Close Reading with Struggling Adolescents

  • Common Core State Standards
  • 13 March, 2013

Teacher question:

  I have a question regarding close reading and struggling adolescent readers. What I’ve read about close reading suggests that students should first read the text independently. I’m wondering if this still applies when students are reading significantly below grade level (2-5 years). Is reading the text aloud and modeling thinking (around Key Ideas and Details) during the first read ever appropriate? 

Thanks in advance for your response!

Shanahan response:

Be very careful of what you read about close reading. It is not a teaching technique; when people try to make it into one, they tend to reveal all kinds of biases and funny beliefs (my guess is that many of them don’t know much about close reading and they’re scrambling now to make you think they are “experts” about it). Close reading is an outcome. You want students to be able to read texts—without a lot of external information from teachers or publishers—getting what the text says, how it works, and what it means (including my critical response, my sense of how it connects with other texts, etc.).

  There is no single way to accomplish this—and there is no research showing that some particular way has worked best. Close reading has never been a major emphasis in the teaching of reading to children (except in the Junior Great Books program), and when it was the major approach emphasized in college and high school English Departments, social science research was not a common means of evaluating instructional effectiveness.

  Though it isn’t a teaching technique or method, since we want our kids to be close readers, it makes sense that in some of our reading lessons we would have students engage in such practices; if you never do it, how will you get good at it? The idea is to engage students in such practices so that they will carry the practices forward.  

  Everyone agrees that close reading includes multiple readings (even if those re-readings are only of portions of the text); everyone agrees that close reading means looking not just at what a text says, but how it says it (close reading treats text as a unity—what the author says and how he/she says it are viewed as connected, so you have to see these connections to fully understand the text); and everyone also agrees that a teacher’s major input needs to be made through asking students about the text (thus, drawing their attention to things that might be missed, confused, etc.) rather than telling kids what the text says. Beyond that you have a lot of latitude in these lessons.

  However, there is more going on in reading lessons than close reading, and it is critical that teachers remember that, too. For example, a close reading interpretative stance is a good one, but it won’t be of much use if students can’t actually decode the text (“if someone would just come and read this text to me I could do one hell of a close reading”).

  Some “experts” do suggest reading the text aloud to the students, because it is easier to focus their attention. I have no doubt that it is easier to manage when the teacher does the reading or when there is some form of round robin, and yet, if you take those approaches, when do students learn to read text themselves? During their college and career years?  Too late.

  The key is to remember what you are trying to teach, and, yes, close reading is one of the things you are trying to teach. However, if kids can only do that with relatively easy texts or with texts that you read to them, then you will have failed.

  Also, pay a lot of attention to the texts themselves. I stress the idea of reading a text three times (that is trying to resolve the key idea/details, craft/structure, meaning and integration), and, yet, with some texts you can accomplish all three in a single read (not great texts for close reading), in others twice would be sufficient, and in still others it might take you more than three reads to do these three things (“I had to read the text twice on my second read”).

  If you think about what you are trying to accomplish and you pay attention to the depth and quality of texts (so that you aren’t beating dead horses with some thin texts or skimming over the surfaces of the challenging ones), you will need to vary your instructional choices. You won’t be able to follow anyone’s scheme step-by-step.     

  Yes, it is okay to model a close listening (or viewing) rather than a close reading to show kids how it works and what you have in mind. However, most of the time close reading requires kids to actually do the reading (unless you plan on hanging out with them from now on to do their reading for them—I’m sure the PARCC and Smarter Balanced people will love that). The trick is to scaffold the readings and re-readings sufficiently to allow these students to participate successfully—they have to do the reading and thinking, you can’t do it for them.

  If they are far behind as readers, I would consider starting with some fluency preparation before you take on a particular text—don’t worry much about the comprehension yet—just getting them reading and rereading the text aloud, perhaps with a partner, resolving words, figuring out sentences. Or, try parsing the text for the students (dividing up the various noun phrases, verb phrases, prepositional phrases, etc. to help them make it sound like language). When this has been done, then you can turn your attention to a “first reading”—that is a first reading in which they are really trying to understand what is going on. Of course, you don’t have to do this “first reading” from beginning to end (though in some instances that might be a good idea), so you can have kids read a page or a paragraph or section and then discuss that, guiding them to understand what the text says with your questions. On later reads, you might do a bit of this work for them—so if you want them to pay special attention to the second sentence or the third paragraph or the part where the author describes Aunt Polly, you might read that portion aloud to the students (but, of course, this is after they have already read the text and have a pretty good idea of what it says).

  I think the key is being purposeful, flexible, and strategic in your planning and teaching. If you do that, you might make some mistakes, but your kids will also likely learn to be thoughtful readers capable of conducting their own close reads of even challenging texts.

[I noted my displeasure with much that has been written about close reading. A notable exception is the recent article published by Kathleen Hinchman and David Moore in the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy. Although I have some minor bones to pick with them about the history of close reading (the Post-Structuralists were not proposing a different approach to close reading, but an alternative approach to thinking about texts, in which the reader does not seek unities, but inconsistencies and contradictions, and in which external lenses are not to be shunned). Beyond such trivial quibbling however, the article is valuable and should be read widely.]


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Close Reading with Struggling Adolescents


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