Seems like everywhere I go, educators are asking “What is this ‘close reading’ thing and how do I teach it?” The buzz on close reading has become so great that many think close reading is simply another strategy to be taught. If so, there must be a graphic organizer or rubric to employ allowing the close reading box to be ?ed off the instructional pacing chart. In the haste of the buzz, many do not understand that close reading is not a simple one-step technique to be taught but the outcome of applying knowledge of language structures and conventions in the analysis of a text in order to discern a subtle message, or understand a complex concept, or to evaluate text efficacy. If you can accept that as a fallible working definition, then you may begin to see that not all texts have the depth to demand close reading nor can it be possible to develop a checklist of practice in conducting a close reading.
What Guides Close Reading Practice?
The practice of close reading is guided not only by purpose but also by content discipline. Several prominent literacy researchers (Tim and Cyndie Shanahan, Roni Jo Draper) have successfully made the argument that close reading of disciplinary documents (those documents of science, social studies, math, music, etc.) by conventional literacy and literary standards do not serve the conventional or theoretical purpose of those documents. In other words, close reading will not look the same in science class as it may in history as it may in English. Rather, if we are to teach readers how to think like content-area specialists, we must aid them in reading disciplinary texts like content-area writers. Literacy coaches and teachers of close reading must acknowledge that close reading is guided by the purpose for which the analysis is being conducted and also from the perspective of the discipline from which the document is being analyzed. Taking both criteria into consideration (purpose and discipline) empowers not only the reader but also the text to lead and sometimes attempt to mislead (i.e., the unreliable narrator) the meaning making process.
Can there be a Common Starting Place?
The first step for teachers who are new to the concept of close reading is text selection. The text must be complex enough to demand exploration, rereading and conversation. It must be worthy of time spent. High quality texts, complex texts engage our brain because they impart ideas by implicit means. Knowing that, a good starting place for close reading is in the analysis of the implied ideas. Having identified a text, the first questions to ask may simply be, “What is/are the author’s main point/s? What is/are the key idea/s of this text?” Or, working from an opposite direction, you may suggest to the students, “The key idea/s of this text is/are __________. How can you prove or disprove my assertion?” Regardless, working deductively or inductively, beginning with a determination and justification of the author’s key idea or in literature–the theme–pushes the practice of close reading. Without the ability to verbalize and justify key ideas or themes of a text any further close reading is impossible.
However, implied in this investigation is a set of strategies or tools to use in the work of close reading. In the course of my work with CCSS, I model concrete means by which readers may garner the gist of informational text–Key Ideas & Details–in order to use that instruction as a foundation and springboard (oohh, seems a paradox) to close reading and analyses. In the area of literature, it may be necessary to look for the development of motifs or the recurrence of allusions to determine theme. For success, a reader must be empowered with the cognitive tools that allow the selection and application of appropriate strategies that assist in teasing out the key idea/s when that meaning is implied invites a reader to employ multiple strategies searching the weave warp of language.
For Close Reading, Must the Reader Be Solely in the Document?
Coming to understand the document’s main idea/s is a recursive process. In the search for text clues, evidence accumulates and the reading detective uses powers of logic balanced with experience and knowledge to make generalizations about the current document. Explicit to close reading is attention to the text; implied in close reading is the use of intellect. Although the reader searches the text for many clues, the reader does so with the background of some solid knowledge on which to make inferences alluded to by the author. Unlike novels which create a microcosm of a fictional world, academic texts build on one another. Although readers do not need full knowledge of all that was written before the piece under scrutiny, they do need some context for what they are reading. “Decades of cognitive science research boil down to this: For understanding a text, strategies help a little, and knowledge helps a lot” (E.D. Hirsch, 2013).
Once the reader has determined the message of the text, the process of close reading can move deeper into the text. In history, for example, close reading requires not only attention to the document itself, but also attention to context: sourcing, corroboration, and contextualization (Draper, 2010; Wineburg, 1991). Without a more global, “eyes wide open” reading of significant historical and scientific documents, one may become nothing more than un somnambule hypnotized by the language and structure without a sense of their immediacy and /or effect. The beauty of language and the message conveyed are aspects of import; more valued across time, I daresay, is the outcome of that language on the people now and then.
Where does literary analysis (close reading) end and disciplinary analysis (close reading) begin?
Which brings me to a precipice. The texts that live in cultures and become worthy of rereading are texts conveying significant ideas delivered through enticing, sophisticated language structures. Even when those texts seem simply put, the structures and conventions of language, the connotations and precision of word choice are the rhetorical crafts of speech writers and orators, biographers and historians, and scientists and philosophers. To ignore or diminish a close reading of scrupulously written text is also to do it a disservice. Therefore, I suggest two types of close reading for such documents: one that values the rhetorical or literary nature of the text–art and a second that explores the relationship of the art within the frame–the disciplinary context.
To illustrate my point, let me ask you to draw on your tacit knowledge of a few significant historical documents: The Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, or Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” Each of these documents could be appreciated as an autonomous text as well as one piece of art framed by the context of time or the context of theme. But what of science? Do the titles of documents worthy of close literary reading come to mind? Perhaps not as readily. But consider these passages taken from several texts listed among those in the Common Core Appendix B:
Most people think they know what mass is, but they understand only part of the story. For instance, an elephant is clearly bulkier and weighs more than an ant. Even in the absence of gravity, the elephant would have greater mass—it would be harder to push and set in motion. Obviously the elephant is more massive because it is made of many more atoms than the ant is, but what determines the masses of the individual atoms? What about the elementary particles that make up the atoms—what determines their masses? Indeed, why do they even have mass? (Kane, Gordon. 2005. “The Mysteries of Mass.” Scientific American Special Edition.)
There is a fundamental property of numbers named after the Greek mathematician Archimedes which states that any number, no matter how huge, can be exceeded by adding together sufficiently many of any smaller number, no matter how tiny. Though obvious in principle, the consequences are sometimes resisted, as they were by the student of mine who maintained that human hair just didn’t grow in miles per hour. Unfortunately, the nanoseconds used up in simple computer operation do add up to lengthy bottlenecks on intractable problems, many of which would require millennia to solve in general. It takes some getting accustomed to the fact that the minuscule times and distances of microphysics as well as the vastness of astronomical phenomena share the dimensions of our human world. (Paulos, John Allen. 1988. Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences. New York: Vintage. From Chapter 1: “Examples and Principles” Archimedes and Practically Infinite Numbers)
Close Reading and the classroom: where are you headed?
Draper, R.J. (2010). (Re)imaging Content Area Literacy Instruction. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Draper, R.J. (2008). Redefining content-area literacy teacher education: Finding my voice through collaboration. Harvard Review (78)1. p. 60-83.
Hirsch, E. D. (2013, March 29). How two poems helped launch a school reform movement. The Atlantic. http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/03/how-two-poems-helped-launch-a-school-reform-movement/274467/
Shanahan, T. & Shanahan, C. (2008). Teaching disciplinary literacy to adolescents: Rethinking content area literacy. Harvard Review (78)1. p. 40-59.