Why Should Close Reading Be Advantaged?

  • 23 September, 2013


When writing about close reading, I have often mentioned that there are multiple approaches to reading. Most elementary teachers and many secondary English teachers don’t know much about these different approaches or why they have been controversial. Thus, when someone takes pot shots at close reading they are surprised and wonder what may be going on.

Towards trying to clarify such disagreements, and to expose the limitations of close reading (and why we wouldn’t want to embrace it too tightly), I have sketched out three major approaches to reading touted by English Departments over the past century. I conclude with my own sense of where these belong developmentally. Hope you find it useful.

Scholastic Approach

This first approach says that to interpret a text it is necessary to trace its roots of creation or the author’s original intent. Text is imperfect and time changes things so readers cannot rely solely on an author’s words to make sense of a text.

  Such a reading of the Gettysburg Address would involve students in reading Pericles’ Oration and Everett’s eulogy (the speech that immediately preceded Lincoln’s that day), along with any notes or other speeches Lincoln might have made or remarks about the address that he may have made to his contemporaries. It would be a good idea to come armed with a good Nineteenth Century dictionary, too, preferably one that was available to Lincoln. (Garry Wills, "Lincoln at Gettysburg" is a great example of this kind of reading).

 Close Reading

Close reading, on the other hand, places the meaning in the text itself. The author’s intentions aren’t what readers should be probing, but the author’s words are the focus. Authors can be awfully unreliable when telling (or remembering) why they wrote something.

  To read closely means to gain the meaning of the text and how it works from an analysis of the text itself, with little or no outside information. Such reading includes reading and rereading, weighing words and structures, to try to crack an author’s code. This self-contained and self-reliant approach is the one now being emphasized by Common Core.

  If scholastic readers are going to probe the sources of Lincoln’s little speech at Gettysburg, the close reader is, instead, going to think hard about what the word “dedicate” means each of the six times Lincoln used it, and why he reused this word again and again. (And, a good example of this, is David Coleman's Lessons on Gettysburg Address).

Post-Structuralist Reading

Close reading, the darling of college English Departments in the 1930s-1960s, fell out of fashion. So-called Post-Modern or post-structuralist reading approaches took over. Stanley Fish has championed the idea of a “community of interpretation,” that removes the meaning from either the text itself or the author’s intent, and places it in the community of readers. That is, a text means what we (as a community) say that it means.

According to these scholars, words do not maintain their meaning because the communities of readers change. Thus, the meaning of a text like the Gettysburg Address will change over time and space, depending on who is reading it (Barry Schwarz, a sociologist, shows how our current interpretation differs from the interpretations at the time the speech was given: Post-structural approach to Gettysburg Address).

As a result of such insights, scholars have put forth particular interpretive lenses or philosophies that readers should use. Thus, we have Marxist readings, and Feminist readings, and readings from the margins, and so on. The idea is that to understand a text you must approach the text through a coherent philosophy. That puts the meaning in the interpretive framework of the reader rather than in the text.

Elementary and Secondary Instruction

Although I deeply respect what I referred to above as scholastic reading, I doubt that most of us will engage in such reading very often. I think we should accord it the respect it deserves, and I think we can all benefit from knowing how our best scholars have interpreted our great works of literature (and how their detective work proceeds). I expect our courts and Congresses to consider laws from this angle, and hope the White House and State Department read messages from foreign leaders in these ways, as well.

  But I really don’t think that scholastic reading is really the province of K-12. Frankly, I feel the same way about post-structuralist approaches. I definitely believe that meaning is complex and changing and that how we approach a work will shape its meaning. And yet, I think these ideas would be inappropriately disruptive to kids given their stages of intellectual development. It isn’t that high-schoolers shouldn’t be exposed to scholastic and post-structuralist ideas, just that those ideas shouldn’t make up much of the curriculum—and much before that, I don’t see any real place for them.

Close reading is different because of its emphasis on self-reliance and its bounded nature. With close reading, students don’t need to have well-developed political or social philosophies (and schools shouldn’t try to impose such views), nor do they need ready access to the scholars’ tools. The student, the book, and the teacher are sufficient. Making kids into self-reliant readers, capable of making sense of what an author has written, is both incredibly freeing, and limiting. It provides the student with obvious power, but it limits them to what they can grasp on their own from the text itself.

I hope all of our students will gain the power inherent in being able to give a text a close read, by the time they leave high school. College is the place to ply the scholars’ trade and to develop a philosophical lens through which to interpret. Being close readers will give them a strong basis on which to gain access to these more sophisticated and expensive tools.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Mac Mar 28, 2017 11:27 PM

While I definitely agree close reading is an important skill to learn, elementary kids should also be learn to read for fun or they are going to dread reading anything.

Timothy Shanahan Mar 28, 2017 11:27 PM


I don't disagree with your assessment of the learning situation for kids, but I don't think we have a strong handle on how to teach kids to enjoy reading.

Stephanie Hodde Mar 28, 2017 11:28 PM

I'm enjoying this conversation concerning close reading. Having been both a student of close reading during my BA in English, a student of New Criticism while at University of Chicago, and also a student of Gerald Graff's and Stanley Fish's ("teach the conflicts!" and learning communities) I can say I have been 'schooled' in many reading approaches.

I think we can be assured that Mr. Shanahan's discussion of close reading takes a sociocultural approach to learning, which means that every reading experience is not isolated, but involves a transaction with many reader perspectives and ideas. If we consider close reading from Rosenblatt's theoretical perspective, which was largely influenced by John Dewey, we know it is pragmatic. Whether you are reading to gather information (efferent reading) or reading for sensory experiences (aesthetic reading), you are making meaning by connections to both your own and other's prior experiences as well as intertextual (text-to text) connections. It is true that students often need scaffolds to recognize that a close reading is not just the words on the page, but rather an invitation for more public understandings.

That said, I wanted to mention text sets. I would hope that teachers in contemporary classrooms are beginning to recognize the need for text sets as ways to provide context and multiple perspectives on any given disciplinary topic. Every text is a lens for thinking, so if we provide a varied set of lenses throughout the learning cycle of a given unit, along with big or essential questions, we can provide a broader conversation for each reading.

Rush Walsh Mar 28, 2017 11:28 PM

I notice in your analysis of approaches to text you did not include reader response theory forwarded by Louise Rosenblatt and popular as an instructional strategy since the early 1980s. The recent book by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst, Notice and Note, argues that there is a place for reader response in close reading.

Beers and Probst take on close reading is very different from that posited in the CCSS. They argue that a narrow focus on the “four corners of the page” as the CCSS suggest, ignores what we know about meaning making. “Meaning is created not purely and simply from the words on the page, but from the transaction with those words that takes place in the reader’s mind (Beers and Probst, p.34).” Close reading, they assert, means that we should bring the reader and the text close together. The reader matters and the text matters.

One of the fears that Beers and Probst and I have is that to slavish a use of text dependent questions will blunt student interest in text.

I explore the notion of a reader response approach to close reading here. http://russonreading.blogspot.com/2013/06/the-blue-guitar-towards-reader-response.html

Timothy Shanahan Mar 28, 2017 11:29 PM


Thanks for your thoughtful letter. I didn't mention reader response for a few reasons. First, it never became a dominant force in English departments, though it definitely was a force during the Post-Structuralist period.

Rosenblatt's theory was contemporaneous to the New Criticism, and her work was seen both by the New Critics (and herself) as a rival to that work--not an offshoot of it.

As you point out, you have to redefine "close reading" to mean something different from what the New Critics had in mind or what Common Core promotes. I don't much care for any approach that simply appropriates the name of something and infuses it with an alternative (and in this case contradictory) reading. That is too post-structuralist for me and it just confuses readers/teachers who are working hard to implement standards that they often are just trying to understand.

There is no question that human beings interpret text through their lens of prior experience. No trick to getting people to do that (they do it naturally). I think the real issue is whether one can discipline his or her mind to hear the other side of an issue or argument (thus, the emphasis on close reading); can you reach beyond the limits of our own egos). Research shows that there are definite benefits to using what you know when you read, but there are also big costs to it. Common Core is definitely asking this generation of kids to reach beyond themselves towards public rather than personal discourse. We can retitle those self-oriented approaches as close reading, but that doesn't make it close readi

Susanna Lang Mar 28, 2017 11:29 PM

I have never understood why the education community insists on choosing between option A and option B. Can't we help our students take the text itself seriously with close reading, and at the same time help them see the wider context for the literature they're reading? The Gettysburg address is an easy example: It makes little sense if you've never heard of the Civil War. That doesn't mean that you replace a careful reading of Lincoln's words with a study of the speech before him, or of the political and military situation within which he made that speech. Why can't we have both/and instead of either/or? And for that matter, even with 7th and 8th graders it is sometimes helpful to bring a lens such as feminism to a reading, for example, of The House on Mango Street.

Laura Gibbs Mar 28, 2017 11:30 PM

I would also like to nominate "reading for pleasure" to the list... it seems to me that if schools do not, first and foremost, allow students to feel really and truly like "readers," i.e. people who know how and where to find the books they want to read for pleasure, all three of these largely academic exercises are putting the cart before the horse.

Deborah Goff Mar 28, 2017 11:30 PM

I recently read the IRA policy brief on close reading - Close Reading and Far-Reaching Classroom Discussion: Fostering a Vital Connection. In this brief, the authors state that simply reading closely in isolation - giving students the text and asking them to understand the text - can be counterproductive to rich classroom discussions. The uthors further reason that understanding when and under what conditions - social and/or historical - can sometimes be vital in interpreting the text. The problem, of course, is that for many years teachers have practically interpreted the text for students without giving them a chance to struggle with the author's words and ideas. How do you see an effective "marriage" of providing social/historical background without denying students the opportunity to grapple with a challenging text?

Timothy Shanahan Mar 28, 2017 11:30 PM

This is a distinction without a difference (I think). The IRA brief is correct, and yet, no one that I have read or heard is saying that close reading is to be done by the kids by themselves in the classroom (except perhaps during assessment). Teacher questions still drive the process of close reading.

You've hit on the real point: teachers are providing way too much information. I would suggest that even in close reading it is okay to give kids a small amount of context ("this is a play that was written 400 years ago so some of the language will require extra attention," "this is a mystery story so you will need to read it like a mystery, figuring what the mystery is and identifying clues to its solution"). You don't need to give kids more than that in most cases.

Laura Gibbs Mar 28, 2017 11:31 PM

I would also like to nominate "reading for pleasure" to the list... it seems to me that if schools do not, first and foremost, allow students to feel really and truly like "readers," i.e. people who know how and where to find the books they want to read for pleasure, all three of these largely academic exercises are putting the cart before the horse

Emily Mar 28, 2017 11:31 PM

Thank you for such a thoughtful and detailed explanation!

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Why Should Close Reading Be Advantaged?


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