Adventures in Close Reading

I have written several times about close reading, and I have played with it in class here and there, but it hasn’t been until this most recent term that I have used it consistently and as a central part of a course. I am teaching reading to a small, low-level group of students and close reading was employed as a solution to some of their reading problems.

What is close reading?

Close reading is a technique or approach to reading instruction that takes a deep analysis of a text in order to gain a thorough and  precise meaning of its ideas, form, structure, and so forth. I first heard of it during the rise of the Common Core Standards and then saw it how it could be applied in higher education ESL courses during an article I wrote for Research Bites. Typically, a level-appropriate yet complex (in terms of vocab, syntax, structure, etc.) short text or an excerpt of a text that contains important information, key ideas, and information that allows you to go beyond the text is chosen and read through together as a class (in order to model the approach) or individually (once students understand the approach).

In a recent article I wrote about the Reading to Learn (R2L) method, a method very similar to close reading was employed, where each sentence was read and a question was asked to check understanding, followed by more questions about the whole text. Likewise, in the article I wrote about using close reading in a higher ed ESL class, the instructor read and then paraphrased chunks of text, and then closely examined its features. Although there doesn’t seem to be one way to do close reading, all approaches involve a close and deliberate reading of the text, as well as a focus on its various textual features that cause its complexity.

Why close reading?

One of my favorite authors on reading and writing, Ilona Leki (1993), argued that purposeful reading, especially for complex and academic texts (and as opposed to reading for enjoyment), is actually a social act where meaning is co-constructed by a community of readers who all have different interpretations of a text. By coming together to discuss a text, meaning is improved, clarified, and elaborated upon, making the whole reading experience more beneficial and engaging.

However, reading in the classroom, where reading skills are supposed to be developed, has become an act in which students struggle alone through a text without any help or aid, despite being surrounded by a community of readers (i.e. the students). She wrote that “It is only when they return to class that they learn, from the teacher, how well their personal struggle with the text went” (p. 29). Purposeless and mechanical, reading courses become a place for “rehearsing but never performing” (p. 19) and the social aspects of reading – students working together to co-construct the meaning through their varied interpretations and attempts to make sense of a text – are ignored.

Close reading, by being fundamentally a group activity (though it can be done individually), addresses this issue to some extent. With a skillful teacher, it makes reading a social activity in which meanings of various aspects of a text are co-constructed by classmates. Co-constructed here means having students offer their interpretations, analyzing interpretations, accepting or rejecting them, and synthesizing them. Interpretations can happen at any level of the text: phrase, sentence, inter-sentence, paragraph, etc.

There are also other reasons why it is important. Doug Lemov (2016; author of Teach Like a Champion) writes that it “helps defend against “gist” readings—interpretations and discussions that are “based on” the text, but not grounded in a comprehensive understanding of it”. In other words, it helps students gain not only a better understanding of a text but also an understanding of how the vocabulary, syntax, and structure convey this meaning. Therefore, close reading is important for avoiding superficial understandings of a text.

Finally, there is some research to back up close reading. According to the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC, 2011, p. 7):

A significant body of research links the close reading of complex text—whether the student is a struggling reader or advanced—to significant gains in reading proficiency and finds close reading to be a key component of college and career readiness.

(Note: their list of research can be found after the PARCC entry in the references section)

How do I use close reading?

I am using close reading with a high-beginner / low-intermediate group of students who are studying English for general and academic purposes. They are working with texts that are working with B1-leveled texts from a coursebook on a variety of academic topics. I quickly discovered they were having difficulty understanding the texts on their own, even after working through vocabulary a number of different ways and giving them somewhat easy questions that asked only about details and main ideas (no inferences yet). It became apparent that the approach I have been successful with in the past was not going to work, so I began reading the text with them, together as a whole class, employing a number of close reading principles.

A typical close reading session occurs after students have previewed and practiced vocabulary and had a chance to read the text on their own, trying to get the gist of the article – mostly just the big ideas. We then read through it together, sentence by sentence. First, I ask a student to read a sentence. I usually abhor reading aloud but this helps me assess graphophonemic issues such as confusing the words major and measure or perfume and perform – real examples that hindered understanding. Also, there is some research that points to proficiency in pronunciation being linked to proficiency in reading, so I am working from that principle, too.

While the student reads the sentence, I might underline our vocabulary or box any word or phrase I think might cause problems. After they read it, I read it again, stopping to check the meaning of vocabulary (and writing the meaning above the word), and asking questions about any boxed words or phrases. If there is some process or other idea that can be illustrated on the board, I do that, using student input through question-asking. If a sentence is linked through vocabulary or meaning to a previous sentence, I might also ask questions or draw arrows to help students understand the relationships between sentences. If a paragraph represent one idea or reason of many, I might slowly build a list of reasons/ideas on the side of the board, helping students see how each paragraph adds to overall meaning.  After a paragraph, I might get students to summarize the idea or meaning. For example, today we read a paragraph that described an experiment. After going through the paragraph, I had students summarize aloud the experiment participants, design, and results.

I repeat this process, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. All students get a chance to read aloud, and we all work through the meaning together. I confirm, reject, prod, inquire, and elaborate. After reading an entire text like this, I usually have students read it again on their own. It is my hope that they are now able to decode and comprehend the text much better, and that by discussing it before hand in-depth, they have a reduced cognitive load during reading.

Our close reading is vocabulary-heavy, though some syntax and grammar comes into play. For example, we spent some time the other day examining reporting verbs to understand the relationship between ideas and who has them. We have done similar work with anaphoric references such as pronouns, determiners, such, and do. For my current class, we have not done much work with overall text structure, but I can definitely see how that could fit in, especially if this course was linked to a writing outcome.

What have I learned from close reading?

  • It takes a long time.
    •  Reading and parsing a single paragraph can take up to 10 minutes and a whole article (5-6 paragraphs) can become a multi-day lesson. However, I am of the opinion that quality, not quantity counts.
  • It requires a lot of teacher talk time.
    • Students talk, but it is quite clear my approach is heavily teacher fronted. I’m not sure if this is a bad thing. I am providing the model reading and pronunciation, error correction, prompting, questioning, think alouds, paraphrasing, etc. While doing close reading, it might be important to consider not the amount but the quality of teacher talk.
  • It is Socratic.
    • Close reading does not involve me spewing out the meaning of each sentence but rather the elicitiation and drawing out of meaning from the students. Sometimes this requires us to drill down to the meaning of each word, or sometimes a greater look at the sentences place in the text. But all of it requires questioning – a lot of it.
  • It requires a lot of drawing.
    • I was surprised how many concepts I had to illustrate (affect vs effect, the design of an experiment, arrows – oh, how many arrows! This is quite useful for the students but I must admit my artistic skills are not up to snuff.
  • Student weaknesses are quickly highlighted.
    • Through close reading you can quickly see which students are struggling with pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, or connecting ideas beyond the sentence. Sometimes students can understand every word but can’t seem to organize into any meaning because they have the sentences isolated from its greater context. Close reading helps you identify these things and address them in real-time.
  • Students actually enjoy it.
    • When I first started close reading, I though the students would be bored. Me, reading a paragraph with them, banging on about vocabulary and asking lots of questions. But, it turns out that not only did they enjoy it – all 5 of my current students are engaged in every close reading lesson – they told me it has been very helpful in understanding the whole text. This has given me enough fuel to keep going and use this approach more in the future.

Final Thoughts

I hope my experiences with close reading shows how applicable and useful it can be a foreign language context, especially with adults, and especially with complex and academic material. There are many different ways to address reading difficulties in the classroom. Given a small class size and a low-level group, close reading fit the bill quite nicely. I hope that more and more teachers explore its potential and that we get a nice discussion on how to use it in differing contexts.

References

Leki, I. (1993) Reciprocal themes in ESL reading and writing. In J. G. Carson & I. Leki (Eds.) Reading in the composition classroom: Second language perspectives (9-32). Boston, MA: Heinle.

Lemov, D. (2016, March 10). Three reasons why close reading is important. Teach Like a Champion Blog. Retrieved from http://teachlikeachampion.com/blog/three-reasons-close-reading-important/.

PARCC. (2011). PARCC Model Frameworks for ELA/Literacy. Retrieved from https://www.engageny.org/file/3626/download/isee_cf_ela_introduction.pdf.

Citations from PARCC reference used in text:

Ericcson, K. A., and W. Kintsch. 1993. The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance. Psychological Review 100(3):363–406.

Ericcson, K. A., and W. Kintsch. 1999. The Role of Long Term Working Memory in Text Comprehension. Psychologia.

Heller, R., and C. Greenleaf. 2007. Literacy Instruction in the Content Areas: Getting to the Core of Middle and High School Improvement. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education.

Kintsch, W. 2009. Learning and constructivism. Constructivist Instruction: Success or failure? eds. Tobias and Duffy. New York: Routledge; Hampton, S., and E. Kintsch. 2009.

Plant, E. A., et al. 2005. Why study time does not predict grade point average across college students: Implications of deliberate practice for academic performance. Contemporary Educational Psychology 30.

Supporting Cumulative Knowledge Building Through Reading. In Adolescent Literacy, Field Tested: Effective Solutions for Every Classroom, eds. Parris, Fisher, and Headley. International Reading Association.

The Education Trust. 2006. Gaining Traction, Gaining Ground: How Some High Schools Accelerate Learning for Struggling Students; ACT. 2006. Reading Between the Lines.

3 thoughts on “Adventures in Close Reading

  1. Hi Anthony,

    Thanks for sharing this with us. It’s especially fascinating as you’re working with a lower proficiency class. Do you think translation has it’s place in close reading? And do you see this type of reading improves the students’ other skills and grammar&vocab?
    Thanks
    Kamila

    • We are a multilingual class, so while I encourage students to translate words they do not know, I can’t do much on our end. My small class of 5 represents 3 distinct languages. I think that multilingual environment enhances the process because students are forced to paraphrase to each other.

      However, I have to give a word of caution with translation. When I was an instructor in Japan, I remember watching my Japanese co-teacher do something that looked like close reading. She would go through and translate each sentence, probably highlighting grammar and vocab (it was in Japanese, so I’m not sure). It was in no way involving the students. She translated, the students wrote. In the end, the students understood everything, but they did so in and through Japanese not actually in English, and not dealing with English to any meaningful degree. I think that is quite a misuse of translation and not in the spirit of close reading or any type of sound pedagogy.

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