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Close Reading Casualties

Close Reading

Close Reading: Don’t Read Too Closely

With the “Great Shift” from fiction to non-fiction reading since the advent of the Common Core State Standards, many teachers are finding that the academic rigor of expository text is challenging for readers of all ages. The predominant reading strategy to access rigorous text has been the widely-used close reading. The popularity of close reading has been chiefly beneficial as a means for readers to dig into these three components of text: 1. Key Ideas and Details 2. Craft and Structure and 3. Integration of Knowledge and Ideas. However, there have been some unintended casualties.

As is often the case in our profession, teachers dropped many of the effective reading practices they had been using for years to make room (and time) for time-consuming close readings. In a related article, I concur with the criticisms of noted reading researcher, David Pearson, who values the benefits of close reading, but says, “We need a mid-course correction, not a pendulum swing… but with BALANCE in mind…” (Pearson).

Specifically, I agree with Dr. Pearson that the close reading ban on pre-reading strategies is counterproductive. Additionally, I argue that the stated goal of close reading advocates (to develop reader independence in rigorous text) is undermined by the focus on teacher and publisher produced text-dependent questions… not that external questions are at all bad… but that the internal questions developed by the reader to dialog with the author have been largely replaced. The research regarding self-generated question strategies has a long-validated history. Again, in our concern that external questions must be text-dependent (a good thing), we have reductively dismissed the practice of encouraging internal reader engagement with the text (a better thing).

A further casualty of the expository-focused pendulum swing has been the decline of class novels and independent reading. As a case study, my middle school in Elk Grove, California has a large staff of ten ELA teachers. Since the advent of Common Core, the number of core novels has been cut in half and the emphasis on independent reading eliminated. Of the ten teachers, only one other teacher provides time for independent reading (10 minutes per day). I’m a lone ranger, still assigning 30 minutes per day as homework with accountability procedures. And, no… it’s not Accelerated Reader. Check out my independent reading plan and my dialog with others (including Dr. Stephen Krashen) HERE.

So, what have been the unintended consequences of the “Great Shift” and universal popularity of the close reading strategy? Less reading.

1. LESS VOCABULARY ACQUISITION With less reading, students are exposed to fewer Tier 2 academic language words. Reading a rigorous, vocabulary-dense article of, say 600 words (frequently filled with infrequently-used Tier 3 domain-specific words), exposes students to between 15 and 25 unknown Tier 2 words in a 45-minute close reading lesson. Whereas, reading a less vocabulary-dense grade-level novel in or out of class for the same amount of time would expose students to between 200 and 400 unknown Tier 2 words at a 95% word recognition level.

2. DECREASED READING FLUENCY Less reading means less fluency practice, which is highly correlated with better reading comprehension. None of my colleagues are administering fluency assessments and providing fluency practice as they did before Common Core, except Yours Truly. It’s not that these teachers were unconvinced by the merits of reading fluency. Far from it! As seventh and eighth grade teachers would say, “I hope that elementary teachers are still practicing fluency… we don’t have the time anymore.” As fourth, fifth, and sixth grade teachers would say, “I hope that primary teachers are still practicing fluency… we don’t have time anymore.” Etc.

My three recommendations?

1. Get back to pre-teaching both expository and narrative reading texts. Build accessibility into rigorous texts.

2. Provide more time for independent reading (I prefer homework, so as not to waste class time. After all, you have your close readings to do :))

3. Practice reading fluency and independent comprehension strategies (including self-generated questions).

Academic Literacy Center for Reading

Reading Academic Literacy Center

For those of you who are using literacy centers (stations), check out my full-year grades 4-8 Reading Academic Literacy Center. This twice-per week 20-minute center provides the reading fluency and reading comprehension practice your students need with expository text. Students read 43 informational articles about common and uncommon animals. Each article has between 350–450 words and provides a physical description of the animal, its habitat, what it eats, its family life, interesting behaviors, and the status of its world population.

The articles are leveled in a pyramid design: the first two paragraphs are at an adjusted third-grade (Fleish-Kincaid) level (after deleting a few key multi-syllabic words such as carnivores or long animal names such as armadillos); the next two paragraphs are at the fifth-grade level; and the last two are at the seventh-grade level. The reader begins practice at an easier level to build confidence and then moves to more difficult academic language and sentence length. The same text is used for both the reading fluency and reading comprehension articles.

The reading fluency articles include difficult pronunciations in boldface to pre-teach in the upper right corner. Word counts are listed in the left margin for fluency timings. Timing charts are provided to help students track their cold (unpracticed) and hot (after choral readings) readings.

Additionally, if tablets, phones, or computers are available, students may access and practice reading along with the YouTube modeled readings for each article. Each of the reading fluency articles has been recorded at three different reading speeds ((Level A at 95-115 words per minute; Level B at 115-135 words per minute; and Level C at 135-155 words per minute) for optimal modeled reading fluency practice at your students’ individual fluency challenge levels.

Unsure about the optimal fluency practice level for your students? The Reading Literacy Center provides a diagnostic screening assessment.

The reading comprehension articles include five comprehension questions–one question for each of the five SCRIP Comprehension Strategies. The SCRIP acronym stands for Summarize, Connect, Re-think, Interpret, and Predict. The questions are placed in the right-hand margin to help students read interactively with the text. Students learn to use these SCRIP prompts to self-generate their own questions of the text, creating the reader-author dialog, which is so critical to reading comprehension. Additionally, three key vocabulary words are boldfaced within the article. Answers to the five questions are provided following the comprehension worksheets.

Get the Reading Academic Literacy Center Sample Lessons FREE Resource:

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