Welcome to the first post in our 7-week blog-a-thon on #closereading. We invite YOU to join in! Find more on how-to here. Several selected posts will be linked to on the Contributors page. Let’s closely read the practice of close reading together!
Close Reading Isn’t Just Anything
Just as I suddenly–and against my will–have now heard hundreds of people use the term “twerking” in near constant use, from the VMAs to news anchors to walking into the grocery store… and I don’t think everyone is using it correctly (if you don’t know the definition, please do not hold me accountable for what you google)…, it seems that once a term comes in vogue everyone uses it to define everything.
The term “close reading” seems to be experiencing a similar misapplied overuse:
- What were once called “textbook questions” are now being called close reading.
- Excuse me, is that classroom of students independently reading? Oh, no, no, they are cloooose reading.
- Standardized test questions are actually all close reading questions (see PDF page 15).
- Jotting post-its: close reading.
- Filling out worksheets: close reading.
- Doing book reports: close reading.
- Listening to a read aloud: close reading.
- Being lectured: close reading.
What we lose when we place the term just anywhere is the ability to be specific and purposeful in our instruction. Could some of these instances be, or at least include, authentic close reading? Sure. Should all of these automatically be considered the practice of closely reading? Heck, no.
Close Reading Is…
We think it’s time to regroup and be clear on what we are really talking about when we say “close reading.” In the opening chapter of our book we share a brief history of close reading across decades, but here we would like to share our current–and evolving–thinking on the use of the term today:
- We find Patricia Kain’s work from the Writing Center at Harvard instructive. That close reading is making careful observations of something and then developing interpretations from those observations. In other words, we stop to look carefully at choices an author (or painter or musician or director or architect) has made, and then develop ideas from what we have noticed.
- We agree with Doug Fisher that close reading is an interaction between a reader and a text, an extension of the critical reading theory of Lousie Rosenblatt and others. Implicit in this is that the reader is reading. Actually reading (insert: underline x infinity). Yes, we can teach lessons about close reading, but if our students are not holding their own books and working to apply these skills then we probably are only close teaching, they are not actually close reading.
- We do, however, disagree with one point Doug makes in that video interview, a point some others have made about close reading as well. We don’t believe that close reading, historically, had anything to do with “text dependent questions.” Sure, if students learn to analyze texts carefully they might just get better at standardized tests or in-class quizzes, but that would be a result and not a goal of close reading. Frankly, in our experience researching close reading methods in classrooms around the world, we have not found it necessary to rifle students with questions they must search for. Instead we find it more important to help students observe, interact, and find their own questions and interpretations. …they will have to on their own many times anyway!
- We also find Kylene Beers and Bob Probst’s explanation of the characteristics of close reading from Notice and Note to be instructive (see page 36). Particularly that it often involves rereading of short portions of a text with intensity, and then you bring ideas from those short rereads to longer sections of the book. That is to say, other than Graduate Students of Comparative Literature, we would almost never require students to reread and closely analyze every page of a text. There is just no time for that in a busy classroom. More importantly, rereading page after page after page is an engagement killer and kids who don’t read don’t learn to read well. We have a choice to teach in ways that either raises engagement and joy or smashes it to bits, so we agree it is important to teach students to stop and observe small sections and then jump back into their love affair with the unfolding story or fascination with the ideas of an article.
- Finally, we believe that close reading is not simply a way to analyze texts. It is a way to study the things that we love more carefully and appreciate their subtleties more fully. Close reading can be applied to texts, but we also can look to songs, videogames, television shows, art and even our daily lives. We observe the choices a chef made when our meal is presented to us at the table (“wow, this looks so good… are those mushrooms?”) just as we form interpretations off the little things our partner does (“she is either doing this to make me feel special or because she wants to ask me something…”). Our students deserve to have experiences with close reading not only be “task” driven, but instead be life driven.
If we were to write a definition of close reading it would include all of these parts and could sound something like:
Close reading is when a reader independently stops at moments in a text (or media or life) to reread and observe the choices an author has made. He or she reflects on those observations to reach for new understandings that can color the way the rest of the book is read (or song heard or life lived) and thought about.
When we have a clearer focus for what we really mean, we can design our instruction more carefully and study our students learning with more precision. For instance, you could reflect on your plans for close reading instruction considering ideas such as:
- Do students have opportunities to practice these skills independently in your classroom or do you find a large portion of time is spent under your direction? What could you adjust?
- Are students internalizing habits for observing and reflecting? How do you know?
- Do your students think of close reading instruction as being question-answer specific or as observations-understandings interpretive?
- Do you see evidence of them applying skills more and more without prompting? How can you strengthen that trend or revise your instruction to see more of this?
- Do your students see close reading as only living within the pages of a book and only during your class period? Or do they see this as skill for living a more wide awake life?
As our blog-a-thon party rolls on over the next 7-weeks we will continue to think with you about topics such as: why on earth anyone would ever want to close read nonfiction, instructional methods that tend to support the deepest independent learning, and how close reading does not live only in books. Look for the next post this Thursday on Kate’s blog, she’ll be posting about the “5 corners” of a text.
What are your definitions or what you consider misuses of “close reading”? What have we gotten right in our’s or what would you revise? Have you experienced misapplications of the term? What have you done or are now thinking you could do about these misuses? What new ah-has or questions are you thinking through?
Join us in our blog-a-thon! Add the button to your post and paste the URL in the comments below and boom, you’re along for the ride.