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

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Who Has Authority Over Meaning? Part II

          In my last entry, I explored some ideas concerning what role authors play in our interpretation of text. As with many controversies in the garden of literary criticism, nothing is settled, but an exquisite tension has been created. It is this tension that mature readers need to learn to negotiate—and that we have to prepare them for.

          My take on this controversy is this: it is respectful, responsible, and wise to try to get back to “the author’s intended meaning.” That means we need not only to think about what a text says, but what we thought the author intended to mean. For example, the word “plastic” has a very clear meaning these days. In my dictionary, the number one definition is “a synthetic material made from organic polymers.” However, if I’m reading a text from the 1800s, and the author uses the word plastic, I’d better try to provide a different interpretation—one more in line with the author’s intended meaning. It is polite to try to honor the author’s meaning—rather than insensitively imposing our own interpretation on a text.

          But it is equally wise to recognize that once a text is out in the world, it must stand on its own. We need to be able to interpret texts based on nothing more than the words in the text. No, we are not going to call Mark Twain to find out why Huck throws the snake in the shed. (I don’t even have his phone number). No, we are not going to read a biography of Daniel Webster to make sense of his “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable” speech (I don’t have that kind of time). And, no, we are not going to review the reporter’s notes to grasp the meaning of her latest New York Times article (it might be nice to have all of an author’s work product, but author’s are loathe to provide that).

          So how do we teach students to be ethical readers—readers who try to respect what a text leads them to assume to be the author’s meaning? Initially, young children don’t even know that books have authors, just like they don’t know that somebody built their house, crafted their furniture, or sewed their teddy bears. The world is just there… your mother brings it home or you get it at a store.

          Later, usually by kindergarten or first-grade, kids know there are authors—but they don’t grasp that these authors have communicative intentions. They believe authors to be a rather egocentric lot, writing only to satisfy their own interests or to get money. However, the authors that they imagine neither try to entertain us or to instigate us. (Young children’s writing often has this same feature; they make text objects to gift someone, much like their drawings and picked dandelions—the gifting of the object is the meaningful part).

          By middle school, even the worst of readers seems to be aware of authors’ ulterior motives; that they try to affect us through their words on the page. Sadly, this insight appears to result mainly from children’s social development rather than from literacy teaching—since the concept of author and the role authors play in the interpretation of text is rarely the focus of K-12 teaching.

          Why should we care about this aspect of reading, since it has rarely been taught or tested? I have long believed that, at least for entire classes of texts, our ability to read critically is closely connected to an awareness of the fallibility of human beings and the idea that authors try to influence us. (Remember Moses bringing the tablets down off the mountain. The first question he was asked was, “Who wrote those?” Think about it. It matters.)

          Furthermore, writers often try to convey a persona through their texts, and interpreting this projected personality is an important part of the reading experience.

Some things that can help children to develop a sense of author
(1) Expose children to multiple books by the same author. Research shows that 5-year-olds can recognize a Dr. Seuss at 20 yards. As children grow up, expose them to more subtle exemplars. I love “author study” by second or third grade. Having groups of children reading multiple books by the same author, and trying to find continuities (e.g., content, style, diction, structure) across the texts.
(2) My research had children trying to re-create a persona based only on a text. Children would try to compose biographies of the authors they imagined from the authors’ texts. I hid the names, so they had to decide if a writer was man or woman, black or white, young or old, and they had to use text information—including the author’s style—as evidence for their suppositions. It is a great assignment.
(3) Students need to be authors. Have them write and have the other children respond to these writings. Readers benefit from having been writers. They start to understand the limits and the power of writing. Writing, reading the writing of close up authors, responding to the writing of others, having others respond to your own writing—those all help build the concept.
(4)  Make authors visible. Tell kids who wrote a text. Make that a question during reading lessons. Include author in your inferential questions. “The author doesn’t tell you what Red Riding Hood was thinking when she met the wolf, but what does the author want you to think she was thinking? How do you know?"
(5) When your curriculum starts to include text sets in social studies (e.g., multiple primary and secondary documents), focus student attention on author intentions—why would an author say this? Why would another author tell something different? What were their goals? Why would the author write something else later? As Sam Wineburg has written, source/author-centered reading is essential to historical thinking.

            But as important as author-centered readings can be, they can get in the way of a reader giving a text a “close read”—that is, a read that depends upon the interpretation of the information on the page. If you believe Hemingway was a male chauvinist, then everything you read by Hemingway, including perhaps his grocery list, will scream chauvinism. Those readers who believe they already know what a text says, often impose their own bias and miss the actual message. It is a very different thing to identify an author’s ideology through a close analysis of what he or she has written, than to start with that conclusion. 

            Of course, not all authors are as famous as Hemingway. What if the author isn’t a celebrity writer, then what? We might not start out knowing specific things about Patricia Smith or Joe Johnson, but we do start out knowing, in this case, which is a man and which is a woman. Many readers—even children—have biases around that. If I’ve decided that women don’t write about things that interest me, then I’ve already started to miss Ms. Smith's message. Other texts raise questions of authenticity… if I think this writer is white and he/she is writing about some event in the black community (or vice-versa), my guard may go up, shutting off a chance to understand.

            But what if you can’t be sure who wrote a text? Then you have no choice but to focus your attention on the words and punctuation and formatting—there is nowhere else to go. That happens sometimes, of course, but a more common experience is the one that we observed in scientists and mathematicians, who intentionally try to set the author aside to focus all of their critical judgment on the text itself. Again, I’d argue that we want our kids to be able to do that, too.

Setting the Author Aside
(1) To teach students to set aside the author, it is important to provide them with one-off reading experiences—focusing on texts that are not part of a series or that students can bring specific author knowledge to the text.
(2) Keep your questions and discussion focused on the text itself. Don’t worry about what you think the author meant, but focus on the key ideas and details in the text, the word choices and structures that provide clues to meaning, and the value and quality of what is on the page—without regard for other information.
(3) Give kids lots of experiences reading scientific and mathematical texts—texts not likely to be ideologically based or persona-focused.
(4) Focus on rereading as an interpretive process—reading one text over and over to figure it out, rather than trying to guess what the author may have intended (in close readings, there is no author, the author has no intentions, and even if there were an author with intentions, you can never know what they may be, so focus only on the texts).
(5) Minimize the amount of external information provided to kids--don't tell them what it is going to be about, don't reveal the author, don't review background knowledge.
(6) When students write do not provide generous readings. If something doesn't make sense, reveal to them the lack of logic or sense that you are confronting and then give them opportunities to revise.

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           If you believe that readers have an ethical or moral responsibility to try to understand other human beings, then author-centered reading is your plate. If you believe that children have to learn to be independent readers, able to grasp the meaning of a text without reliance on external information, then close reading is needed. 

          I think readers need to know both how to satisfy this ethical imperative, and how to be powerful and independent. Meaning belongs neither to authors or readers--it is a constantly changing balance.



Wednesday, August 3, 2016

A Fine Mess: Confusing Close Reading and Text Complexity

We just started close reading in our district last year. Our second graders were given text that was a grade level above their reading level. We were told to let them figure it out. They could not even read the first sentence it was too hard for their reading level. The reading coaches said they will learn to read it by letting them struggle with it. The kids would become so upset and began to hate reading because of they were so frustrated at how the district was making us implement close reading. For it to be of any value should the text not be on their instructional reading level?

            A Roman walks into a bar, holds up two fingers, and says, “Five beers, please.”

            What do these two stories—the one about close reading and the one about Roman numerals—have in common? They turn on knowing what you’re talking about.

            If you don’t know that the Roman numeral for five is a V and that holding up two fingers looks like a V, you won’t get the joke. It won’t be funny.

            And, when district leadership doesn’t understand what close reading is or what it’s connection to complex text might be, the results aren’t funny either.

            One more story and I’ll provide some explanation that might help.

            A curriculum director invited me into her district. “I want you to make two presentations. One has to be on close reading, and do you have a suggestion for a second talk?”

            “Yes, I’d suggest that I talk about complex text.”

            “But that’s the same thing as close reading, isn’t it?”

            I’ve had that exchange several times over the past two years. I think for too many reading leaders, the two concepts—close reading and complex text—are confounded. I think it’s that confusion that’s leading to such bad decision-making.

            Let’s clarify both concepts… and see what that suggests for classroom practice.

            First, close reading. Close reading is an approach to literary interpretation—though it can be applied to at least some informational texts, too. It is an approach proposed for literary critics, and it is one widely taught in American universities. As such, it doesn’t focus on issues like word recognition or decoding, or even on basic reading comprehension, only on high-level interpretations or analyses of text.

            Originally, close reading was a push back against the idea that one had to study an author’s biography, or the historical period that a text came from, or even what the words meant at the time they were authored.

            To read a text closely one must only rely on the words in the text and their relationships to each other. They don’t turn to other sources. Close readers learn to notice metaphors or symbols, interesting juxtapositions of information, ambiguities, and the like (clues authors might have left behind to reveal the text meaning to those who read closely).

            The Common Core State Standards require that we teach students to be close readers—to not only grasp the literal and inferential meanings of a text, but to understand how an author’s word choices and structures convey higher-level meanings; how to figure out the subtler aspects of a text.

            As such, close reading only makes sense is if texts have deeper meanings. If there aren’t deeper meanings requiring such text analysis, then close reading would have no value. That means close reading requires certain kinds of text complexity.

            And what do the standards mean by text complexity? Like close reading, it isn’t explicitly defined in the standards, despite being central to them. A close reading of the standards and their appendices suggests at least two meanings of text complexity.

            One of those meanings is particularly relevant to close reading. We want our children to read high quality literary and informational texts. These texts should have depth. If we only read such texts carefully, but without conducting a close reading, we would likely end up with only a superficial understanding. Thus, in the past, if students read the “Three Bears,” we’d want them to be able to conduct a retelling of the story or to complete a story map with all the key plot details.

            A close reading of the Three Bears, however, might lead us to examine language that is used repeatedly (“someone’s been…), or why Papa and Mama Bears’ belongings are always inappropriate for Goldilocks, or the significance of the special relationship Goldilocks seems to have with Baby Bear’s possessions (she breaks his chair, eats his porridge, and falls asleep in his bed). The Three Bears would be appropriate for close reading because it includes words, structures, and literary devices that one can analyze to figure out what the story means and how it works.

            But I said there is a second definition of text complexity. That second definition has to do with language complexity—how well a reader could make sense of text features like vocabulary or grammar or how ideas are linked across the text. These features have more to do with how well an author’s language choices match up with the readers’ language proficiency. Thus, if the author uses words like ebony, porridge, clearing, latch, and peeped to tell the story, readers might get tripped up just following what was said if they don’t even know what those words mean.

            The first kind of complexity—the literary, symbolic or poetic complexity—is not measurable with Lexiles, Atos, or any of the other schemes for predicting how well readers will do with a text. The second kind, the linguistic complexity, can be measured or predicted by tools like Lexiles. We might say a text is fourth-grade level because texts with language like that are usually understood by fourth-graders; it is a kind of prediction. When you say the text was a grade level beyond your students, that’s what you are talking about.

            Now here is where people get tripped up. The standards require that we teach kids to read complex text closely—which means exposing them to texts that have symbolic or poetic complexity. Those texts could be easy to read (in terms of recognizing the words and knowing what they mean and being able to handle the sentences), but hard to interpret. The standards do encourage kids to struggle, but the struggle that is intended is a struggle to make sense of those more complex ideas and those more subtle aspects of how an author tells something.

            The standards also call for kids to learn to read text that has more sophisticated language. But that requires that we gradually ask kids to read a series of texts that stretches them while providing them with any necessary scaffolding that well help them to figure out what a text says. These supports may take the form of phonics guidance to help them decode particular words, the preteaching of vocabulary, or supports in making sense of the grammar of a sentence.

            Your coaches seem to be mixing these concepts up… So…

  1.       Make sure that close reading is focused on texts with the appropriate kinds of depth. These texts do not need to be “hard to read,” but, indeed, they might be confusing or frustrating to students. Don’t give into that frustration by just telling them your interpretation of the text but definitely engage them in a productive struggle with those big ideas.
  2.       Make sure that kids are getting opportunities to read texts that are at the specified reading levels set by your standards. These texts are likely to be somewhat hard to read—in terms of decoding, vocabulary meaning, grasping what the author is explicitly saying. As such, they might not be the best texts for close reading.
  3.       When you do ask kids to read texts that are hard to read, you need to be prepared to scaffold—to give students supports that will help them to make sense of the text; helping with decoding, preteaching vocabulary, breaking down sentences, connecting pronoun referents, making sense of organization, etc. A productive struggle here means helping kids with the difficult stuff so that they can learn to figure it out on their own.

Close Reading Presentation

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Close Reading and the Reading of Complex Text Are Not the Same Thing

          Recently, I was asked to make some presentations. I suggested a session on close reading and another on teaching with complex text. The person who invited me said, “But that’s just one subject… the close reading of complex text. What else will you talk about?”

          Her response puzzled me, but since then I’ve been noting that many people are confounding those two subjects. They really are two separate and separable constructs. That means that many efforts to implement the so-called Common Core standards may be missing an important beat.

          Close reading refers to an approach to text interpretation that focuses heavily not just on what a text says, but on how it communicates that message. The sophisticated close reader carefully sifts what an author explicitly expresses and implies, but he/she also digs below the surface, considering rhetorical features, literary devices, layers of meaning, graphic elements, symbolism, structural elements, cultural references, and allusions to grasp the meaning of a text. Close readers take text as a unity—reflecting on how these elements magnify or extend the meaning.

         Complex text includes those “rhetorical features, literary devices, layers of meaning, graphic elements, symbolism, structural elements, cultural references, and allusions.” (Text that is particularly literal or straightforward is usually not a great candidate for close reading). But there is more to text complexity than that—especially for developing readers.

          Text complexity also includes all the other linguistic elements that might make one text more difficult than another. That includes the sophistication of the author’s diction (vocabulary), sentence complexity (syntax or grammar), cohesion, text organization, and tone.

          A close reader might be interested in the implications of an author’s grammar choices. For example, interpretations of Faulkner often suggest that his use of extended sentences with lots of explicit subordination and interconnection reveals a world that is nearly full determined… in other words the characters (like the readers) do not necessarily get to make free choices.

          And, while that might be an interesting interpretation of how an author’s style helps convey his meaning (prime close reading territory), there is another more basic issue inherent in Faulkner’s sentence construction. The issue of reading comprehension. Readers have to determine what in the heck Faulkner is saying or implying in his sentences. Grasping the meaning of a sentence that goes on for more than a page requires a feat of linguistic analysis and memory that has nothing to do with close reading. It is a text complexity issue. Of course, if you are a fourth-grader, you don’t need a page-long sentence to feel challenged by an author’s grammar.

          Text complexity refers to both the sophisticated content and the linguistic complexity of texts. A book like, “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a good example of sophisticated content, but with little linguistic complexity. It is a good candidate for a close reading lesson, but it won’t serve to extend most kids’ language. While a book like “Turn of the Screw” could be a good candidate for close reading, but only if a teacher is willing to teach students to negotiate its linguistic challenges.

         The standards are asking teachers to do just that: to teach kids to comprehend linguistically complex texts and the carry out close reads. They definitely are not the same thing.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Examples of Close Reading Questions

As a principal, I want my teachers to teach student how to read a text closely. After going through your Powerpoint, reading the questions you suggest and the responses, I think professional development in developing questions would be required to ensure they were actually asking the right kind of questions.

            One of the biggest implementation problems with Common Core that I see is that teachers (and curriculum designers) don’t understand close reading well enough to ask appropriate questions. The point of the questions is to guide students’ to think about the text in effective ways.

            To help this principal (and others) to provide the professional development noted above, I have provided what I hope will be a useful example. But let’s start off with a bit of explanation. 

            First, the questions should be about important issues raised by the text. Some people are taking close reading to mean “precise” reading or “thorough” reading. If you are asking about a story, you should ask about details that would be important in a summary of the story (e.g., character motivation, key plot details, theme). “Close” is not a synonym for “trivial.”

            Second, the questions should be text dependent. That just means that it shouldn’t be possible to answer the question without reading the text. The focus of close reading should be on what the author presents, and not on anything else. That’s the reason why it’s a good idea for students to explain or support their answers with text evidence (proof—from the text).

            Third, the questions should help the readers to accomplish three interpretive goals. Specifically, they should help the reader to think about what the text said (key ideas and details), how the text worked (craft and structure), and what it means (integration of knowledge and meaning). Unlike in other questioning schemes, these questions do not try to get kids to exercise particular thinking skills (e.g., inference, higher order reasoning, comparison); they focus on interpreting the text rather than on exercising particular cognitive muscles.

            I have attached an old basal reader story (from the 1955-1965 period), and below I have listed questions that I might ask a group of second- or third-graders about this story. I have separated my questions out into three sets—one set for each major interpretive goal, but they don’t have to be asked in that way; they can be interspersed with each other.

            I do think that it is a good idea to ask your questions in an order that helps students to follow through the text in an “orderly manner,” particularly with regard to a first read or the key ideas and details questions. It is not enough that kids get practice reading texts, but they should come away knowing more about their world. If the questions/discussion/task takes you through the content in a well-organized way, students will be more likely to come away with content knowledge. Thus, you could have the students read this story three times, and each time use a different set of questions; or you could simply intersperse the second two sets of questions into the first wherever you think they fit best. In each list here, I have gone through the story in the same order that the author presented the pertinent information.

            Of the three sets of questions, the “craft and structure” questions are the most characteristic of close reading (the other interpretive goals are important too, but they are not unique to close reading). That means that most of us need more practice with “craft and structure”—something largely or entirely neglected in the video that I recently critiqued in this space.

            You may notice that I did not go through and try to have a balance of “right there” and “think and search questions” or that I didn’t fool with Bloom’s taxonomy. The reason is quite simple: my focus is on—and should be on—the text during close reading. If a text is very explicit, then I’ll ask a lot more comprehension or “right there” questions. If the text is more oblique, then we’ll end up with more inferencing practice. The point isn’t the inferencing practice, however, it is to get students to think closely about the meaning of the particular text we are reading now (that's one of the reasons close reading questions are hard--because they follow each text, not some questioning scheme).

Questions about key ideas and details—What did the text say?
What was special about Tom?                                                        
What did Tom do when the men were loading the train?                      
Why did he pretend to sleep?                                            
What did Tom do that got his picture in the newspaper?                      
How did his life change after he got in the newspaper?             
What happened when the chipmunk showed up?                                  
Why did Tom follow the chipmunk?                                              
When he was in the railroad car what was Tom’s problem?      
When Tom got out of the car where was he?                               
Who found Tom?                                                                             
How did the engineer know that Tom wanted to go with him? 
Why did the engineer take him?                                                    
When the engineer and Tom left what was their problem?       
When Tom yowled, what did the engineer think he wanted?    
What changed the engineer’s mind?                                             
What did the fireman think Tom meant?                         
So what did the engineer do?                                                         
According to the engineer, why was it so important Tom yowled?
How did Tom know the bridge was out?                                       
What happened after Tom saved the train?                                

Questions about craft and structure—How did the text work?
What does the author mean when he writes that Tom “had never seen a kitchen nor climbed a back yard fence”?
What is a “conveyor belt”?                                                                                      
What’s “freight”?                                                                 
On page 1, the story says that Tom was a "hero." What does that mean? (What made him a hero?)
On page 2, the author puts some words in quotation marks (“Oh, boy!,” “Fish at last!” “thank you”). What is he trying to show by doing that? Can Tom talk?
What kind of story is this (fantasy or realistic fiction)?   
On page 4, it again calls Tom a “hero.” How is the meaning of “hero” different here than on page 1?
Why does the author tell us about the chipmunk again at the end?

Questions about integration of knowledge and meaning—What did the text mean?
The author used the word “hero” in two different ways. Which meaning is the right one?
What’s the difference between being a hero and being famous?
Is it better to be a hero or to be famous?

What was the point of the story? What did the author want you to learn from Tom?

Railroad Cat Story