A Time For Humility

  • Common Core State Standards
  • 23 April, 2013

This blog first posted April 23, 2013; and was reposted on March 22, 2018. Close reading isn't as hot an issue as then, though some of these problems are still coming up.

My correspondent was upset. She was writing because her teaching evaluation had not gone well. She was teaching what was supposed to be a "close reading" lesson and her evaluator thought she had done a terrible job.

            The reason she was writing me was because she had modeled her lesson off of my close reading presentation. The supervisor was concerned that she asked too many "right there" questions and not enough higher order ones. The observer was obviously offended that this teacher had not focused heavily enough on issues of craft and structure and critical evaluation. Clearly, somebody was wrong.

            Of course, there are always minor misinterpretations that occur from such presentations and execution can be a real problem sometimes--that is, someone may believe they are executing what you said, but they may not be doing so very effectively.

            However, I don't think that was the case this time. The teacher's plaint convinced me that the supervisor had a weak understanding of close reading but was going to cling to this thread of "knowledge" for all it was worth.

            I've read quite a bit about New Criticism and close reading over the years--both pro and con. I.A. Richards. Check. William Empson. Check. Robert Penn Warren. Check. Wimsatt & Beardsley. Check. I studied Adler and Van Doren like a Gospel when I was still young enough to get really passionate about such matters. I learned to read a book and a page. I hied to publishers that minimized the "apparatus" (kudos to Library of America) and to publications that avoided getting between the writer and the reader (Go, New Yorker!). I even found ways to split the differences between the E.D. Hirsch and Cleanth Brooks.

            In none of my studies of the topic did I learn that plot didn't matter in a story or that we shouldn't ask kids about key ideas and details of a text if the author was explicit about those. Nor did I learn that it was essential that close readings include a hodgepodge of thinking; reading, in that view, is apparently just a disorderly melange of key ideas and details, craft and structure, and critical response.

            I have spoken with brilliant literary critics (Peter Rabinowitz for one) who explained to me that the hardest thing about teaching freshmen college English students to engage in close reading is to get to the craft and structure earlier--but that had more to do with their impatience and lack of self confidence as readers, rather than any vision of reading and the way it ought to be.

            Yesterday, I heard from a publishing company friend who was presenting a program to teachers. One of them was adamant that the program was doing it "wrong", because in close reading, you are "not allowed" to preteach vocabulary. She evidently was certain that such preteaching had been forbidden by the Common Core State Standards.

            In my discussions of this matter with David Coleman and other members of his team, we all agreed (very quickly) that issues like the introduction of vocabulary or the pre-teaching of word recognition skills in anticipation of a text were separate matters entirely from other issues of prereading (such as previewing text, predicting what will happen in that text, background knowledge preparation, purpose setting, etc.).

            I think we sometimes overdo the preteaching of vocabulary and I'm pretty certain that we don't always pick the right words for such assistance, but the research on this matter is clear and overwhelming:  preteaching vocabulary improves reading comprehension and increases the chances that students will be able to make sense of complex texts. Common Core is absolutely silent on the issue despite this teacher's absolute certainty that it has forbidden such lessons.

            The problem in both of these cases (and many more that seem to arise each day) is our all-too-human need to lord it over our fellow man (and woman). People who a year ago hadn't even heard of close reading are now "experts" on the matter. I wouldn't mind so much if they had strong educational backgrounds that had engaged them in close readings of history, literature, science, or math, but most never had such opportunities. I wouldn't mind if they were reading the kinds of sources I noted earlier and had not only a depth of understanding what they were talking about, but an awareness of how to be flexible in these principles and precepts without making a wreck of the whole enterprise.

            It is funny. In an approach to reading that necessarily must be flexible -- because of the centrality of the text to such interpretation-- we are spawning a bunch of supervisory twits who are insisting on inflexibility at every turn. Instead of paying close attention to the text and allowing it to determine the direction of the interpretative exploration, these buggers want everyone to do it their way.

            It can be very appropriate to preteach vocabulary for a close reading, as long as the author doesn't provide the definitions himself/herself within the text, or if the interpretation doesn't turn on the nuances of meaning of the pretaught words. The point is to enable students to read the text successfully, but without doing the interpretive work for them.

            It can be very appropriate to ask "right there" questions about a text, as long as the explicit ideas that are  queried are key points that are essential to building a sophisticated interpretation. If there are three key tenets to a scientific theory, I want to make sure the kids got them, even if the author stated them explicitly. It can be valuable to have an organized discussion of such matters that ensures that students not only got the major points, but that they are understanding how they fit together (developing coherent memories of such points is valuable). The same goes for asking about key plot turns and character motivations. The issue with such questions isn't whether they require memory or inferencing, but whether they are essential points in the universe of thought created by the author.

            It can be very appropriate to read a text multiple times, each time going deeper into the interpretation. Adler and Van Doren suggest the necessity of three or four readings of the "great books," with each reading solving part of the interpretive problem. Thus, it is fine to read the text once just to come to terms with what it has to say, and to read it again, to delve deeply into the author's choices of craft and structure and how these serve to extend and reinforce the meanings identified in the first reading.

            Principals, supervisors, and teacher evaluators: If you have just learned about close reading, if you have seen a presentation on it at a conference or a school workshop, if you have read a few chapters about it in Doug Fisher's book or glanced at my blog, or watched a You Tube video, or read the first version of the Publisher's Criteria, let's assume that you really don't understand it very well yet. Show some humility when it comes to lording your vast knowledge over your colleagues and subordinates.

            Do you understand how close reading differs in history and literature and science? Do you understand the implications of the idea that close reading isn't a teaching technique but a learning goal? Do you grasp the differences between reading and reading deeply? Can you discern the difference between high level or higher order questions (a la Bloom) and essential or important questions within the universe of the text? Have you taken part in a Great Books discussion group? If not, be humble.

            There are many ways to do close reading and there are big philosophical differences in what may seem to be minor points (e.g., is it okay to explore the implications of a theme in children's own lives? is it okay to draw interpretive information from the author's biography or other works that he or she has written? can the reader use what he or she knows about the social world to draw connections among the ideas in a text or to determine a character's or historical figure's motivations?). Do you understand what the implications are of these various views?

            For the supervisor who said that it is inappropriate to ask "right there" questions in close reading, I would ask "Why?"

            What is it about close reading that is violated by determining that there is bad blood between Hector and Achilles or that Ahab is obsessed with Moby Dick? Yes, those are clearly stated or demonstrated in the text, but why would it be wrong to ask such questions? Why would it be bad to question students on what God forms the universe from in the first 10 lines of Genesis (as David Coleman asked an audience at IRA this week)? Again, if these questions are offensive to your view of close reading, there must be a reason why they are offensive -- blaming your prejudice against "right there" questions seems to be tied to various theories of reading instruction, but they have no discernible connection to close reading as far as I can tell.

            Why wouldn't you preteach vocabulary essential to making sense of a text? Especially if your purpose is to teach reading to a group of children. Perhaps close reading, in this regard, may play out differently in a Yale seminar room and in Mrs. Jone's third grade at P.S. 57.

            Close reading, complex text, writing from sources, and the common core are all quite new. Let's not understand them too quickly. It is a time for humility.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Dana Lester Jun 19, 2017 11:11 PM


Great points! I've been made to feel like there is a right and wrong way of doing close reads. That there's a procedure for teaching how to read closely. Thanks to your posts, I'm seeing how its meant to be and it makes do much more sense. Thanks!

An Excellent Teacher Jun 19, 2017 11:11 PM


This post was very timely. Teachers are now receiving their feedback, and I have seen many sullen faces from exemplary teachers. Their work has most definitely been misjudged - including my own. Administrators need to take time and put themselves back in the classroom with the Common Core for a day or two, and then, maybe, I will be able to hear their suggestions. They can follow blogs, like yours, get an education about close reading is or isn't and then maybe, I can hear the feedback and respond. I have also found that administrators follow what the county districts are feeding them regarding the Common Core, versus reading and learning about the Common Core themselves from the experts you mentioned. Unfortunately, the consequences are disenchanted deprofessionalized teachers who are excellent at their craft checking for job openings elsewhere.

Laura Hancock Jun 19, 2017 11:12 PM


Well stated and perfect timing for myself and educators. I am a doctoral student (Diane Lapp is my advisor, lucky me!), and an RTI coordinator/teacher. Close reading is an area of study for me, and it is new for me and I am trying it on struggling readers who have cracked the code. I have read Adler and Van Doren but need to check out a few other scholars you mention.

Thanks for your insights.
Laura Hancock

Laurie Jun 19, 2017 11:12 PM


Hello Dr. Shanahan,

I know I don't have this question posted under the correct post, but I'm hoping you can help me. In one of your Power Point presentations, you mentioned that districts should not spend their time creating pacing guides. You stated that standards should be grouped around text instead. Could you elaborate on this point a little bit? Pacing guides seem to be all the rage and I'd like to learn what the alternative would look like. Thank you for your time. Laurie

Timothy Shanahan Jun 19, 2017 11:13 PM


Pacing guides still might make some sense with various skills lessons (e.g., phonics, grammar, spelling), but not with the reading comprehension standards. The reason for this is because these standards are integrated, they are more descriptive of an organized set of responses to texts. Pulling them out 1 or 2 at a time for attention means the kids would never be engaged in anything like a complete or appropriate response to a text. The standards encourage students to come to terms with what texts say and how texts work and to critically respond to texts... those don't separate from each other so well.

Andrew Pass Jun 19, 2017 11:13 PM


Wonderful post!! While earning my master's degree in Jewish education at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America I had a wonderful professor, Carol Ingall, who emphasized that every reader should ask at least three questions about every test: 1. What does the text say? 2. What does the text mean? 3. What does the text mean to "me"? Without the first question which includes "right here" information you can't get to the third question. Significantly, answers to all of these questions require close reading. Thanks for sharing a thoughtful post.

Andrew Pass
A Pass Educational Group

EC Jun 19, 2017 11:14 PM


I don't see a lot of humility in you or in your fellow CCSS cheerleaders. I agree with the evaluator who complained about their being too many "right there" questions in the CCSS-aligned close reading lesson. This is one of the problems I have seen in the close reading lessons I've seen--the lessons will be tedious and boring to any good reader.

As for your pride about being so well-versed in new criticism, having once upon a time read a lot of I.A. Richards or whoever, that is ridiculous. I have probably spent more time reading those guys than you have, and it seems clear to me that the "close reading" that is promoted in the CCSS-aligned lesson plans is very far from the probing-for-ambiguity-and-irony that the New Critics were after. And of course New Criticism has been outmoded for several decades now. This whole sad episode cries out for a satirical novel, or something.

Timothy Shanahan Jun 19, 2017 11:14 PM


This writer has a concern that close reading is just about literal recall. There definitely are some teachers who are misinterpreting what close reading is in that particular way. Terms like “text dependent questions” (a usage drawn from testing) may mislead them to only ask questions the answers of which can be traced to the text.

Unlike you I have no idea how much of the close reading literature other people have read (including you), so whether my experience is less than yours would likely require clairvoyance on your part. My record on this can be tracked to some extent, because I have written about such matters over a long period of time. Perhaps you could send in the evidence of your long work on these issues? I agree that there are examples of close reading lessons that are less than stellar, and yet, that isn’t true of the example that I have published nor is it true of the most widely distributed examples that folks like David Coleman has put forth. Talk is cheap. If you have ideas for how these things should be taught quit kvetching and do something. (Whether New Criticism is outmoded or not is another question, “of course,” and yet most of us would not champion the post-structuralism that replaced it).

EC Jun 19, 2017 11:15 PM


Thanks for your gracious, thoughtful response. I should certainly have been less obnoxious in my comment; I sincerely apologize. After looking at your "Planning Close Reading" Powerpoint, I see that your approach is considerably more sophisticated than those of a lot of other people. As for who has read more literary criticism, it doesn't really matter--I have certainly read a lot of it, but I'm sure you have too. For some reason your ¶ about all the lit crit you had read raised my hackles. In any case, my dander was already up because the supervisor's complaint about too many "right there" questions was exactly the complaint I have had about many CCSS-aligned lesson plans, including those put out by Student Achievement Partners, an outfit founded, I think, by your man David Coleman. I actually think close reading is important, but I fear that the CCSS's emphasis on it is at the expense of other, even more important things (like high-volume independent reading), and that "close reading" is very likely to be put into practice in the "right-there", test-prep kind of way that we are already seeing.

A technical note: my comment might have been more tempered if the original post were on the same page as the comment box. Had I been able to scroll up to see your post while I was writing the comment, I would have been able to reread. But the fault is mine--I should always try to be moderate and gracious. It's hard to unlearn old habits, but I'm trying. Apologies again for my tone, and thanks again for your grace.

What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

Comment *

A Time For Humility


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.