Close Reading (Grades 6-12)
The development of Close Reading through Critical Theory
1.The approach that I have chosen is close reading. There is a lot to focus on when exploring this approach to literacy, but I chose to focus on reading for meaning, author’s purpose and connections to text, self and world. Close reading “involves an investigation of a short piece of text, with multiple readings done over multiple instructional lessons” (Brown & Kappes, 2012, as cited by Fisher & Frey, 2013, p. 444). It is a technique that involves repeated reading, annotation, text dependent questions and discussion of the text. (Hinchman & Moore, 2013, p. 444). These are all things that we typically try to use as English or reading teachers, but in close reading they are all correlated and work together to help students build their knowledge even further.
2. I chose this approach to literacy both because of the student population that I work with (struggling readers) and because I have heard the term used since I was a pre-service teacher but felt like I didn’t have a strong grasp on what it really was and how to use it teach my students to look for specific things while reading. I felt I had seen little bits and pieces of it through observation but was not nearly confident enough to put the strategies fully into practice without examples and research to back it up.
3. As with any approaches, there are flaws and disadvantages that go hand in hand with the advantages.
- Time consuming
Close reading, with all of it’s components is a time-consuming activity- especially when you are close reading for multiple thoughts or ideas. It is not an ideal strategy for all texts- in fact it is pretty centralized to either short pieces of longer texts or short articles. It also may take several class periods to read, re-read and look for meaning/understanding. Sometimes, with all of the responsibilities that we have as teachers there just isn’t enough time to spend an entire week on one article or speech from a play.
- “Providing students access to texts they are enthusiastic about reading” (Sturtevant et al., 2006, p. 445 as cited by Hinchman & Moore).
This is a two part problem: the first being providing students with texts. Because close reading is interactive and requires short pieces you probably want to go with a printed version of whatever you are reading so that students can write on it and interact. Printing copies of something when there is often only one copier per academy, hall or team can be a problem when you have 100s of students. It’s also costly, and I have worked in schools where you are limited to a certain number of reams of paper per month. The second disadvantage here is choosing texts that students are happy with. Both fortunately and unfortunately, depending on who you speak with, there is a definite emphasis on classic literature which is difficult and not always interesting to students. If the text were easier and more interesting, there may not be a need for close reading.
- Text complexity
Text complexity is one of the Common Core points that often sticks out. I recently had a conversation with a university professor who told me that there was “no way” that my students were understanding “The Great Gatsby” by Fitzgerald because it has such an elevated vocabulary and requires students to think deeply for understanding. This is the crux of the problem with teaching classic literature to struggling readers. There is often an uphill battle that is larger for them still than for students at grade level.
- Good for quick texts (articles and specifically non-fiction which is a growing emphasis these days)
The advantages of close reading correlate closely with shorter articles and texts that can be read and re-read without it taking up weeks of your time. This is especially good for the growing emphasis on non-fiction as anchor texts in middle and high school.
- “We find much promise in having students learn to slow their reading purposefully to meticulously analyze what authors have written” (Hinchman & Moore, 2013, p. 444).
When close reading, students have to put in a lot of time and effort to understanding what’s going on in the text. This teaches them to slow it down and not just skim, but examine what is being read. This helps especially for determining meaning and author’s intent because these both require a lot of thought and time to make connections.
4.This approach to literacy has provided me with a deeper understanding of teaching literacy in that it has provided me with a way to understand my students when they are struggling and how to teach to the different skills and strengths of my students. When we read something difficult it is easy to see them get immediately frustrated, bored and checked out. They often walk away from the reading not knowing or remembering much about the text. I see this especially with dense texts like “The Odyssey,” “The Great Gatsby” and Shakespeare-- basically anything that is not contemporary. What I have learned from the close reading approach is that it must truly be close- as in under the microscope close. Students must read, re-read, define, question, interact, and discuss. This has given me the ability to increase student learning in a way I hadn’t before because I now understand how to chunk and scaffold a text in order for students to fully comprehend and apply their knowledge of a certain text rather than just having a general understanding.
Hinchman, K.A., & Moore, D. W. (2013). Close reading: a Cautionary interpretation.
School of adolescent & adult literacy, 56 (6). Retrieved from https://www.ebscohost.com
Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2014). Close reading as an intervention for struggling middle school readers.
School of adolescent & adult literacy, 57 (5). Retrieved from https://www.ebscohost.com
The research/explanation behind the approach + Key Tenants
There have been many many movements in Literary Critical Theory, from formalism to feminist criticism, in which scholars attempt to find specific modems of meaning out of a text. However, the movements most closely associated with the modernized version of the term "close reading" are: new criticism, new historicism, and reader-response criticism.
- Even though it may seem that Close Reading is a newer approach to literacy, it is just an old hat with a new name. According to Christopher Lehman, a former teacher and current Educational Consultant and international speaker, close reading comes from a conglomeration of critical theories in literature. This is includes a movement in "the 1940's, there was a group at universities that were trying to find a way to teach students to do literary criticism…coined 'New Criticism'…" (Lehman, Choice Literacy).
- New Critical Formalism (New Criticism- Early- Mid 1900s): New Criticism came about during a time of continued debate over the best approach to teaching literature. According to Michael Delahoyde, of Washington State University, new Criticism focuses on " close focus and analysis, rather than through extraneous and erudite special knowledge" (Delahoyde, 2011). Whereas some theories often relied on historical background or knowledge of the author's own history, New Criticism focused solely on the text itself and what close analysis could bring.
- Reader-Response Criticism (1960s): The Owl @ Purdue online writing lab defines Reader-Response criticism to be "At its most basic level, reader response criticism considers readers' reactions to literature as vital to interpreting the meaning of the text…" (Brizee & Tompkins, 2011). This form of literary criticism relies directly upon the way the reader feels and interacts with the text. One huge proponent of this criticism is educator and scholar Louise Roseblatt.
- Louise Rosenblatt: Rosenblatt was an educator and an opponent of New Criticism. She did not like the idea that the author was not an important piece of the analytical puzzle when it came to understanding text. She believed that it stifled the creative process and forced " the creation of routine formulae for analysis…" (Rosenblatt, 2005, p. 69). Rosenblatt was a proponent of the reader-response critical theory, and proposed that reading was an individual process for all students. Her theory of "transaction" between reader and text indicated that each individual brought their own resources to the table and thus meaning was found individually. She states that while reading, "the symbols take meaning from the intellectual and emotional context the reader provides" (Rosenblatt, 2005, p. 63). She posits that it is the reader's own history and background that provides symbols and meaning for them.
- New Historicism (1980s): "seeks to find meaning in a text by considering the work within the framework of the prevailing ideas and assumptions of its historical era…" (Delahoyde, 2011). This approach was one that drew from older critical theories but focused on the necessity of historical information to provide meaning. For example, to understand "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald, you would have to have a working knowledge of ideals and historical events during the 1920s.
Explanation of the approach:
So, based on the development of critical theories, what does that mean for "close reading" today? Well, close reading, as I have studied and observed it in classrooms today, has morphed into an amalgamation of these three approaches (and others) with pieces of the a post-modern and structuralist approaches. Post Modern critical theory relays the responsibility of reading to the reader, much like reader-response, but also prompts the reader to do more than make their own meaning. They are "questioning the process of making meaning" as well as building it (Brizee & Tompkins, 2011). Through in a little bit of structuralism which relies on understanding the patterns in stories to develop meaning.
When observing close reading in the classroom today, one might observe:
- Guided and Free reading: Today, close reading seems to reflect both a free-wheeling interpretation of what they read, as well as a structured response. Students are encouraged to interpret with their own knowledge and abilities, but they are often given a task rather than just told to read the text and figure it out to the best of their ability. For example, teacher's often provide discussion questions or essay prompts that allow students to delve back into the text to examine their answers and feelings. This is what Timothy Shanahan might link to what he calls the "reading-writing" connection in which readers learn more about what they've read by writing about it.
- Determining meaning + Author's intent: Thinking specifically about what the author meant when they wrote something, and using text-based and historical-based evidence to support theories.
- Annotations: Making careful notes and interacting with the text while reading.
- Discussion: Class discussions and talking out loud about what is being read, making theories and postulations about meaning and researching background information that might shed some light on the answers.
Artifacts: 5 Informational Artifacts + 5 Teaching Material Artifacts to Enhance Your Understanding of Close Reading
- Video: Timothy Shanahan is one of the best educators in the field of reading right now and in this video he really breaks down what close reading is. This is a great artifact/resource for educators who have heard of Close Readings but aren't really sure what it looks like.
- Chris Lehman and Kate Roberts on Close Reading: This podcast provides an excellent, modern, understanding of close reading and it's ties to the Common Core Standards. This resource really delves into the changing historical definition of close reading through critical theory and how to apply it in classrooms today based on the new necessities of the standards.
- Rosenblatt: This article, by Reader-Response proponent and educator, Louise Rosenblatt is entitled "Literature: The reader's role." This article is highly useful in determining how a young reader might interact with a text and what steps they should be taking, as well as what steps educators should be taking, to help build their relationships with the text. She focuses on the importance of what the reader brings to the table, referring to their abilities as their "literary sensitivity and literary maturity" (Rosenblatt, 1960, p. 306). This article and perspective really lends to understanding what the student is seeing and feeling when they are reading, and thus can strengthen the way a teacher approaches reading and comprehension.
- Article: "Closing in on close reading" by Nancy Boyles. This article focuses on the necessity of beginning close reading in the primary grades rather than secondary. She provides an in-depth view of what close reading is, how the Common Core standards affect it, and provides strategies for being successful (such as what types of texts to use and how to question). This is a very useful resource for someone who is just beginning to understand close reading and explanations and references for how to get started.
- Book: Notice and Note! by Kyleene Beers and Robert Probst. This book is absolutely, positively, wonderful. I encountered it in my early research after having decided close reading was an approach to literacy that I needed to pursue. This book is solely focused on strategies for close reading. It is a necessity for anyone who wants to pursue creating a close connection between reader and text as well as build literacy skills. It definitely falls more into the New Criticism and Post Modern critical theories and not the Reader-Response, as it provides what Rosenblatt might call a formula for analyzing text. However, the steps provided for students are only a baseline and lead to higher-level analysis and thinking skills. If you do not have access to the book in your professional library, this flyer produced by Heineman about the basics of the book is also a very useful insight into the strategies of Beers and Probst.
Teaching Materials to help with Close Reading:
Articles, podcasts, books and videos are all essential to understanding modern close reading, but realistically seeing close reading in action, through planning is also a big help to getting started on your own. Below are 5 artifacts that I have encountered or created through my teaching career that tie directly into close reading (even if I didn't know it at the time!).
- Double Entry Journal: The double entry journal, or dialectical journal, was something I'd encountered in college. When reading through the research for close reading and realizing that making meaning of the text was doubly important, this approach stuck out in my mind as one that helped closely examine the text and make meaning. The traditional approach allows students to write anything they were thinking or any quotes that stuck out to them on the left side and respond to it on the left. I have observed many teacher's use this structure. It allows the reader to make meaning and record what they are thinking while they do. The original model that I encountered while working on this resource was this one, provided by readwritethink.org.
- Discussion Based Questions: According to research, Discussion questions used for this strategy should be text-based. Meaning, students must look through and re-read the text to understand the answer and gain a further understanding of the text. The questions don't have to be level 1 or very basic, but can be higher level questions that still necessitate evidence. This builds critical thinking skills and supports the position that for close reading, you have to read, and re-read.
- Recreate chapter/article as a visual: Because close reading requires student interaction and interpretation of the text, one idea I've come across is recreating what you've read in a visual representation. This is not a new activity, but it allows the reader to get their ideas and interpretations down in a visual way that shows the teacher how they view what they've read. Because understanding is so personalized, but you still want to make sure students aren't 100% off base, this is a good way to asses their understanding and allow them to interact with what they've read. This is an example I adapted for a text we will be reading.
- Marking the text: One of the most common strategies I've read about during my research is making annotations. This resource is an annotation strategy I observed a fellow English teacher use. I used their guide as a basis and created my own from it. The idea is to interact with the text, or as I like to tell my students, "have a conversation" with the author. As you read you make comments in the margins, use symbols to indicate what you're feeling, box words you don't know so that you can look them up later…etc. This is a great strategy for upper elementary all the way through high school.
- Text Analysis (Graphic Organizer): I found this strategy during my student teaching. I thought it was wonderfully in depth and required a lot of student interaction with the text, but had not connected it to Close Reading. This requires students to look at both main ideas, theme and evidence to support it. This graphic organizer gives students the freedom to explore their own ideas on the text and practice their skills at finding evidence. It supports close reading by allowing students the freedom to decide on their own themes/main ideas but to also practice supporting this with actual information that they've read.
Goals & Plan of Action for Implementing Close Reading in the Classroom
After having researched Close Reading from it's many perspectives and uses, here are the five goals I've come up with for myself (and other teacher's looking to implement close reading in the classroom.
- Goal 1: Read & Re-read before you read it with your students to make sure you know what they should be reading for. It's hard to expect what a student might observe from a text when you aren't extremely familiar with it. You also want to be able to engage in critical conversation and with students being required to re-read, it is important that you do as well.
- Goal 2: Make it interesting! Coming from a background with struggling readers, it's definitely important to keep the reading and text-interaction interesting. Have active activities prepared to keep them engaged and allow them to make meaning rather than get frustrated.
- Goal 3: Be consistent. Close reading takes a lot of time and effort. It may mean that a short 2 page article takes 3 days to get through when it could have taken one. Try to plan ahead so that time constraints aren't an issue and you can consistently use close reading strategies.
- Goal 4: Monitor the improvement and outcome. With any reading strategy, you want to be able to see growth and development in students, or the strategy clearly isn't working. Give informal assessments and keep track of the way students respond when you begin working to what they say when you're a semester in.
- Goal 5: Discuss frequently and don't dismiss any ideas. Because much of the critical theory (although, not all) surrounding close reading relies on student finding their own meaning , try to be supportive when students hypothesize about meaning. We all know students can make leaps of logic that are hard to follow, but shutting them down will only inhibit the process. Discuss where they're coming from and provide positive or questioning responses that prompt critical thinking.
Plan for implementation:
- To implement this strategy, the only timeline you need is how long it takes you to have an understanding of what the strategy is. It's all in the planning of your lessons. It's built in. Every time you read, you incorporate strategies and observe. You do want to start small (i.e. try one strategy and not everyone you can think of the first time you try to close read).
When I first began looking into close reading, I had no idea how complicated it would be once I got into researching the different critical theories. The issue with close reading that most educators likely encounter today is that there isn't a specific definition of close reading because each of the critical theories throughout the 20th century had their own meanings and methods for the term. This, more than anything, precipitates the need for continuous interaction with peers and research, as well as any professional development possible, in order to be consistent with the modern incarnation.
I intend to continue practicing the pieces of close reading I have gleaned from this research in my lesson planning and reflective practices. This will help me to help my students begin their relationship with close reading and, as I have always tried to describe it, "have a conversation" with the author and the text. This research has increased my understanding of literacy instruction ten-fold because I have a new understanding and appreciation for the development of reading strategies. I have always assumed a post-modern/structuralist approach to reading, most likely because that is how my educators were educated and that's how they taught me. I can see now that literacy is an on-going and continuously developing field. We are always learning more about how the brain works and develops and how people's experiences affect their learning. I look forward to learning more throughout classes at K-state and through hands-on experience with my students in the classroom.