Showing posts with label Close reading. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Close reading. Show all posts

Saturday, February 22, 2014

First-Grade Close Reading

I've been looking for online and workshop information on close reading and everything I've seen and heard has recommended doing close reading on material that is well above kids independent reading level. Your post talks about the futility of doing a close read on preprimer material, which I completely agree with. What do you think about using higher text, say second grade, with second semester first graders in a teacher-supported group lesson?

I recently tried a bit of close reading with my first graders (see the second section of this post if you have time to read: http://firstgradecommoncore.freeforums.net/thread/4/close-reading - if not I completely understand) While I found it valuable, I'm struggling with there being not enough hours in the day and prioritizing the needs of my students.


The reason why I challenged close reading with young children is because of the lack of depth of appropriate texts for them to read. Close reading requires a deep or analytical reading that considers not just what a text says, but how it works as a text (e.g., examining layers of meaning, recognizing the effectiveness of literary devices, interpreting symbolism). Beginning reading texts simply lack this depth of meaning (or are usually too hard for kids to read).

Your email and the youtube link that is included in that imply that the idea of close reading is simply to read a challenging text with comprehension (challenging in this case meaning hard rather than complex—a very important distinction). For example, the video shows students interpreting word meanings in a hard text. A good lesson, yes indeed, but not really a close read.

I definitely would not assign second-grade texts to second-semester first-graders unless they were reading at a second-grade level (that is not uncommon, so if your kids are reading that well, go for it). For more typical first-graders (and those who are struggling), I would not do this. You can definitely engage kids in close listening activities with richer texts read by the teacher (a lot of the reading, by the way, seemed to be done by the teacher in the video that was included here), but that should not take the place of the children’s reading.

I agree with the idea that phonological awareness, phonics, oral reading fluency, writing, and reading comprehension (not close reading) should be the real priorities in grade one… so should oral language, of course, and close listening fits that idea nicely. You’ll have plenty of time to ramp this up when students are reading at a second-grade level.


Friday, January 24, 2014

Close Reading of Informational Text

     "Close reading" is a colloquial term used by scholars in several fields of study. Prior to its re-emergence as a big idea since Common Core has lionized it, Cyndie Shanahan and I did a study with mathematicians, historians, and chemists. Several of these disciplinary experts mentioned close reading, though they clearly didn't all mean the same thing. Only in literature or, more exactly, literary criticism, is close reading used as a term of art.

      The conception of close reading that is embodied in the Common Core standards is the one drawn from literature. However, it is not a particularly doctrinaire version of the concept, so it really can be applied across the curriculum, though it will require a bit of stretching here and there. There is more need for stretching with some texts than others. For example, in some ways a literary close read is sort of an attempt to read stories and poems in the way mathematicians read math, so math reading wouldn't require much of an adjustment. However, history reading tends not to be so single text focused so some variation is in order.

      One basic idea often stressed in discussions of close reading is that the teachers' role is to ask questions about the text. However, let's not take that too literally. That could be questions that guide a discussion, but it also could be tasks that require students to analyze the same information, such as a writing assignment or some other kind of task, like the one in the attached Powerpoint. I was asked by Lesley Morrow (Rutgers University) and the New Jersey ASCD to speak to a group of New Jersey educators about informational text and close reading. Here is the presentation.

Powerpoint Presentation

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

How bad are the Common Core lessons on the Gettysburg Address? and other insights


My friends at the Thomas Fordham Institute asked that I weigh in on the controversy over the close reading lessons being touted by School Achievement Partners. I wrote a blog for their site and have included a link to it here. You might be interested in my assessment of those lessons and on some of their claims about close reading. Here it is:

Commentary on Gettysburg Address Close Reading Lessons

Since I was posting that article, I thought it would be a good time to provide a couple of other links. This fall, I had an article in American Educator about how Common Core is changing reading lessons:
American Educator article on Reading Lessons and Common Core

I also published an article in Educational Leadership on the emphasis on informational text in the classroom.
Educational Leadership Article on Informational Text

I hope you find these links useful. I appreciate the generosity of the Thomas Fordham Institute, the American Federation of Teachers, and the ASCD for making these available to you.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

A colleague sent me this link from the Washington Post. He is especially interested in history and he wrote to me about this lesson plan. Needless to say, he was horrified, and wanted me to explain how Common Core could promote such anti-historical thinking (an instructional approach that seems like an affront to historians and history teachers everywhere). 


Here was my answer:

The problem here is that different disciplines conceptualize close reading differently. In literature/English, the idea is to give a close analysis of the language and rhetoric of this kind of text (and the lesson in the link you sent me illustrates that quite well). Nothing wrong with that, in my opinion. 

However, historians read very differently than literary critics—they would be interested in the sources of this speech (what led to it, what shaped it), and what it's implications were (how did the Gettysburg Address change the world?). 

As such, a literary reading might look at this text on its own, but the historian would want to compare this with earlier speeches (most likely Pericles' Oration) and relevant documents (the Declaration of Independence, and perhaps even some secondary documents about how the Declaration was thought about by Americans in the 1860s)… Etc. Close reading in one tradition examines the language within the document without concern for its external connections, and in the other close reading requires the connection of a document with its context, etc.

I personally have no problem with the literary analysis of the Gettysburg Address in an English class, as long as kids do a historical reading of it in a history class. (This dual treatment is not required for all historical documents, but for one this important, it seems appropriate).


A great book about Lincoln's little speech is the one that Garry Wills wrote many years ago; in that book he provides a chapter that could have emerged from the kind of assignment emphasized in the Washington Post article… but all the rest of the chapters focused on what led to the speech and what the outcomes of the speech have been. I think that is the right balance for most historical documents; a lot more historical close reading than rhetorical close reading. Please don't just notice my championing of the historical approach to such texts; I'm defending the literary reading, too.

When Cyndie Shanahan and I studied mathematicians, historians, and chemists, we found that they all had a specialized conception of close reading; each quite different from what a literary or rhetorical analysis usually provides. I want students to  learn to do them all. That means I like the lesson described in the link above, and yet, I see not just what it does, but what it doesn't. 

Monday, September 23, 2013

Why Should Close Reading Be Advantaged?

 When writing about close reading, I have often mentioned that there are multiple approaches to reading. Most elementary teachers and many secondary English teachers don’t know much about these different approaches or why they have been controversial. Thus, when someone takes pot shots at close reading they are surprised and wonder what may be going on.

Towards trying to clarify such disagreements, and to expose the limitations of close reading (and why we wouldn’t want to embrace it too tightly), I have sketched out three major approaches to reading touted by English Departments over the past century. I conclude with my own sense of where these belong developmentally. Hope you find it useful.

Scholastic Approach
This first approach says that to interpret a text it is necessary to trace its roots of creation or the author’s original intent. Text is imperfect and time changes things so readers cannot rely solely on an author’s words to make sense of a text.

Such a reading of the Gettysburg Address would involve students in reading Pericles’ Oration and Everett’s eulogy (the speech that immediately preceded Lincoln’s that day), along with any notes or other speeches Lincoln might have made or remarks about the address that he may have made to his contemporaries. It would be a good idea to come armed with a good Nineteenth Century dictionary, too, preferably one that was available to Lincoln. (Garry Wills, "Lincoln at Gettysburg" is a great example of this kind of reading).

Close Reading
Close reading, on the other hand, places the meaning in the text itself. The author’s intentions aren’t what readers should be probing, but the author’s words are the focus. Authors can be awfully unreliable when telling (or remembering) why they wrote something.

To read closely means to gain the meaning of the text and how it works from an analysis of the text itself, with little or no outside information. Such reading includes reading and rereading, weighing words and structures, to try to crack an author’s code. This self-contained and self-reliant approach is the one now being emphasized by Common Core.

If scholastic readers are going to probe the sources of Lincoln’s little speech at Gettysburg, the close reader is, instead, going to think hard about what the word “dedicate” means each of the six times Lincoln used it, and why he reused this word again and again. (And, a good example of this, is 

Post-Structuralist Reading
Close reading, the darling of college English Departments in the 1930s-1960s, fell out of fashion. So-called Post-Modern or post-structuralist reading approaches took over. Stanley Fish has championed the idea of a “community of interpretation,” that removes the meaning from either the text itself or the author’s intent, and places it in the community of readers. That is, a text means what we (as a community) say that it means.

According to these scholars, words do not maintain their meaning because the communities of readers change. Thus, the meaning of a text like the Gettysburg Address will change over time and space, depending on who is reading it (Barry Schwarz, a sociologist, shows how our current interpretation differs from the interpretations at the time the speech was given: 
Post-structural approach to Gettysburg Address).


As a result of such insights, scholars have put forth particular interpretive lenses or philosophies that readers should use. Thus, we have Marxist readings, and Feminist readings, and readings from the margins, and so on. The idea is that to understand a text you must approach the text through a coherent philosophy. That puts the meaning in the interpretive framework of the reader rather than in the text.

Elementary and Secondary Instruction
Although I deeply respect what I referred to above as scholastic reading, I doubt that most of us will engage in such reading very often. I think we should accord it the respect it deserves, and I think we can all benefit from knowing how our best scholars have interpreted our great works of literature (and how their detective work proceeds). I expect our courts and Congresses to consider laws from this angle, and hope the White House and State Department read messages from foreign leaders in these ways, as well.

But I really don’t think that scholastic reading is really the province of K-12. Frankly, I feel the same way about post-structuralist approaches. I definitely believe that meaning is complex and changing and that how we approach a work will shape its meaning. And yet, I think these ideas would be inappropriately disruptive to kids given their stages of intellectual development. It isn’t that high-schoolers shouldn’t be exposed to scholastic and post-structuralist ideas, just that those ideas shouldn’t make up much of the curriculum—and much before that, I don’t see any real place for them.

Close reading is different because of its emphasis on self-reliance and its bounded nature. With close reading, students don’t need to have well-developed political or social philosophies (and schools shouldn’t try to impose such views), nor do they need ready access to the scholars’ tools. The student, the book, and the teacher are sufficient. Making kids into self-reliant readers, capable of making sense of what an author has written, is both incredibly freeing, and limiting. It provides the student with obvious power, but it limits them to what they can grasp on their own from the text itself.


I hope all of our students will gain the power inherent in being able to give a text a close read, by the time they leave high school. College is the place to ply the scholars’ trade and to develop a philosophical lens through which to interpret. Being close readers will give them a strong basis on which to gain access to these more sophisticated and expansive tools.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Staying Warm During Cold Reads


I've heard you speak and think I know your position on Background Knowledge and Common Core "New Yorker" style book introductions. But was wondering if you could dedicate a post about the term "Cold Reads" as referred to in the Common Core and address the arguments made by the teacher author of this article on the topic.     http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/teacher-one-maddening-day-working-with-the-common-core/2012/03/15/gIQA8J4WUS_blog.html

Thanks. I hadn’t seen this post by Jeremiah Chaffee, an English teacher. I've only  focused on his “cold reading” remarks.

First, Common Core doesn’t use the term, “cold read.” It appears to be meant as a pejorative for close reading, though it only characterizes one dimension of close reading (the withholding of information from outside the text—while ignoring its emphasis on how texts work and the use of text evidence in interpretation). Close reading sounds warm and cuddly (“let’s get close”); while cold reading is, well, cold.

Mr. Chaffee claims cold reading is inherently boring. I’m sure it can be, but I don’t think it has to. I’ve been working on a study, observing large numbers of reading lessons of the type he champions, but contrary to his claims, many of those lessons seem painfully boring. I, again, don’t think that has to be the case, but there it is. I’ve spent much time in classrooms over 40 years, and I’m not convinced there is any way of reading that is necessarily intellectually stimulating, nor do I think any of these popular reading approaches are consistently stultifying either.

Part of the problem is that these ways of reading are really philosophical positions about epistemology that are being translated into instructional practice. Those who espouse particular ways of reading strive for philosophical consistency. The problem is that none of these reading approaches consistently pays off; and readers are likely better served by a wider palate of choices. 

Mr. Chaffee says the “cold” approach to text has something to do with standardized testing. It doesn’t. In fact, the notion that students should read texts without lots of added background dates to the 1920s, in college English departments --without any thoughts of standardized testing or testing preparation.

He criticizes David Coleman for indicating that close reads “level the playing field,” by limiting students to the information in the text instead of their background knowledge. I agree with Mr. Chaffee on this one, and his many examples all make sense to me. Readers are going to make connections when they read, and you won’t easily bridle this activity, nor should you. David C. (as well as many of his critics) do seem a tad confused on this point… they seem to believe that how we present a text to students will change the nature of reading comprehension. It won’t. These modern-day Canutes can order the ebb of the tides all they want; to no avail.

Human beings appear to be programmed to see connections and relationships. Close/cold reading may not intentionally emphasize the application of prior knowledge during reading, but it can’t very well prevent it.

I have expressed my own criticisms of close reading and the Coleman videos in this space before and readers can turn to past posts about close reading to see what my views have been (there is an index on the right side of my page). One point that I have made is that close reading is not an identical process across disciplines, and I think that is partially what Mr. Chaffee is getting at in his complaints about the Gettysburg Address lesson (it is one thing to analyze the rhetoric of the text, and another altogether to determine what led to this speech or what its implications have been--English teachers can satisfy themselves with the former, while history teachers can neglect that and focus on the latter).

But I think Chaffee’s argument is as simplistic as what he complains about. Yes, a teacher could definitely have kids discuss their experiences at funerals, since Lincoln’s speech was delivered as part of a memorial service. However, like Coleman, I suspect this would only waste time and lead kids astray rather than focusing them on a deeper interaction with Lincoln’s message and rhetoric. As historians (Garry Wills, for instance) have so articulately explained, Lincoln’s address isn’t characteristic of eulogies at ordinary funerals, but of the addresses at funerals for heroes; and the language and structure that Lincoln chose was in that tradition (his speech was based on Pericles’ Oration).

I’ve been to too many funerals and have seen too many memorial speeches, none of which was anything like Lincoln’s talk—in style, structure, language choice, or purpose. The more relevant background experience, for me, is what I know of public funerals—such as those of the Kennedy brothers, the Challenger astronauts, and Martin Luther King, all of which I watched on television. My Uncle Bud’s beery sendoff shared no obvious connections with Gettysburg. (Of course, the reason Lincoln’s address is similar to those given at modern heroic funerals is because these modern eulogists have been ventriloquizing Lincoln.)

If your students have more than a passing familiarity with memorial addresses at heroic funerals, then I would definitely encourage them to make this connection, a connection that could be stimulated with no more than a sentence or two of explanation (studies suggest that is all that is needed to get our natural relating and connecting proclivities flowing). But teachers should not spend half the period showing videos of such memorials prior to reading because at that point it would be better to have them focused on Lincoln’s words and ideas (close reading).

The basic idea that Coleman and company have been expressing is that it is important for students to gain extensive experience in reading and interpreting text. Towards that end they are trying to reign in some of the unfortunate classroom practices that have often done more to distract students from texts rather than involving them in reading texts more reflectively and thoughtfully. (Regular readers know Coleman long ago backed off on some of the more strident claims about close reading that Mr. Chaffee is reacting to).

The problem is that teachers have too often allowed precious classroom reading time to be waylaid by errant discussions of student background; discussions that may be irrelevant to interpreting the text, that may reinforce students’ existing misconceptions; and that, even when focused appropriately, may be more extensive than necessary to prepare students to take on a text effectively. It is easy to mistake a lively discussion of family funerals (oxymoron intended) as a sign of student engagement; it may be, but it is not an engagement in reading.