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Close Reading: A Conversation, Not an 'Interrogation'

The term "close reading" has instilled fear into many a teacher's (and student's) heart since the Common Core State Standards were adopted five years ago. Ironically, the term isn't even in the standards—but the common core's focus on reading complex texts and using evidence from texts "to present careful analyses, well-defended claims, and clear information" all but require it. 

The authors of a new book on close reading—generally defined as rereading and analyzing a short piece of text—say the approach, done well, is both manageable and rewarding. Diane Lapp and Barbara Moss, literacy education professors at San Diego State University, and Kelly Johnson, a common-core support teacher in the San Diego school district, authors of A Close Look at Close Reading: Teaching Students to Analyze Complex Texts, Grades K-5, spoke with me recently about what good close reading looks like in classrooms, and why teachers shouldn't be afraid of it. (The interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Why'd you write this book?

Diane Lapp: The reason we took on the topic of close reading and decided to make two practical books on it is because teachers are so fearful of [it]. It's not a new topic in the field of literacy, but it's a new topic for them. It's a new topic for everybody except probably social studies and high school English teachers—they have had students analyze and rip apart books before.

We wanted to allay the fear about close reading, talk about what it really was, what do I do in my classroom, and talk about how to manage close reading in the [existing] schedule.

Where does this fear stem from other than that it's new?

Barbara Moss: I think some of the fear came from the idea that they all feel really comfortable with shared reading, guided reading, and independent reading, and they've been doing those strategies for a long time, so this approach represented a departure. Particularly for elementary teachers, it really sort of put them off. We get a lot of questions saying, 'So I shouldn't do guided reading or shared reading?' We're not saying that. This is another type of reading you should be doing in the classroom.

Lapp: Then there's the idea of management—if I'm adding this in, what am I subtracting? I only have so many minutes in the day. How can the day be organized to accommodate this?

So what did you tell teachers to subtract?

Johnson: We didn't really tell them to subtract anything. We asked as they were doing read aloud or shared reading to incorporate close reading. It would be different from the way you've typically done shared reading. Maybe you're adding close reading to shared reading on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We're definitely not saying give up on what you've done, but maybe do it in a different way. We've also in the book suggested doing it in social studies, in science, or after recess with math problems.

What are some of the common mistakes teachers make in doing close reading?

Lapp: One is they think it has to all be done in language arts. The standards make it clear this is supposed to happen across the curriculum, not just in language arts or English.

Johnson: Another one I see a lot is it kind of turns into a vocabulary lesson. Teachers will pass out the text and say circle words you don't know. Students circle and they spend a lot of time defining the words. It turns into a long vocabulary lesson without thinking about the meaning of the text.

The other thing I've seen is teachers come up with questions and sometimes, unfortunately, they're handing out a worksheet. So now students are just searching the text for the answer to the question. The questions are meant to scaffold their understanding. If you give them a printed worksheet, you're not really allowing for that flexibility.

How do you keep close reading from getting boring in an elementary classroom?

Moss: One of the things we've advocated, which could also be something teachers find problematic, is the idea that we're not just firing questions at kids. This is not meant to be an interrogation. We recommend teachers have students do partner talking, fill out graphic organizers to support them as they engage with these texts. We advocate teachers use a lot of good instructional strategies and embed them within the multiple readings of a text.

At first, it's a bit of an adjustment for everybody to reread the same text many times. But as students and teachers get accustomed to it, they're enjoying it because they see more and more each time they read it. Using multimedia, debate, all these great instructional strategies we use with students should be part of close reading.

Johnson: Teachers also have to be mindful of selecting a great text worthy of this approach. It's got to challenge students. The interest level has got to be high. It's got to have some meat to it.

Lapp: But the text doesn't have to take instruction away from what their unit plan is&3151;it could be a subsection of their social studies book or science book, a piece of a story they're reading. When we first started, teachers thought, 'My heavens, I have to go online and get all these extra texts, and I'm not getting my chapters finished in my social studies or science basal!' Now they're realizing close reading can happen with any text in any part of instruction. They're getting much more comfortable with it.

Johnson: We're also encouraging teachers to do close reading of a chart, diagram, a piece of art, any of those text features that are in textbooks, a political cartoon. It doesn't just have to be traditional text—a video clip can be closely read.

What are the tenets of good instruction for close reading? What are the essentials all teachers need to make sure they're doing?

Johnson: I think the biggest thing I tell teachers is you have to plan for this. You have to be knowledgeable about this book—there's no grab this book off the shelf and close-read it on the fly. The preparation that goes into it is 99 percent of your success.

Lapp: During the implementation of it, you have to pay very close attention to the responses of your students and their annotation, so that the next question you ask has to push them deeper into that text. You may have a list of questions prepared, but if they answer [a difficult] one early in your reading, you need to scaffold.

Moss: One more thing is the need for student talk about the text. They should talk to their partners and tablemates ... and to the whole group. It's central for English-learners, but also for all students. They need the opportunity to share what they're learning with their peers.

Johnson: And it's not just, 'turn to your partner and share your thinking,' it's about growing on ideas, building on what they said. You don't just say your answer and wait for their answer. It's a collaborative conversation that builds ideas rather than random thoughts.

Lapp: And have support for what you're saying. Go back to the text to validate where you came up with this idea.

What kinds of questions should teachers ask during close reading?

Lapp: The first questions should be literal questions, to see if they have the gist of the text. Those are about general understanding—key details in the text and the structure of the text. Then you want to ask, what is the text saying? What are phrases the author continues to return to? What's the tone? And finally, your last set of questions should be about the meaning. What does all this mean? What's the author informing us about or describing?

You have to be pushing them to make deep inferences to get the meaning. And after the lesson, you want to have to them make some application—going online and looking for another source, or doing some type of comparative analysis. Anything that gets children to use the information they're working on.


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