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.
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