Five Things I Know About Close Reading

Most people reading this probably got here because the title of this post includes the phrase "Close Reading." Even more than Common Core, "close reading" is the phrase I hear most often in literacy instructional circles, but what does close reading mean and why are we all talking about it?

First of all, the phrase "close reading" is not actually in the CCSS. From my (admittedly inexpert) survey, I don't find it there. My grade level reading standards don't mention it in literature or informational text. The closest wording I found is in the anchor standards, which say,
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.1 Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
From the idiomatic direction to "read closely," we have progressed to a pedagogical strategy of "Close Reading." I'm not suggesting students shouldn't be reading closely, or that the instructional practices being used with close reading are a bad thing. I just find it interesting to see how we have leaped from a brief phrase in an anchor standard to a widespread craze for close reading.

I've been thinking, reflecting, going to inservices, and trying things out in my own classroom. These are some of my conclusions, which may or may not be obvious to experienced teachers.  Also, a thank you to Chris Lehman, Kate Roberts, and Doug Fisher, who have all informed my thinking lately, but are in no way responsible for anything I'm about to get wrong.

1. Close reading is a process not an assignment. 

You can't give students a text, tell them to read it closely and then grade their annotations. (Well, you can, but please don't call it close reading.) I think the assignment quality with which close reading is being done to students across the country is not effective. Students should not "close read" alone and they should not "close read" for a grade. The superbowl is on as I write this and students are out there tweeting about close reading.  The first is clearly close reading as a homework assignment and the second is clearly expecting her close reading grade to help her average.

In my world, close reading is something teachers and students do together. The teacher probably selects the text and likely selects the questions he or she will ask about the text, but the students do the reading and evidence gathering in the classroom. Between questions there is an expectation that students will share their findings with a peer and talk about what they found in the text. The outcome of the close reading activity is an improved understanding of the text sufficient to write an analytical response based on the evidence found through close reading.

2. Close reading is not about meeting A standard
I work in a district where not so long ago teachers had to have the standard they were teaching posted on the board each day. The nature of literacy is that standards are not taught in isolation; they are interdependent and cyclical. Though the standards have changed to Common Core, the interdependent nature of reading and writing skills remains. So that when my students close read an excerpt of just the first three paragraphs of "Cask of Amontillado" I will ask them to investigate the text across a number of standards. (Standard numbers are in parenthesis.) First we will likely look at vocabulary that is stumping them (4), and then I will likely ask my students to make inferences about Montresor's personality and motivations (3). When we have a better understanding of him, I may ask them why Poe chose not to tell us why Montresor wants to kill Fortunato (5). Though they have only close read the beginning of the text I think my students could also probably make some predictions about the theme of the story (2). And for every inference they make, my students will need to explain what part of the text informs their thinking; they will need evidence (1).
If I were keeping with the expectation of every standard on the board, there would be little room for anything else.

3. Close reading is a means not an end
Reading closely is not the goal. Doing something purposeful with the new understanding you gain from close reading is the goal. I think this goes back to the idea that close reading should not be graded. My students and I will closely read a piece of text and I will walk the room, peer over their shoulders and listen to their conversations, but I will not grade their annotations.  I will ask them to use their new understanding to write about a character or about an author's choices and I can assess that.

4. Close reading is short
The version of "Cask of Amontillado" my students will read is broken into five sections, but we only do a close reading of the first section, just three paragraphs. For my students reading this section closely is a bit like pointing the Hubble telescope into an empty section of space, taking a long exposure, and finding hundreds of galaxies. By reading one section very closely, students get the idea that there is more to be discovered within the rest of the text and they can try out those search strategies for themselves.

5. Close reading requires close reading
I am lucky enough to work with an excellent grade level team. Together we pre-read the texts we might use for close reading and generate our own questions. We are all new at this and it helps to be able to read and re-read together. For Cask of Amontillado one of my colleagues even created a slide show of the questions. The was helpful in the early part of the day, but later I realized that the students didn't need the slides and neither did I. It was more helpful to have the text projected.  I'm including them here for your reference, in case you want to see the kinds of things we were asking students to look for.