What's the Difference Between Close Reading and Teaching Complex Text?

  • author awareness
  • 17 December, 2017

Teacher question:

Aren’t “teaching with complex text” and “teaching close reading” really the same idea, just in different words? Some of my teachers are confused by these terms. Some of them, like me, think they are the same idea, while others think they are really two different standards. How can I clarify this for them?

 Shanahan response:

I must admit that the first time this confusion presented itself to me, I was pretty darned surprised.

I was supposed to make two presentations to some California teachers—an AM and a PM talk, and the reading supervisor wanted to know the two titles. I suggested one on close reading and one on teaching kids to read complex text.

Her response: What will you present in the afternoon?


That time I had to write something up for her curriculum director before she’d approve. She may have thought I was trying to get away with one talk for the price of two.

Believe it or not, teaching with complex text and teaching close reading are different things, though there are some connections.

Complex text, first: For 70 years, teachers have been admonished for teaching kids with difficult books. The claim has been that there are particular levels of text that kids learn best from—and levels of books from which they can’t learn much at all. Consequently, many students are taught with texts aimed at kids from lower grade levels.

That approach holds kids back. Instead of improving their reading ability, it has simply slowed down their progress and guaranteed that many will never have the opportunity to deal with demanding text—until they leave school.

Don’t get me wrong; the folks who insist on teaching kids at “their reading levels” don’t mean to do harm. They are trying to avoid kids sitting through reading lessons not reading anything because the texts are hard for them.  They divide the reading universe in two: the one where kids read books, albeit books without much challenge; and the other, where kids languish in books they cannot read.

These days many educators are thinking about reading instruction in more nuanced ways. Perhaps there are three categories, not two?

Yes, there are kids who aren’t going to learn much about reading because they are placed in such easy books (books they might be able to “read,” but that are below the students’ intellectual and social levels of development). And, indeed, there are those kids who do more than look at the schoolbooks because of the difficulty that they represent.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Kids can be placed in challenging, complex, difficult text (yes, even frustration level text)—and can be taught how to read and comprehend. By teaching kids how to decode words, figure out vocabulary, discern text structure, conquer complicated grammar, connect subtle cohesive links, or to overcome any other type of textual or linguistic barrier, teachers enable students to read and learn from books that in the past might have been avoided.

The idea of teaching kids to read complex texts involves placing them in texts of sufficient difficulty that there is really something to learn and then providing them with instruction in how to negotiate the challenges that a text may pose so that they do learn.

For the sake of simplicity, let’s classify text challenges into two categories: the linguistic/textual and the thematic/substantive. The former includes things like being able to make sense of how a text is formatted or coming to terms with the meanings of the words; while the latter gets at notions like: the kids don’t know anything about igneous rocks or the text’s theme is elusive or sophisticated (e.g., The Old Man and the Sea for sixth-graders).

What about close reading?

Close reading refers to making sense of a text in a particular way. It is about textual interpretation, and as such it specifies both what the ground rules are for interpreting a text as well as what the interpretive goals may be.

For instance, one of those interpretive rules requires that the interpretations of close readers be based solely on the text. That is, close readers try to interpret what is going on in a text and what it means, without reference to an author’s biography or past works. Some readers may devour the criticism of a text and then read the actual text themselves through the lens of those critics, but that isn’t what we mean by close reading. (Thus, when teaching close reading, teachers try to avoid providing kids with lots of outside information.)

And, in terms of interpretive goals, close readers are interested in how texts communicate their ideas, and not just what those ideas may be. Think of a book like The Three Robbers. It isn’t the language that makes it hard, but the moral ambiguity. Are these good guys or bad? Should they be punished or rewarded? There’s a lot of meat there for contemplation, discussion, and writing…

It is a complex book, but not especially difficult to “comprehend” (kids can usually summarize it just fine). But, it is hard to discern an underlying message and to do so one must study it carefully—reading and rereading… weighing the author’s word choices, analyzing the pictures thoroughly, considering both what is there—and what isn’t.

Close reading is about making sense of those kinds of things depending only on the information the author has provided. That’s why text evidence is so important in close reading. It is unreasonable to claim that Tomi Ungerer is suggesting that the three robbers have seen the error of their ways and regret their earlier actions without pointing to something in the text that reveals such repentance.

Close readers do have to deal with text complexity… but it is the complexity of ideas, symbols, doubleness and so on that is the issue—not the basic complexity of the language or the text formatting.

Thus, complex text and close reading both deal with the idea of kids making sense of texts that may be hard to read and interpret—but they do so in very different ways.

Teaching kids to untangle sentences with embedding so they can comprehend those sentences would be pretty central to comprehending complex language—but its value to close reading is only incidental. And, the same could be said for recognizing that you don’t know the meaning of a word, and then trying to figure it out based on context or with the help of a dictionary. Teaching kids to do those kinds of things should give them access to the ideas in books even when those ideas are expressed in complex ways.

While teaching kids to recognize when an event or object is meant to be a metaphor or that the white hats and black hats in the old cowboy movies were character summaries rather than fashion statements are not so much about language complexity as they are about grasping the deeper meanings of a text through intensive analysis of the ideas in the text.

Text complexity and close reading are related, but different. Teachers need to teach both.  


See what others have to say about this topic.

Mari Nelson Dec 18, 2017 12:56 AM

I enjoyed reading your thoughts on close reading. Some teachers are spending time "building background" through videos, slide deck presentations and discussions on the text/topic content before the actual close reading of the text, thinking that their students don't have enough schema to understand the text. After the "building background" lesson, teachers provide students multiple time periods to discuss and write about the text meaning, connected to main idea and details, author's craft and structure, and integration of knowledge and ideas. According to your reflection on close reading, teachers should avoid providing background information before reading the text. Could you comment on this practice as it relates to students who might not be making connections to the content in the text?

Karen Currie Dec 18, 2017 01:10 AM

Great read, but I'm wondering if there might be a missing NO in the sentence below?
"And, indeed, there are those kids who do more than look at the schoolbooks because of the difficulty that they represent."
...do no more than look...
Perhaps it's not a typo and I simply misinterpreted the text!

Jann Hunter Dec 18, 2017 02:15 AM

I would enjoy a response to the reader, Mari Nelson’s question. I have the same question.

Tim Shanahan Dec 18, 2017 05:02 AM

First, let’s be clear that I would not propose doing close reading all the time. Many texts simply don’t justify it.
That means that there might be times when I’m going to add information to the text to enable kids to accomplish basic comprehension of it... and there will be times when I want the kids to take on the text dealing only with text information.

Second, when we do provide kids with additional information we tend to overdo it (your description sounds like overkill). Studies on the effectiveness of evoking prior knowledge to support kids’ reading comprehension provide very limited information. Teachers should try to get that pre-info review down to a couple of minutes. By having kids doing some reading without the added information teachers will see what the kids can do.

Third, if you have not front loaded and the kids are confused by something because the text lacks some information (that is, the author depended on his/her audience to know something and your kids didn’t know it) you can still provide it at the point when the confusion becomes available. That is true even with close reading.

Tim Shanahan Dec 18, 2017 05:03 AM

Thanks... I’ll fix it.

Laura Wallin Dec 18, 2017 02:34 PM

The response to Mari's question was very helpful. As a Literacy Coach, I see this happening all the time, and my thoughts are the same, it seems like overkill. Providing the context when the difficulty arises is a better use of time. The diligent use of time in teaching reading is very important. Thank you for the response.

Nancy Rose Steinbock, M.A., CCC-SLP Dec 18, 2017 03:24 PM

Very interesting description of both issues. Again, I think as you have pointed out, there are elements in both that intersect and oftentimes, we try to categorize concepts which bogs down the process of teaching and learning. One important point that I want to press upon as an SLP specialized in literacy acquisition and disorders, is your excellent comment regarding the underpinnings of complex text. That is, in the early grades we think we are providing enough practice of the basics in terms of phonics, morphology and grammar instruction when it is questionable often, if we do.

As someone who frequently sees the aftermath of superficial treatment of these essential skills as well as the effects of graded readers with the long-term effects of producing reading apathy or confusion, I do feel that fluency and implementation of basic skills needs to be a crucial focus beginning in first grade and certainly, throughout the elementary and middle school years. You have to have a skill set and be able to deploy it so that the act of reading becomes as automatic as possible, leaving attention and reflection the necessary time to think. If teachers (and SLPs) understood better, the connections between oral language and verbal rehearsal (and how it supports and drives executive functioning) and the reading process, we may be less fixated on terminology and more aware of dynamism of thought and language.

Kevin Black Dec 30, 2017 04:04 AM

I always tell new teachers that all of those slide deck presentations and building background lessons should be limited because our goal is to build content knowledge THROUGH the reading of complex texts. I also suggest to, instead, think about embedding engaging complex informational texts in units that help bridge gaps in student understanding.

Jessica F. Jan 17, 2018 01:23 AM

This was a very enjoyable and thought-provoking read. I teach 3rd grade at a school in rural South Georgia. Several years ago, our county trained us and required us to implement close read and cold read strategies in our Reading classrooms. Each week we use close reads to practice skills, then the students apply these skills that we have practiced through a cold read. Usually these reads are on grade-level no matter if the student is reading on grade-level or not.
What I found the most interesting about this article were Mr. Shanahan's comments about teaching complex text. I am a firm-believer in challenging the students in my classroom to strive for more. I find that the difficulty in standards jump from second to third grade and many times, the students have put their motivation in a cruise position. They do not want to be challenged by others and do not want to challenge themselves. For the first 8 years I taught, there was a huge push in teaching students within their zone of proximal development. I was told to not create frustration for the students because they will shut down. I agree with Mr. Shanahan’s thoughts on challenging students. Even when they are reading a text that is challenging, and even sometimes frustrating, they can still learn. As a teacher it is my job to give them the skills to be able to comprehend the text by, as Mr. Shanahan listed, teaching them to decode, use context clues, look at and understand figurative language, and notice text structure. By teaching the skills and not worrying about the complexity of the text, I feel like the students are learning and are going to be able to apply what they have learned to any level of text. This will allow them to grow into independent readers who can conquer anything that is put in front of them. They will have the confidence that they can read and understand what they are reading instead of thinking the text is too complicated for them to understand because of it’s grade-level equivalency or Lexile. Think about all of the doors that will open for them if they have the confidence and the skills instead of doubting themselves.

Alexis Halkyard Jan 17, 2018 06:45 PM

Before reading this article, I had no clue there was a difference between close reading and teaching complex text. More importantly, I had a very poor understanding of close reading. Unfortunately, I am one of those teachers who uses texts aimed for kids in lower grade levels because I fear of choosing text that my students cannot comprehend. However, I had no clue by doing this I was slowing down my students’ progress. This whole time I thought I was helping them. I wonder if there are times when this strategy is appropriate. How often should a teacher teach students to read books that are at their frustration level? Nonetheless, it does make sense that kids can read complex text as long as they are taught the necessary strategies, such as decoding words, figure out vocabulary, connect cohesive links, etc. In my opinion, these strategies are related to close reading. Thanks to the Shanahan, though, I have learned that the key difference between close reading and text complexity is that “close readers are interested in how texts communicate their ideas, and not just what those ideas may be.” This sentence alone helped me gain a better understanding of close reading. Now, I agree that close reading and text complexity are related in some ways, but are ultimately different concepts.

Melissa Dingus Jan 18, 2018 05:34 PM

I am a teacher in a middle school self-contained classroom with students ranging from mild to severe intellectual disabilities. Four of my students are also served under an autism eligibility classification. I am currently working on a master's degree in education with a major in adapted curriculum.

As part of the master's program we are required to take a number of reading courses, which may lead to a reading endorsement. This week our focus has been of common core and text complexity. As a few members of this blog have commented, I was quite confused about the difference between text complexity and close reading.

Less than half of my students can read any type of printed text, with the remainder using texts with visual symbols. For the students that can read, most are reading at about a second grade level. We use the Unique Learning System for our reading curriculum. The curriculum is designed with students will special needs and the texts and tasks are presented at three different levels to try to meet the diverse needs of the students in our self-contained classrooms. For those students who can read, we also are using Reading Milestones in an attempt to increase their literacy skills. A significant amount of our reading time and tasks are focused on reading comprehension.

I am looking for suggestions as to ways that I can either increase the complexity of our reading tasks and/or the texts. After reading the descriptions of text complexity and close reading, it would appear that use of a close reading strategy might prove to be the most beneficial for my students.

I am very open to ideas and suggestions.

Anna Mitchell Jan 18, 2018 08:48 PM

I found this article to be very interesting as well. I find text complexity a difficult standard to implement in special education classes especially the self-contained settings. I teach severe and profound now so our reading instruction is very primary/readiness skills. We do focus on unit themes and we read books aloud with the students. But for my students, the basic preschool books are complex for them but not appropriate grade level texts so it can be very hard. For instance, when we work on GAA standards, I choose texts on their grade level but have to work very hard to adapt them for my students. I pick out the basic vocabulary and add pictures to them and we work on matching pictures to the main ideas of the story. When I taught students with mild intellectual disabilities, we would use grade level text and use a lot of pre-teaching strategies for my students to gain knowledge from the text. Many of my students could read words but could not comprehend what they were reading. In these instances, I would choose lower level readers to work on comprehension so they weren't focusing so much on the fluency of higher level books. I am not sure if this is the correct approach but it worked for my students. When we were focusing on decoding and fluency, we would do guided reading and individual reading. We would do a lot of predictions, and going over unfamiliar words to help them read more fluently. Words they would get stuck on, we would make flashcards with those and those would be their words for the week to practice reading. I would love to know more information about teaching students with disabilities while incorporating text complexity, because to be honest its confusing to me.

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What's the Difference Between Close Reading and Teaching Complex Text?


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