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Moving Forward with Close Reading

By Dave Stuart Jr.
I was with these fine teachers of Louisville when I realized close reading had died of buzzwordification.

I was with these fine teachers of Louisville when I realized close reading had died of buzzwordification.

Yesterday, I wrote an obituary to close reading.

This grew out of a delightful professional development session I led with a group of teachers in Louisville, KY. (It was delightful, mind you, because of the audience, not the presenter!) During the training, in which we worked through the non-freaked out approach to Common Core literacy, it hit me: the reason teachers are leery of buzzwords is because buzzwords are confusing. A better term for them would be fuzzwords (please forgive my freshman-esque punmanship — I am who I teach).

This is totally what has happened with close reading. Through no fault of any one person or organization, close reading has become this thing we all generally understand, and yet, because everyone attaches different meanings or strategies to it, it's become a dysfunctional word, often failing to meet the communicative purposes of those who use it.

Here's what has happened with close reading, basically:

  • Everyone assumes that everyone else understand what it is.
  • Yet these assumptions are unfounded because everyone holds a slightly (or drastically) different understanding of what it is.

It's my observation that these two simultaneous phenomena have, at this point, created widespread miscommunication whenever close reading comes up. You see, no one wants to look dumb by admitting they aren't totally sure what it means to “do” a close reading or apply a close reading “lens” or “signpost” to a text or a song or a conversation or a piece of art or a video game. As a result, when an educator says “close reading,” she assumes her  nodding, smiling audience knows what she's talking about when, in fact, the meanings her audience's brains have activated are as manifold as the number of people in the room.

Historical linguists have a term for this — they call it extension (i.e., when a word's usage extends beyond its original meaning). Educators have a term for it, too — we call it buzzwordification.

A proposed cure for the buzzwordification of close reading

Even though I joked in the preceding post that close reading has died, I pray this is far from the case. I originally included close reading in the non-freaked out approach to literacy because R.CCR.1 is about as solid a reading standard as you can get. Despite my belief that the CCSS needs reduction and revision (that's right, reductionistic reactionaries — it's possible to have a nuanced stance on the Common Core!), I would never remove R.CCR.1, which states:

Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

Please note that the parts of the standard I've underlined above are, according to R.CCR.1, the end results of reading closely. It's as simple as:

  1. What does this thing say?
  2. What is this thing saying without directly saying it? (Inference)
  3. What does this mean, and can I support that conclusion with evidence from the text itself?

Tell me the answers to those questions aren't of critical importance to literacy! Anyone who says the Common Core is 100% bunk is 100% not actually reading the Common Core.

So reading closely, according to R.CCR.1, is the cure for what Tamar Katz and Robert Scholes point out as one of the main reading weaknesses of college freshmen:

I find that [first-year literature students] are most inclined to substitute what they generally think a text should be saying for what it actually says, and lack a way to explore the intricacies and interests of the words on the page. … They want to read every text as saying something extremely familiar that they might agree with. I see them struggling the most to read the way texts differ from their views, to find what is specific about the language, address, assumptions etc. (Katz, as quoted by Scholes, here)

Thus, the first part of the cure is re-understanding why, again, we want kids to read closely. It's to achieve the three basic ends in the standard above, and to avoid the general struggle described by Katz.

Harvard's “Thinking-Intensive Reading”

filwclosingreadingThough the crotchety high school teacher in me isn't in love with the lovey-dovey theme of Lehman's and Robert's Falling in Love with Close Reading, I greatly admire the book's central argument: at the core of close reading lies a set of mental habits with applications far beyond traditional texts, and these habits can be life-giving rather than life-sucking.

This is an argument teachers and administrators need to hear — may Christopher and Kate speak and their book sell in every state in the nation!

At the same time, I know my high school students appreciate something a bit more concrete than the threefold close reading ritual advocated by Lehman and Roberts, especially in light of the fact that, in a few short years, they'll be entering the world of a career and college. And so it was that I was very thankful to come across Harvard's guide to “Thinking-Intensive Reading” this past week.

(Update from Dave: this post originally drew the ire of some — let me plainly state that I do appreciate Chris/Kate's work; please see more on my thoughts, and check out Chris' blog, here.) 

I don't have time to get into it now, but in the space of less than 1,400 words, the folks at Harvard Library outline six steps to “critical” or “thinking-intensive” reading, which they define most simply as “active engagement and interaction with texts.” Similar to Lehman's and Robert's close reading rituals, Harvard Library's guide claims that though these six steps may feel clunky at first, they eventually become habitual and fluid.

Here are the six steps, listed in bullet points because they are not necessarily sequential (for your reading pleasure, I've linked each term to its place on Harvard's page):

  • Preview
  • Annotate
  • Outline, summarize, and analyze
  • Look for repetitions and patterns
  • Contextualize
  • Compare and contrast

(For a PDF version of Harvard's page, click here.)

Suffice it to say that when I pointed my Louisville audience to Harvard's “thinking-intensive reading” guide, I felt better and clearer about close reading than I had in a long time. May this practice be clear and explicit (and non-sexy) enough to avoid buzzwordification.

(Update from Dave: check out Fran's great point and my response to it in the comments below.)


7 Responses to Moving Forward with Close Reading

  1. Akrenik June 23, 2014 at 11:40 pm #

    Thanks for the obit and this resource! It will be a humorous way to begin our August in service!

    • Akrenik June 23, 2014 at 11:42 pm #

      And wow! The Harvard page is a great resource!

  2. franmcveigh June 26, 2014 at 1:14 pm #

    I worry about routines or rituals that seem so “school-bound” (even though, yes we are all teachers), because I wonder if that Harvard list of steps is what you REALLY do when you need to “close read” in life?

    How and what do I do when I need to close read the map for the 9/11 Memorial Museum as well as figure out whether I need a ticket and/or a guided tour?
    What sense do I make of the “added insert” in my playbill at “Jersey Boys”?

    Thanks, Dave!

    • davestuartjr June 26, 2014 at 2:02 pm #

      Great point, Fran — the examples you list are ideally handled by Chris/Kate’s book FILWCloseReading. I think the thing the Harvard folks are aiming at is helping kids specifically with school-types of reading (which is super important for especially secondary students, and ESPECIALLY high schoolers — they are only years away from entering sink-or-swim post-secondary settings) is that there is a thinking-intensive kind of reading that people in textually-dense situations (e.g., a college freshman’s homework load) need to become comfortable with.

      I am all about encouraging transfer — I constantly work with my students toward transfer — but I also know that most of my students will be hard-pressed to beat the college-completion odds if I don’t give them instruction and practice at habituating the kind of things laid out on Harvard’s page.

      Does that make sense? You make a great point and I do think it’s important to note that what you’re aiming at is a giant strength of FILWCloseReading.

  3. Mrs. Sims September 27, 2014 at 7:44 pm #

    I am so excited about your blog! I have been using Kelly Gallagher’s articles for years now, and I’ve been using them specifically to teach annotating in my middle school class. I teach 8th grade Reading in Fulton County Schools, Ga. It has served me well, and it’s also helped to enhance my students’ reading skills. Their annotating skills have improved tremendously, and they are using the skill in other content areas. His articles and books are amazing. “Readicide” was right up my alley:-) “Mechanically Inclined”, another great publication of his, is also a great tool for teaching writing. Thanks so much for your blog!

  4. Jennifer Tyner December 30, 2016 at 5:54 pm #

    Love your blog. I am a 6th grade teacher and use a simplified version of your AoW format. Wondering if you think Falling in Love with Close Reading is worth purchasing? I have soooo many professional learning books, but never grow tired of good ones. If not, what is your all time favorite professional learning book/resource?? Thanks!

    • davestuartjr January 1, 2017 at 8:25 pm #

      Hi Jennifer,

      Thank you! I do think Falling in Love is a thoughtful book and worth purchasing if you are going to focus on close reading for the next semester and really do a deep dive into the book. My all-time favorite PD book, because of both its ethos and its practicality, is Mike Schmoker’s Focus.

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