinking work readers do from the beginning as they notice, connect and fit details together to draft their understanding of the text. And while there may be many reasons why the thinking didn’t transfer, as Nancy Boyles writes in “Closing in on Close Reading,” “If all we’re doing is asking questions about [a book], readers will probably have a solid understanding of that book by the last page. But those questions . . . don’t inform the study of subsequent books.”

So what’s a teacher to do? The answer, I think, is to make a shift from ‘doing’ close reading to inviting students to attend more closely to what they’ve noticed and consider what it might mean, as two third grade ICT teachers I worked with did. Here’s a chart that records their students’ thinking when they asked them if they had noticed any patterns a quarter the way through Kate DiCamillo‘s now classic Because of Winn-Dixie:

Winn-Dixie Patterns

And here’s a chart that captures what they noticed within the pattern of lonely characters, which the class decided to track, with details that explained why a character was lonely above the horizontal line and those that showed how the pattern was changing listed underneath that:

Winn-Dixie Patterns 2

What I think is interesting in both these charts is that students are paying attention not only to what the text says but how it says it. They’ve noticed, for example, the motif of storytelling that runs throughout the book and the way Kate DiCamillo has described the Preacher as being “in his shell”. And they’ve even begun the process of interpreting by thinking about why he’s described that way, with the idea that he might be shy in parentheses.

In this way the students are doing what Tim Shanahan, in his close reading warning post, describes as “telescoping”: They’re engaging in the second Craft and Structure read concurrently with the first read. “To get immature readers to pay attention to the craft and structure issues,” he writes, “while they were first making sense of the plot would be an accomplishment.” Yet here are third graders, some of whom have special needs, doing exactly that.

Of course they’re not ready to make claims yet. But that’s because there’s still much to read and much to think about. And to help them keep thinking—and reading closely—we asked the class to gather up all the lines in which the Preacher’s shell had been mentioned to consider what else it could mean. In addition to their initial idea, the students connected the Preacher’s shell to another pattern they’d noticed—that he’s always doing work. And by looking closely at the last two lines, they arrived at a brand new idea they hadn’t before entertained: that maybe the Preacher goes into his shell to avoid talking about Opal’s mother.


Connecting these patterns and seeing how they change and develop over the course of the book will eventually allow students to consider what the author might be trying to show them about loneliness, friendship, storytelling and loss. And because it’s based on a process of meaning making, not on text-dependent questions, the thinking is actually transferable from one text to another. Furthermore, if we see close reading as an outcome or goal, as Tim Shanahan requests, not as a teaching technique, these students are, in fact, engaged in close reading. They’re just doing it with more independence—which is just what the Common Core asks for.


35 thoughts on “Reading Closely versus Close Reading: A Cautionary Tale

  1. As always, reading your posts with my morning coffee, turns my brain on for the day! Thank you. Your summary here is key: “And because it’s based on a process of meaning making, not on text-dependent questions, the thinking is actually transferable from one text to another.” It really is about having kids build independence and eventually internalize the process of how to approach a text, not how to approach a specific text (with a list of questions in hand). Last year I worked with my students on how to pay more attention to the details/clues in the illustrations with a picture book to help deepen understanding of a story. We talked about how the pictures could inspire questions that would allow us to predict, connect and infer even before reading the text. I shared some of this process in this post: The transfer began with repeated supported practice opportunities with various picture books and then the beginning of small group and partner work. Then, I began to notice and always reinforce when the skills were used in any read aloud session and I felt, yes, transfer was beginning to happen. Your post was a great reminder for me though of how important it is to teach a variety of strategies to approach texts that help us make meaning and practice, practice, practice. And also, I feel, to name it when it happens. “Yes. Paying attention to those details helped you wonder about ________ and then infer that __________.” Haven’t finished my coffee and it is only day 2 of back to school so hope I am making sense!

    • I love using visuals, too, even in the upper grades, as the thinking work is indeed the same–and often more easily grasped. But also loving the book Gorilla, I was fascinated to look at the list of questions they had and how, as they kept on looking and reading, they got to the mysterious heart of the book, where all kinds of questions should come up about the dad and the gorilla. And of course, that comment about the magic of books is sheer magic in and of itself. Wonderful work–and now hope you have another wonderful year!

  2. A quote that I particularly like in your post is: “And I love the idea that’s implicit in this: that when we read for deep understanding, we actually engage in all the reading standards, not just one or two.”

    This quote further reinforces my belief and understanding that many, many, many things happen simultaneously for powerful readers and this simultaneity of “meaning” is exactly what we want readers to be engaged in “thinking” instead of answering someone else’s questions. There is no magic set of questions that go up Bloom’s levels that allow a student to “transfer” and articulate how thinking about patterns in one text helps them better understand another text. Answering individual questions about each standard will not accomplish this either. Deep understanding is not as simple as standard one, plus standard two, plus standard three, etc. The conversations that students (and teachers) have as they “notice and wonder” about patterns is the business of close reading . . . not the requisite read three times and answer a different series of questions each time!

    • As I hope you know, Fran, that I love this–especially that word simultaneity! It’s also fascinating to me to see how many of us, entering another year of working with the Standards, are starting to see the depth that’s required if we’re not simply trying to tick them off. I think that enables us to reach for real, authentic deep reading experiences, knowing that by doing so we’ll inevitably hit the Standards, rather than turning the Standards into another set of skills to teach in isolation. What a long, strange trip it’s been. But it feel like maybe we’re at a good place!

      • I agree that it’s great to be in a better place – less fear and a lot more HOPE! We can make a difference! I used “authentic” in my post today and also quoted you and Dorothy again! I cannot begin to articulate how much “What Readers Really Do” has changed my focus!!! Thanks for writing a text that was definitely made for close reading! And our #wrrdchat PLN was also a huge influence – no easy answers were allowed to slide!

        We are not there YET, but I believe teachers have turned the corner on their understanding that instruction needs to change . . . That’s a huge WIN for students everywhere!

      • It does feel like some of us have turned a corner, Fran, which makes me think that all was needed was time. So glad, too, that WRRD has helped in that. If the answers were always easy they’re be no need to think!

  3. Your post brought to mind my spring post on close reading, as well as an idea that has been rolling around in my head for months if not years! In my teaching of literature, I found teaching students to attend to patterns absolutely imperative to their deep understanding of the text. One of the most effective and intellectually productive challenges I presented to my students was that of image tracing which in itself is the awareness of motifs and their evolutionary roles in a piece of literature. I can’t wait to start my next blog! I appreciate not only your thinking, but also the clarity of your writing and the accompanying images that further illustrate your points. Thank you!

    • Thanks so much for leaving a comment, Dea, and a link to your post, where there was so much good stuff to chew on! In particular, I loved the way you spelled out the dangers of seeing close reading as a strategy, with a rubric, graphic organizers and a box to check off on a pacing guide. It is, indeed, so much more than that and we must resist turning it into something simpler. And, yes, we want ‘eyes open’ readers, not les somnambules!

  4. Vicki,
    I love the distinction you make between the verb form (to read closely) — with all the thought and tentativeness that goes into doing something barely known — and the noun form (a close reading), which can so easily become object-ified, rarified, sacrosanct.

    It seems clear to me that “doing close readings” is the language of the day. I must remember to speak the language of reading closely with my students, colleagues, but most especially, myself, as I plan my teaching.

    • It does seem all about the difference between a noun and a verb, right? And perhaps the difference between a teacher and a textbook. The latter can only offer questions and answers, while the former can listen and seize teaching moments when they happen in real time. Hope your years is going well!

  5. Cautionary tale, indeed! I loved this distinction you made: “The answer, I think, is to make a shift from ‘doing’ close reading to inviting students to attend more closely to what they’ve noticed and consider what it might mean.” We need not to think of close reading as an activity we engage in for test prep but a habit of reading. Thank you for this thoughtful post.

    • Thanks, Tara! The danger with all those formulas and scripts (even when they’re developed by teachers) is that it does, indeed, seem like test prep, not authentic meaning-making reading. And if this post made that distinction clear, I’m really, really happy. And I love that Chris & Kate have created this space for us all to have these important talks.

  6. Once again a post that is so thought provoking and creates such preceptive responses from other teachers. Their thinking makes me look back on your words for another read.

    Last year a group of teachers at my school tried to read a New Yorker piece with the intent to view it multiple times by each standard. We did this as an attempt to understand the standards and perhaps to see a way to teach these standards discretely. We couldn’t do it! The standards (2-9) identify the work readers should do. However, this reading work is only doable as a whole via a process that we could call close reading (verb) or a close read (noun). In an earlier post, you referred to this as an orchestration. If the teacher is being the conductor of the reading process, they could be directing the thinking of students with those text dependent questions. I think those questions can only come once you see the whole and then break it apart. So it makes sense that it doesn’t transfer.

    The invitation to seek out patterns and then connect those patterns not only reaches across texts but creates the process that will result in the meeting of the common core reading expectations. It is a simple and elegant way to reach students at their level and moving them closer and closer to the text. The act of close reading should result in work that addresses all of the standards.

    Thank you for this piece. It develops my thinking on What Readers Really Do.

    • It’s another Learning by Doing example! How wonderful that you & your colleagues tried to read a piece using the same structure and protocols you were considering offering to your students. It’s so incredibly informative! And as so often happens, you realize that what you actually do is quite different from how you’d thought about teaching it, which in turn allows you to be more authentic. And while I do think the teacher can orchestrate, instead of demonstrate, she needs to make sure that she’s really letting the kids make their own music!

  7. Great post! One thing that strikes me: When you ask a group of children to identify patterns that they see in the book, they’ll end up becoming close readers because they’re engaging in a juicy provocation they can all deliberate on through contributing their unique perspectives in pursuit of shared meaning. It’s about an authentic intellectual experience – something that formulas often obstruct.

    • So great to hear from you, Matt! I love that phrase “juicy provocation’–and unlike so many of the formulaic approaches that claim to ‘level the playing field’, this combined invitation & provocation really does because it offers multiple points of access and an intellectual community where everyone’s contribution is valued.

      I so hope we find time to connect in Boston at NCTE! Best to you & Susan & Mary Gage.

  8. Thanks for the insightful look at close reading, and that idea of “telescoping” has me thinking, particularly along the lines of how to find the balance of teaching a love of reading and teaching depth of reading, and how sometimes we lose the love when we go too deep. As you can tell, I am still sorting out a lot of my own thinking as a teacher here.

    • And thanks in return Kevin for pointing out that telescoping also applies to doing two other seemingly different things concurrently: helping students fall in love with reading and helping them to read more deeply. My experience is that when we set students up to read closely, with lots of invitations to thinking and lots and lots of talk that builds on their thinking, not directs it towards ours, kids enjoy reading even more because thinking, in that setting, is actually enjoyable–if at times, not downright thrilling.

      And no qualifications ever needed for trying out thinking here.

  9. As a literacy coach who will soon begin conducting close reading model lessons in classrooms of my middle school, this post definitely helped to guide my thinking because the concept of “noticing patterns” sounds GREAT! But here’s my problem. What if you are teaching a short story that is too short to have patterns? Or an excerpt from a book? Do you caution against using close reads for short texts? If so, that will send me back to the drawing board (but in a good way, I guess;)

    • I use lots of short stories & picture books with middle schoolers, which often employ patterns–if you’re looking for them. They may sometimes be smaller than the 3rd graders spotted with Winn-Dixie (e.g., words, phrases or a character’s behavior are repeated), and you might want to take a look at my posting “Cracking Open the Word Craft,” which looks at patterns that 5th graders noticed in Eve Bunting’s One Green Apple. I also used Avi’s story “What Do Fish Have to Do with Anything?” a lot last year, which too is filled with patterns. What I haven’t done much of is short excerpts that can’t really stand on their own. Some work and some don’t because they’re being read out of context with the whole. And, to be honest, that makes me wonder about whether they’re appropriate for close reading in the first place. But before you make a final decision, I suggest looking over the texts you’re thinking about using and see if you see any patterns. Often, as someone named John Lubbock once said, “What we see depends mainly on what we look for.” And you may be surprised. Good luck!

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  19. Sure, a marriage of subjective responses (as you advocate) and objective questions (layered, “text-dependent”) is very attractive. Go to either extreme–a subjective response of one student may not be shared by other students and therefore too idiosyncratic for classroom discussion, or a purely text-dependent approach may fail to track the parts of the text that did capture student interest–and you miss a lot. Also, although there may be a priority order to the three-tiered process, ultimately isn’t it meant to be used recursively?

    • Absolutely, in the end the process is recursive, not linear. And as for those subjective responses, I think we can set up the expectation that ideas and discussions around them need to be text-based, which means that an idiosyncratic response is okay as long as it’s truly supportable. Often, of course, it isn’t, but then the discussion can be around how that idea deals with other parts of the text that don’t quite fit. This would allow the student with idiosyncratic response to see how we have to revise our ideas to accommodate—rather than ignore—other parts of the text. And that’s an incredibly valuable lesson.

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