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Monday, May 20, 2013

The Magic Behind Close Reading

          Close reading.  This term is thrown around all the time now.  With many schools beginning to implement new Common Core Literacy Standards, students everywhere are suddenly reading everything in print closely.  But what does the term really mean?  And should students perform a close reading every time they sit down with a book, article, or menu in their hands? Only if they want to read very little.
         In their article "Close Reading in Elementary Schools," Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey define close reading as "an instructional routine in which students critically examine a text, especially through repeated readings" (p. 179).   The purposes of this close "x-ray" examination of a small piece of text include giving students an opportunity to connect the text to their existing schema and helping students to develop strategies to dissect a piece of writing that may be quite challenging for them.  Fischer and Frey admit that close reading is just one of several strategies teachers should hone in on with their students.   In order to involve students in a successful close reading of the text, the text must be rich and warrant deep analysis and discussion.  Simply reading closely a simple, straight forward text or restaurant menu will do nothing more than leave students bored and hungry.  Additionally, since the close reading takes time, a shorter piece should be used.
        If you've followed the evolution of the new Common Core Standards, you probably know that David Coleman, co-creator of the Common Core Literacy Standards, fell under intense scrutiny when he suggested that pre-reading or "frontloading" as Fischer and Frey dub it, is unnecessary.  He received so much criticism, in fact, that he adjusted his statement slightly, but stood firmly by the idea that minimal frontloading should occur.  Students should "grapple" with challenging texts and will be better readers because of it.
David Coleman discusses the six instructional shifts that must occur as a result of implementing the CCSS.

           What is the reason behind Coleman's argument that teachers are spending too much time frontloading?  Well, think back to your days as a student.  If your experiences were like mine, and I suspect many of yours probably were, you most likely had at least one experience as a student where the teacher spent so much time on the pre-reading that you really never needed to even open the book or article in order to ace the test.  All of plot twists and turns and development of theme through rich language that had ultimately caused the teacher fall in love with the book in the first place were spoiled for you before you even had an opportunity to crack open the first page. 
            It's no wonder that so many of our students today participate in what Cris Tovani has termed "fake reading" or getting by without  having to even attempt actual reading of the material.   I now cringe when I  think back to my career as an English teacher;  I was often guilty of frontloading for an entire instructional week before placing that novel in my students' hands.  Close reading helps teachers and students rediscover the magic that can occur only when the students are engaged and interacting with text.  Dog and pony shows are not necessary and, in fact, pull students further and further away from the true purpose of an English class:  to improve literacy skills.  Shockingly, in order to become a better reader, you must practice, practice, and practice some more.  Allowing for multiple reading of a challenging piece where students actively read and annotate, followed by a series of  text-dependent questions, provides this practice.  The good news?  Teachers can spend less of their free time cutting out book-o-sphere panels and lugging home shoebox dioramas  and more time becoming experts on the texts they wish to teach.
       And what is the evidence that this strategy actually works?  I have personally witnessed magic in the classroom recently when I had an opportunity to co-teach a lesson in Ms. Khan's 8th grade English class.  Prior to beginning a novel study of Jack London's Call of the Wild, Ms. Khan and I presented the class with a very challenging passage that occurs near the books' end.  In the passage, London uses an extended metaphor in the form of a dream sequence.  The dog and main character, Buck, who is slowly reverting back to the inner beast within after once being a civilized dog on a farm of California,  dreams that he is a cave man.   The dream symbolizes his inevitable  return to his primordial instincts despite his previous life as a lap dog.  Having once taught this book for several years myself, I can easily say that most students struggled with the metaphor even after having read the earlier chapters and many could not even identify that Buck was imagining himself to be a caveman.  However, while performing a close reading of the passage, the students--who had not yet read one page of the novel--not only grasped the concept, but  were able to analyze it.  I was able to walk away from the discussion that followed possessing a richer understanding of the text that I had already read and taught at least ten times before.   So although text messages and the latest Captain Underpants novel do not warrant a close reading, selecting thick passages from time to time to repeatedly read with your students will help them to develop the ability to work through text when the reading becomes more difficult.  After all, Kelly Gallagher reminds us that confusion is where learning happens.

Top Five Close Reading Musts

  1. Choose an appropriate passage.  It should be short and possess many layers of meaning.
  2. Allow students to "grapple" with text.  Don't feed them the answers when they don't immediately know.  Encourage them to revisit specific paragraphs, lines, or words in a passage.
  3. Model and encourage annotating.  Ask students to underline their confusions and circle what they deem is important.  Help students to develop the skills to extrapolate the essentials from a text.
  4. Allow time for discussion and self reflection between readings.  Ask students to rate their level of understanding after each reading.  Help them to be meta-cognitively aware of their own understanding levels.
  5. Ask text dependent questions that require students to return to the text to answer.  Instead of beginning with the "How would you feel..." type question, begin with questions that force students to use text evidence to answer appropriately.