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

  • author awareness
  • 10 January, 2016

          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.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Keri Ball Apr 09, 2017 07:39 PM

Thank you for writing this! I can confirm that close reads and text complexity are not the same thing! I am a special education teacher in a fourth grade inclusion classroom and we do close reading passages every week. The students must read the passage and then answer questions about the passage. These questions include high level inference questions to promote a higher order of thinking, interpreting what they have read and therefor conveying a true understanding of what the author was trying to communicate. It goes even deeper but you get the idea. As you point out text complexity deals more with the different layers of a text that can make it more complex or rich such as the vocabulary choice, how it’s organized, the tome of the piece and so on just as you mentioned. While I can certainly tie into the text complexity of a close read, they are in fact two different things. I look to text complexity when deciding what my student should read, what text will be just right for them, meaning not so difficult that they will not be able to comprehend what they are reading but challenging enough that they will grow form being exposed to it. Therefore I look at the text complexity of the piece; I am looking for the sweet spot do to speak. Dr. Mesmer Virginia Tech University and Sarah Brown Wessling have both researched and written extensively on the issue of text complexity. You echo what they both have found.


Veronica P. Apr 09, 2017 07:40 PM

When I first heard of close reading and text complexity, I was confused as to how the two relate, but after having the opportunity to engage in collegiate visits with a close reading and complex text lesson with grade 1, I found it so interesting that with a close read, emerging readers were learning to have thoughtful discussions about inference, predictions, and vocabulary. The close read was with a book by Brian Lies, Bats at the Beach, whose books have wonderful illustrations and rich, vibrant vocabulary. Another researcher on Close Reading and Comprehension, Dr. Nancy Boyles, emphasizes the same principles as Shanahan, in regard to text complexity. During my visit to grade 1, the teacher emphasized the first read in a close reading was for enjoyment; then, the following lessons focused in on re-reading a passage, examining vocabulary, and student/teacher discussions. I loved the fact that the first reading was based on enjoyment, because the ultimate goal is to foster a love and appreciation of reading, with the goal of leading students to use learned strategies in their independent reading with increased comprehension. 1/24/16

Whitney Brown Apr 09, 2017 07:40 PM

As a 6th grade ELA resource/inclusion teacher, I am constantly looking for strategies to improve my student's comprehension skills. The one thing that stood out to me was that Shanahan discussed teaching a strategy through scaffolding. Often times, I think teacher at the middle school level expect students to already possess the strategies needed to comprehend a text; however, this is not the case (and I'm not just referring to students with special needs). I think as educators we have to remember that any strategy we teach students to use will be best learned through scaffolding. We can't expect students to learn and use a strategy taught in a lesson one day the very next day, at least not effectively. I also think Shanahan makes a good point about using a variety of texts. I think students needs exposure to a variety of genres, media formats, and text structures. Although, this blog was directed at grades 3-5, I was able to relate to many aspects of the post.


Kristen Hull Apr 09, 2017 07:41 PM

I am so happy I found your blog, I have been reading your posts and am learning so much.

I have been doing close reading with my first graders and also accessing complex texts with the reading wonders program - literature anthology and readers workshop. I am wondering, what are your thoughts on helping the students that struggle with decoding skills when doing close reading and accessing complex texts? Do I focus on tackling that hurdle with them in small group and for close reading and complex text just read aloud and guide students in interpreting the text? Not worrying about those that can't read the text? I guess I am confused as to what to do, and expect from students.

See, when I am asking students to go back during a re read to find text evidence, (why was the dog sad? How do you know? Where did you find that? What sentence or words told you he was sad? ) I am banking on the fact that they can read and decode automatically and comprehend the text in order to find the evidence. My top group and some on level grouped students can, but there are those students struggling with even just reading the text and comprehending what can I expect from those students who struggle with just the reading and making sense of the literature anthology or readers workshop story?


Liz Feb 02, 2020 03:20 AM

Hi Dr. Shanahan,

Would it make sense to say that the more complex a text is, the better candidate it is for a close read?



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


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