So there’s been lots of talk about close reading this year, even though it’s far from new. And the hype makes sense; close reading is pretty much the heart of R.CCR.1, the very first of the reading anchor standards in the Common Core. With this in mind, my colleague Erica Beaton and I have written about it previously (Erica’s post and mine), and we even presented on it at the Michigan Reading Association Conference in March.
As with most hyped stuff, there’s a lot of misinformation out there about close reading, a lot of “beating texts with a hose” just for the sake of doing it, stuff that confuses kids and makes reading weird and unnatural.
And thus begins the third part in the series “A Non-Freaked Out, Focused Approach to the Common Core,” in which I share the key tenets I’ve been using this year in my 9th grade world history and comp/lit (ELA) classes.
But before we get into it, let me say this post has been hugely informed by my work with Erica Beaton, whose coattails I rode to MRA and who developed an awesome Prezi (that Prezi, by the way, is where the underlying structure of this article, and many of its images, come from). Also, the analogies in this post are Erica’s (the toy-crane game, the breadcrumbs). Anyways, thank you, Erica, and readers, you should check out her blog and follow her on Twitter because she is cool.
So what is close reading?
If you came into our classes and asked our students what close reading is, what they’d probably describe is something that can be boiled down to this: the careful interpretation of a text wherein which readers pay close attention to the way ideas unfold as they read. Often, this involves annotating texts for the sake of slowing ourselves down and recording our thinking so that we can do cool stuff with what you read.
It’s not terribly sexy.
If it’s not sexy, then why do it?
[That's an awkward question.]
We ask students to closely read because we ask them to read texts that are appropriately complex for their grade level, and that means that many of our students are going to struggle. When Erica and I started college, we began close reading intuitively, but we called it something like “write in the book so you don’t fail.”
Kids understand that we don’t close read everything; we don’t close read recreational reading, for example. Close reading everything would kill a love for reading, and “book love” is something that we try to cultivate in our students through other aspects of our curriculum.
So going back to the fact that we naturally began close reading in college, let’s look at why we started in the first place. These same reasons are why we give our students the opportunity to close read:
- close reading slows us down and allows us to interpret difficult passages;
- it keeps us focused on our purpose for reading (e.g., finding a claim to argue with);
- it leaves us “bread crumbs” with which we can find our way back to our thinking later on, like when we’ve got to write a paper or prepare for a discussion.
Essentially, close reading is a specific skill that we believe will help our kids practice understanding and using complex texts for diverse purposes. In other words, we provide students with repeated close reading opportunities so that they can flourish in the long-term, no matter what path they take.
Where does close reading come from?
For a great overview on the origins of close reading and why it’s become such a big deal lately, I recommend Erica Beaton’s blog (she’s writing a thesis right now that dives heavily into this, and, when she comes up for air, she’ll eventually be sharing a boiled down version of her thoughts over at b10lovesbooks.wordpress.com.
In book format, I recommend Notice and Note as a good current resource by masters Beers and Probst. They do a good job overviewing the various theories and minds that have informed this movement since it began decades ago.
What, exactly, do we ask students to close read?
Below you’ll find some images of the types of texts we ask students to closely read.
We again have to give credit to Mike Schmoker — his simple approach to literacy instruction centers around using close reading to inform discussion and writing. If you haven’t read Focus, do so. Schmoker basically argues that simple, authentic literacy is the key to making schools more effective. He says that, before we try anything else, we need to ensure that we’ve mastered some incredibly basic literacy moves.
For an average teacher like me, that’s music — let me get good at the fundamentals by focusing on the fundamentals, and tell me that is a fine place to be!
The bounce pass illustration below is our take on the literacy model described in pages 74-89 of Schmoker’s book. To us, this encapsulates close reading.
For any given close reading, we’ll use some or all of the moves below.
- Introduce complex vocabulary: At most, we’ll explicitly teach/introduce 10 vocabulary words in a given document. We usually choose these words based on how crucial they are to understanding the piece and/or how difficult or unfamiliar we think they’ll be to our average students. Here are examples of articles of the week we’ve used, many of which include a glossary of complex vocabulary that we introduce prior to reading the article.
- Establish a purpose: This is where we try to hook our kids into the text. We might give background information, read an interesting section, or connect it to prior learning. We then seek to give students a clear, legitimate task or purpose. For this set of articles, I might ask them to propose solutions to the conflict in North Korea or explain why no clear solutions exist.
- Model higher-order reading/thinking: Here, we just read aloud a portion of the text, “showing” our thinking as we go through a paragraph or two. We try to show students how we stay focused on a reading purpose, how we appreciate craft, how we grapple with unfamiliar vocabulary, and how we annotate.
- Partner practice: After modeling, we set the students loose on a paragraph or two, but instead of having them read independently we may ask them to read aloud in pairs, annotating as they go. When finished, we have them share something they annotated. This forces them to stop and think while they are reading.
- Check for understanding: When our students are working in pairs or independently, we walk around, monitoring their work. Are they creating useful annotations? Are they slowing down enough to record their thinking in response to the text?
- Independent practice: Finally, the students are cut loose. Our goal is to give them at least two shots at this every week.
Aaaand bounce pass
Close reading in isolation makes no sense at all. After all, at no point when we naturally learned to close read did we simply do it “because.” We did it to help us pwn intellectual, text-based tasks like discussion and argument, both written and spoken.
Close reading always ends with one of the following cool intellectual activities:
- Discussion: We will circle our students up, show them a template or two that we’d like to hear them try (They Say / I Say has these), and ask them to engage in an intellectual discussion about the text(s) at hand. Often, we require every student to participate.
- Debate: When we say, “We’re debating about this article,” students act like we just announced a free day. Debate is da bomb, and that’s pretty much what Part 4 of this series is
going to beabout.
- Argumentative writing: The speaking tasks we do help inform and enliven the written work we want students to master. We always see students “get” argumentative writing when we’re able to make connections with our frequent debates.
A video of some close reading in action
For us, there’s nothing more insightful in terms of professional development than seeing a concept in action in the classroom. Below, I work with my students to pull argumentative evidence from a text that students have closely read. It’s far from perfect, but, for what it’s worth, enjoy.
Thanks for reading!
Thanks for joining us on this explanation of our approach to close reading. As always, we love your questions and comments — leave them below
In the next post, I’ll be examining his approach to argument in the classroom. How do we create thriving argumentative cultures amongst our students in a variety of content areas? And how can argument be a major game-changer for students who have little connection to school? I don’t have all the answers, but what I do I’ll endeavor to share. See you then