Exploring Close Reading


March 1, 2014 by sz

roundsshadowsAnother successful session of rounds wrapped up last month here at FVHS. Big thanks to all those teachers who participated, with extra gratitude going out to the teachers who hosted observers. Without your generosity none of this would be possible!

In our opening lunch meeting we continued our staff development discussion from the beginning of the semester about the strategies that we use to meet the Common Core standards. The strategy that came up several times, and the one we spent most the time discussing, was close reading. Several teachers expressed interest in spending more time investigating this strategy.

Really, Close Reading?

IMG_1457I was a bit surprised by this interest, thinking that we’ve heard plenty about it, but that’s just it. Teachers hear a lot about it, but is there enough solid modeling of the practice? Or even agreement as to the methods and goals of close reading? When I began looking in and among teacher tweets and blogs I noticed that there is quite a bit of confusion around the concept.

I was stunned when I found a couple, supposedly reputable, resources (which shall remain nameless) that threw out a couple key questions about a text and called it close reading. I couldn’t see any difference between their idea of close reading and the typical questions found in textbooks and worksheets.

I’m partial to the simple principle Kylene Beers and Robert Probst refer to in the title of their book on close reading: Notice and Note. In a pull-out quote, which I’ll recreate here, they say:

We want [students] inside the text, noticing everything, questioning everything, weighing everything they are reading against their lives, the lives of others, and the world around them.

In a recent blog post for Academe Magazine, Aaron Barlow, an associate professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, describes what happens when students are comfortable inside texts, “If a student comes into my classroom with curiosity piqued by broad exposure to cultural, historical and scientific information and the ability to sit down and read a book with pleasure for an hour at a time, that student will succeed in my class.”

Regardless of the methods or goals of close reading, I found an activity that might help grade/subject level teachers prepare for close reading activities—text talks. LearnZillion produced a video describing the process.

Several teachers expressed interest in observing reading instruction in subjects other than their own. During rounds it became evident that teachers throughout our different departments were engaging their students in effective reading activities. And none of them used the term “close reading” which is already having a detrimental effect on students.

Noticing and Noting

IMG_1081Notice and note we did. In our period-by-period Rounds two classrooms in particular were engaged in close reading, and neither was an English class. In an American history class the teacher projected a variety of black and white photographs of the Japanese internment including pictures of people checking. The teacher walked students through a series of questions that asked them to infer what was happening in the pictures. The teacher also asked students to apply their knowledge of history to the photos. In our debrief we discussed the importance of using visuals or other realia and how we should teach students to closely read and analyze photographs, graphics, advertisements, etc. Here are a couple resources to help with analyzing visuals:

O.P.T.I.C. 5 steps to analyzing visual texts

The College Board’s Rhetoric of Monuments & Memorials
see pp. 9 – 11: Foundation of analyzing visual rhetoric
see pp. 54 – 62: Parallels with visual and textual rhetorical strategies


In a statistics class students were graphing T-tests (a way to measure the confidence that a number falls between two intervals) on their calculators. Once they had graphed their results, students got out of their seats and lined up their calculators along the white board. Then students paraded past the calculators to determine the fine differences between two sets of graphs. While I’m not explaining this accurately, nor doing the activity justice, I do know that students were noticing and noting, because the teacher had designed a lesson rich with opportunities to do so.

Ultimately I believe that we should use close reading as a scaffolding for students, a scaffolding that leads to students asking their own questions about a text, questions that will drive their interest, questions that engage them in a text so they can in turn participate, with skill and confidence, in what Barlow describes as “the dynamic conversations at the heart of learning.”

Like Beers mentions in a video describing Notice and Note, if we consider close reading to be a set of boxes, or a group of text-dependent questions to check off as we read we may end up with “teacher-dependent students.” And that ladies and gentlemen does not jive with our expected school-wide learning result of self-directed learners. Use this as a starting point to teach students to ask their own questions. Please leave other suggests in the comments.

Side Note

Unfortunately, during our period-by-period Instructional Rounds I did not videotape the teachers we observed. So we turned to the fabulous Teaching Channel and based our wrap-up debrief on a couple videos:

History: reading like a historian
from 12:34 – 17:34 (approximate)

In this video, teacher Valerie Ziegler guides students through readings of texts, videos, and photographs as they work to determine why opinions of the Vietnam War changed. Ziegler models well the use of primary sources and you can see why textbooks can, and in many cases should, be optional.

Math: sorting and classifying equations
beginning – 5:00 (approximate)

The strategies we found effective in this video of Marlo Warburton’s math class is how she explicitly taught the students academic vocabulary and set up expectations for its use. She also prepared student for their eventual disagreement and provided sentence starters for the students to use so their disagreement would be both respectful and fruitful.


One thought on “Exploring Close Reading

  1. Elise Kuykendall says:

    I totally agree with the idea of moving away from teacher dependent students. As a grad student currently in an education program, we are often taught to formulate these in depth questions that cause the students to read between the lines, scour the text, and think in more abstract ways. While this is all well and good, I feel that we are doing half of the work for them. Instead of teaching them WHAT to focus on, we should be teaching them HOW to focus, how to think and question the subject. Personally with my sophomores, I have THEM come up with questions, carefully choose relevant quotations, and make connections to their lives while reading novels. I found out quickly that for the most part and without much guidance, they were coming up with amazing close reading questions on their own. (We’ve modeled it so well for them as teachers that they know the difference between a discussion starter and a fact regurgitator.) The fact that I used their questions in discussions completely validated and rewarded their hard work. Students were so proud that their contributions got chosen for discussion and showed them that they played an integral part in facilitating classroom learning. Plus, as I’m sure we all know, the more the students are actively involved in the teaching/learning process, the more they will retain.

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