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Saturday, January 12, 2013

Six Ways to Improve Close Readings

"How do you effectively structure and guide classroom discussions about novels?"

"What's the best way to get students to engage with texts?"

"How can you ensure that students read the required chapters for homework? Mine never seem to do it."

I receive questions like these often, and although each deserves a separate answer, as a whole they seem to originate from the same desire: to engage students with texts through close readings.

In Implementing the Common CoreState Standards: A Primer on “Close Reading of Text,” the Aspen Institute provides a formal definition of close reading:

Close Reading of text involves an investigation of a short piece of text, with multiple readings done over multiple instructional lessons. Through text-based questions and discussion, students are guided to deeply analyze and appreciate various aspects of the text, such as key vocabulary and how its meaning is shaped by context; attention to form, tone, imagery and/or rhetorical devices; the significance of word choice and syntax; and the discovery of different levels of meaning as passages are read multiple times.

Timothy Shanahan defined the practice of close reading more succinctly, explaining that close reading "is an intensive analysis of a text in order to come to terms with what it says, how it says it, and what it means."

So is it a rereading of text? Yes, but with a clearly defined purpose. Those of us who teach with novels in the classroom know it can't be a rereading of the entire text; instead, it's a focused analysis of a selected excerpt in order to study a limited number of text attributes such as organization, sentence structure, vocabulary, symbolism, character development, plot advancement, etc. The purpose and focus of each close reading depends upon the text itself, thus leading to the CCSS push for more complex selections.

Below I've provided six suggestions for making the most of close reading experiences with students.
1. Read the Text Yourself

This seems obvious, but you'd be surprised how many teachers skip this step. They rely either upon teaching guides or margin notes, or their perceived understanding of the topic or theme, regardless of its treatment in a particular text.

I recall a conversation with a teacher who was reading Stone Fox with her third grade class. I casually remarked, "Have the tissues ready when the dog dies," and with a look of horror she gasped, "The dog dies?!" 

When I pressed her why she hadn't read the entire novel in advance, she replied, "I wanted to be surprised along with my students." In my opinion, she was vastly unprepared to discuss the intricacies of even this simple text. A teacher who likewise relies upon a third-party teaching guide rather than the source text neglects the very literature immersion and interaction which we desire for students.

Bonus: When you've read the entire book, you're prepared for those students who will read ahead. You know who they are: those students who attempt to engage you between periods or during homeroom, asking questions about what's to come, or pointing out connections based on previous close readings. Read the whole book, and you'll be ready to respond appropriately. I rarely dissuade these students from reading ahead, but I do discourage them from providing spoilers for the rest of the class. 

2. Ensure that Students Read the Text

In order to engage in a productive close reading, all students must have read the text a first time. As Nicholas Provenzano at Nerdy Teacher explains in a recent post on the importance of homework to the Reading/LA class:

Students need to read at home and come to class ready to discuss what they have learned. At the high school level, English teachers do not have the time to let kids read all they need to read in class.... Learning to read at home and annotate is an important skill that needs to be practiced at home after the skill is taught in class. So this work that is assigned to be done at home is homework, but it is valuable and important.

So how do we make this happen? I've used a number of methods, including response sheets and reflection sheets (having students respond to one theme-oriented question in context of a chapter), online quizzes such as Testmoz or those included in Edmodo or Schoology (completed either at home open-book or in class the following day), and polls seeking student input on a particular character's actions. I've also indicated that we would stage a debate the following day, and that they should be prepared to argue either side of the issue with text-based facts (the issue of contention itself is only revealed ti students after they read the required selection).

Perhaps the most effective method, however, has been to regularly schedule close readings for the next day. When students learn that they will be put on the spot to "pull a text apart," they're more likely to come prepared. Especially if the close readings are constructed in such a way that encourages lively, if not heated, dialogues. Middle and high schoolers are extremely social by nature, and most enjoy engaging in a lively exchange over a good text. Even the most reluctant contributors to classroom discussions will interact if we, as teachers, are prepared to discuss the intricacies of writing.

When discussing just the first two chapters of The Outsiders, for example, I share a chart which requires students to select which of the Greasers they would choose to take on a double date, back them up in a fight, teach them to drive, and so on. While at first glance it seems to be opinion based, students soon discover that they need to provide textual proof for their choices. (The chart is embedded below, and can be increased to full size using the fullscreen button in the lower right corner).

The students who neglected to read the assigned chapters for homework are ill-prepared to defend their choices in the discourse that ensues. See more on this lesson here.

Bonus: When students are expected to complete first readings on their own, they begin to welcome short assessments for each chapter. In their minds, their time spent reading assigned chapters is now serving "double duty" as it prepares them for class assessments as well as close reading and discussion sessions.

3. Choose Close Reading Excerpts in Advance

This can only happen, of course, if you followed step one and read the book for yourself. Having done this, you're ready to judiciously select those pages or paragraphs which warrant analysis and discussion.

How to best manage this? Keep your mind in the gutter. In other words, liberally annotate the pages of your own text, making liberal use of the margins and the gutter, that no-man's land formed by the inner margins of two facing pages. I prefer to do this only upon my second reading of a book, in a process I call Deconstructing the Novel.

As you reread the novel,
  • Assign each page a title. This will allow you to reference specific events more quickly. Critical quotes make excellent titles, as well as excellent discussion points.
  • Form anticipatory questions for each chapter. These are for your own reference, as they will cue you to what you felt was most important in this chapter.
  • Jot down questions throughout the chapter. Some questions may review information which is critical to unfolding events, while others may ask students to predict what will occur next, based upon the information that author has provided. It’s important to write STOP at those points where you would like students to predict or reflect; often in the “heat of the moment” we have flown past a point in the story where I had meant for students to stop and share their thoughts, or to predict what action the character might next take.
  • Underline vocabulary which is critical to understanding the story. Since close reading is text dependent, can students define these words using context clues? Or, is the term introduced here and then later defined using the “read on” strategy? Which words are unfamiliar, yet not critical in understanding the text?
  • Mark any literary devices. Which are employed by this author often? Which are central to the story’s theme or plot?
  • Continually ask yourself these questions: What’s worth knowing here? How can students take what is worth knowing and make it their own? How can they organize their own thinking about this novel’s contents in order to comprehend it better? In what ways does this excerpt rely upon, relate to, or affect other portions of the text? In what ways does this excerpt relate to the book's theme and essential questions about that theme? What has the author explicitly stated? What has the author hinted at? What has the author omitted?
Bonus: Students can learn to annotate texts in a similar manner following your model. Using copies of public domain documents is one excellent way to do this with pen and paper, and the Internet provides many sites and apps for practicing this skill digitally. Both Google Docs and WikiSpaces allow students to highlight and comment upon text selections, or Thinkport's Annotator provides an easy, registration-free stand-alone option. 

4. Allow Students to Choose Close Reading Excerpts 

This seems like self-contradicting advice, since it's the antithesis of what is suggested above. However, if we are to give students ownership over reading, and eventually "release them to the wild" to practice close reading on their own, then we should be willing to entertain examinations of those passages they find most troubling. challenging, important, and or entertaining.

Students may also begin to share writing from other sources which they come across in their own reading experiences. While not all of it may be suitable for classroom reading or discussion, you might be surprised by a rare gem.

Bonus: Ownership. And a pretty good reason to get the reading done at home. Most importantly, however, we're encouraging students to read critically, with an eye and ear toward what the author is doing.

5. Ask "So What?"

Once students have dissected the chosen text passage, they need to ask, "So what?" 
By "so what?" we're asking:
  • What does this text mean in context of the whole work? 
  • What has the author explicitly said, and what has the author perhaps implied? 
  • How does the new content affect what we already know, and how does it shape our expectations for what is yet to be encountered in the text? 
  • How does what we've read fit into historical contexts? 
  • Does what we've read have something to say about our theme? 
  • Does it answer essential questions we might have formulated? 
  • What questions remain unanswered?
  • What information am I lacking to fully understand what I've read?
  • What new questions emerged? 
Too many students take on reading as a decoding practice: reading one word after another, rather than putting them together into a meaningful context. Like a bingo caller reading random, singularly meaningless balls plucked from a spinning cage, these students fail to see how these isolated bits of information form patterns of meaning.

By studying the structure of sentences, paragraphs, pages, and chapters, and then analyzing the ideas within those constructs, we lead students to construct meaning from the texts. This process was somewhat simpler, I suppose, in the lower grades when picture books gave students a fighting chance to figure out what was going in; in the higher grades, however, these same students need modeled strategies and plentiful practice to make those same connections with text.

Simply asking, "So what?" and then waiting for answers, and thoughts, and epiphanies to happen is key. My most difficult challenge at this point is to shut up and listen and nod and listen some more, and let students piggyback on the ideas of their peers.

The "So what?" stage might be accompanied with written reflections or extensions on the close reading, but not as a matter of course.

Bonus: The answers to this simple question may yield indicators to what students will need to tackle next. 

6. Reflect on the Experience

This step is all on you, teacher.

Based upon the results of your close reading experience, where do you go next? With what concept or skill do students need additional practice? Based upon unanswered questions and confusions, which text excerpt would be best for the next close reading?

In my experience, what worked well one year didn't the next, so this is the stage where our professional knowledge, judgement, and sensitivity to the text and the students themselves must guide us to make the appropriate instructional decisions.

Bonus: The ability to do this is what makes the best teachers irreplaceable. 

In Conclusion 

Students who weren't expected to approach texts with such intensity and laser focus might need several opportunities to "get into it." Some students will be suspicious of your motives, others will be too shy to share ideas, and others, of course, will be content to ride on the coattails of the few who initially carry the conversation.

But by approaching close readings in a purposeful way, and demanding more intensive interpretation of what the texts have to say, we can bring about a change in students' default approaches to reading.

Need more ideas on building those skills that students need for reading texts with greater complexity? I recommend The Challenge of Challenging Text by Timothy Shanahan, Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey, from the most March, 2012 issue of Educational Leadership.


Marie Garrido is LiteracyLightbulb! said...

Great practical advice for Close Reading! I plan to share this link with other teachers at my school! I really like how you use the graphic organizer that you created for The Outsiders as a discussion spark. Do you follow-up the discussion with writing based on their graphic organizer notes and discussion?

Keith Schoch said...

Somewhere later in The Outsiders is a line that basically says, "Johnny didn't just need us; we needed Johnny." At this point I have students revisit their initial reactions to the boys, and many have changed their opinions of Johnny (they originally thought he was wimpy and useless). They then write on the irreplaceable role that each boy plays in the composition of the gang; that is, they need the gang for what they lack individually, and the gang needs them for the strengths and different gifts they contribute.

Anonymous said...

Awesome post! A great reminder of what we should be doing to fully teach a novel, especially with close reading. I hope this means you'll be updating blog regularly again?!!? You've been missed!

Mrs. Bennett said...

I have growing concerns that the efforts to participate in close reading may directly interfere with the delivery of an author's narrative. The use of a steady stream of questions to assess a reader's understanding in a work of fiction is little insulting to an author as the practice infers a reader cannot understand a narrative without repeated questioning. Hearing these questions, I imagine an author responding,"Why don't you think I was clear enough?" or "Have faith. Stop asking and just read the story!"

I am worried that too much focus on practicing close reading to assess student understanding may lead to what Kelly Gallagher calls "Readicide":

The systematic killing of the love of reading, often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing practices found in schools.

At a time when we are desperate to engage students in reading, at a time when our students are reading less and less independently, the Common Core advocates a practice of creating text-dependent questions to determine if students are reading closely. The power of a good story to capture imagination, to develop a reader's empathy, to provide a moment of escapism is now subject to dissection with rote questioning. This practice cannot contribute positively to students picking up a text and enjoying the story if they have never let a story "speak for itself".

Anonymous said...

I liked the ideas presented here for close reading. I don't believe we're expected to "close" read every text but the depth this focuses on is good teaching and learning.

I think that analysis and deep thinking required is going to be more valuable for building readers than simply reading many texts at only the surface level.

Unknown said...

I also found the ideas posted here about close reading to be very helpful. The process for getting young readers and teachers engaged with a text is broken down in very simple terms. While close reading can interrupt the flow of a text, I think that Schoch's suggestion to do close reading as you reread is an important distinction.

Keith Schoch said...

Linda and Sophia: Thanks for coming to my defense. I do not disagree with anything Mrs. Bennett had to say. I think some teachers confuse\ close reading with the "read a paragraph, ask a question," "read a paragraph, ask a question," "read a page, ask 40 questions" approach that does, indeed, kill reading. By close reading, we are giving the text a pure read, and then refocusing on just a small piece of it. I think without close readings, we're like med students who learn about the human body by looking at its naked exterior only. I have no problem with looking at naked bodies, but I'm apt to learn more about how those bodies work by peeking below the surface level.

mrs m said...

this is great. thanks for sharing! i'm borrowing your character chart for my students.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this! This year I am teaching resource room English for 9th and 10th graders. I have really been struggling to get them to engage with our novel and I now feel like I know how to move forward! The reading response sheet that you create will be used tomorrow! Thanks again!!

Unknown said...

Very useful! Thank you. I have tried some of the methods you have suggested in the classroom and they have worked beautifully.

Gabriela said...

I think the "choose chart" is a great way to engage students in text by asking them to reflect on the characters and how they might relate to them! I'm going to use this in my Spanish 4 classes; they really struggle with large texts (we are reading a play), feel overwhelmed, and wind up feeling defeated. I'm excited to ask them to associate the characters with activities that they find interesting. Thanks for these ideas!

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