Staying Warm During Cold Reads

  • 14 September, 2013

Teacher Letter:

I've heard you speak and think I know your position on Background Knowledge and Common Core "New Yorker" style book introductions. But was wondering if you could dedicate a post about the term "Cold Reads" as referred to in the Common Core and address the arguments made by the teacher author of this article on the topic.     

Shanahan Response:

Thanks. I hadn’t seen this post by Jeremiah Chaffee, an English teacher. I've only  focused on his “cold reading” remarks.

  First, Common Core doesn’t use the term, “cold read.” It appears to be meant as a pejorative for close reading, though it only characterizes one dimension of close reading (the withholding of information from outside the text—while ignoring its emphasis on how texts work and the use of text evidence in interpretation). Close reading sounds warm and cuddly (“let’s get close”); while cold reading is, well, cold.

  Mr. Chaffee claims cold reading is inherently boring. I’m sure it can be, but I don’t think it has to. I’ve been working on a study, observing large numbers of reading lessons of the type he champions, but contrary to his claims, many of those lessons seem painfully boring. I, again, don’t think that has to be the case, but there it is. I’ve spent much time in classrooms over 40 years, and I’m not convinced there is any way of reading that is necessarily intellectually stimulating, nor do I think any of these popular reading approaches are consistently stultifying either.

  Part of the problem is that these ways of reading are really philosophical positions about epistemology that are being translated into instructional practice. Those who espouse particular ways of reading strive for philosophical consistency. The problem is that none of these reading approaches consistently pays off; and readers are likely better served by a wider palate of choices. 

  Mr. Chaffee says the “cold” approach to text has something to do with standardized testing. It doesn’t. In fact, the notion that students should read texts without lots of added background dates to the 1920s, in college English departments --without any thoughts of standardized testing or testing preparation.

  He criticizes David Coleman for indicating that close reads “level the playing field,” by limiting students to the information in the text instead of their background knowledge. I agree with Mr. Chaffee on this one, and his many examples all make sense to me. Readers are going to make connections when they read, and you won’t easily bridle this activity, nor should you. David C. (as well as many of his critics) do seem a tad confused on this point… they seem to believe that how we present a text to students will change the nature of reading comprehension. It won’t. These modern-day Canutes can order the ebb of the tides all they want; to no avail.

  Human beings appear to be programmed to see connections and relationships. Close/cold reading may not intentionally emphasize the application of prior knowledge during reading, but it can’t very well prevent it.

  I have expressed my own criticisms of close reading and the Coleman videos in this space before and readers can turn to past posts about close reading to see what my views have been (there is an index on the right side of my page). One point that I have made is that close reading is not an identical process across disciplines, and I think that is partially what Mr. Chaffee is getting at in his complaints about the Gettysburg Address lesson (it is one thing to analyze the rhetoric of the text, and another altogether to determine what led to this speech or what its implications have been--English teachers can satisfy themselves with the former, while history teachers can neglect that and focus on the latter).

  But I think Chaffee’s argument is as simplistic as what he complains about. Yes, a teacher could definitely have kids discuss their experiences at funerals, since Lincoln’s speech was delivered as part of a memorial service. However, like Coleman, I suspect this would only waste time and lead kids astray rather than focusing them on a deeper interaction with Lincoln’s message and rhetoric. As historians (Garry Wills, for instance) have so articulately explained, Lincoln’s address isn’t characteristic of eulogies at ordinary funerals, but of the addresses at funerals for heroes; and the language and structure that Lincoln chose was in that tradition (his speech was based on Pericles’ Oration).

  I’ve been to too many funerals and have seen too many memorial speeches, none of which was anything like Lincoln’s talk—in style, structure, language choice, or purpose. The more relevant background experience, for me, is what I know of public funerals—such as those of the Kennedy brothers, the Challenger astronauts, and Martin Luther King, all of which I watched on television. My Uncle Bud’s beery sendoff shared no obvious connections with Gettysburg. (Of course, the reason Lincoln’s address is similar to those given at modern heroic funerals is because these modern eulogists have been ventriloquizing Lincoln.)

  If your students have more than a passing familiarity with memorial addresses at heroic funerals, then I would definitely encourage them to make this connection, a connection that could be stimulated with no more than a sentence or two of explanation (studies suggest that is all that is needed to get our natural relating and connecting proclivities flowing). But teachers should not spend half the period showing videos of such memorials prior to reading because at that point it would be better to have them focused on Lincoln’s words and ideas (close reading).

  The basic idea that Coleman and company have been expressing is that it is important for students to gain extensive experience in reading and interpreting text. Towards that end they are trying to reign in some of the unfortunate classroom practices that have often done more to distract students from texts rather than involving them in reading texts more reflectively and thoughtfully. (Regular readers know Coleman long ago backed off on some of the more strident claims about close reading that Mr. Chaffee is reacting to).

  The problem is that teachers have too often allowed precious classroom reading time to be waylaid by errant discussions of student background; discussions that may be irrelevant to interpreting the text, that may reinforce students’ existing misconceptions; and that, even when focused appropriately, may be more extensive than necessary to prepare students to take on a text effectively. It is easy to mistake a lively discussion of family funerals (oxymoron intended) as a sign of student engagement; it may be, but it is not an engagement in reading.


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Staying Warm During Cold Reads


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