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Close Reading: Don’t Read Too Closely

Before my reading specialist colleagues and fellow English-language arts teachers jump down my throat, I do want to mention a few things at the outset:

  • I think close reading has its place in both elementary and secondary classrooms.
  • I’m still a fan of the Common Core Anchor Standards for Reading, as the document describes… not necessarily as some publishers and pundits have interpreted or applied these Standards.
  • I’ve been teaching for a quite awhile in both the reading and English fields (elementary reading specialist, middle school and high school ELA teacher, and community college reading professor), so I’ve seen a few of the “educational cycles” regarding both teaching reading and literary analysis. Solomon was right: “There is nothing new under the sun.”
  • Disclaimer: I am a teacher publisher and sell a terrific reading intervention program. Think biases.
Close Reading

Close Reading: Don’t Read Too Closely

But the problem that I have is that…

Some educators are making close reading and text dependent questions their only means of teaching reading comprehension and literary analysis. Over the last decade, close reading has just gotten “too big for its britches.”

A few definitions…

Although somewhat a false dichotomy because they really are two sides of the same coin, most educators use reading comprehension to mean “learning to read” and literary analysis to mean “reading to learn.” The former is seen as the stuff of elementary school and latter is practiced in secondary and post secondary.

In a nutshell, close reading means reading to uncover layers of meaning that lead to deep comprehension.  The strategy, despite permutations, utilizes text dependent questioning to complete three reading tasks: In the first read, students focus on the most important textual elements (key ideas and details). During the second read, students focus on how the text works (craft and structure). For the third reading, students focus on what the text means to the reader and how it connects to other experiences (integration of knowledge and ideas).

Historical Perspective

I do feel a bit of historical context may help explain where the close reading strategy came from and why we shouldn’t go overboard by using this strategy as our primary means of teaching reading comprehension and literary analysis.

Reader Response Theory


The reader response theorists emphasized the interaction of the reader and the text. Perhaps the greatest contributor to this field would be Louise Rosenblatt with her transactional reader-response theory, developed through many influential works beginning in the 1930s until her death in 2005.

Rosenblatt argued that a reader’s life and literary experiences and emotions influence the meaning derived from the text. The meaning of a text is shaped by what the reader brings to the text, what the author writes, and the context in which it is read. Thus, what the text says is both subjective and objective. Some in the reader response camp would go so far as to argue that text only has meaning when involving the reader.

The New Criticism Movement


In contrast to reader response advocates, the New Critics of the late 1960s, such as I. A. Richards, argued that a literary work should be read as is and apart from the outside influence of the reader and the historical, sociological, and psychological influences of a given text. Those in the New Criticism movement argued that the task of the reader is to discover the objective meaning of the text (what the text says in-it-of-itself) in its own context. The New Critics first coined the term close reading to describe this process of text dependent literary analysis. Those in this camp would believe that to properly understand the meaning of a text, readers need to put aside their own perspectives and biases. Some would go so far as to suggest that the author’s intended meaning should not be considered; only what the text says itself should be discussed and analyzed.

Many reading and English teachers leaned upon the instructional strategies of popular philosopher and educator, Mortimer Adler, to apply the tenets of New Criticism to focus on the meaning of the text itself.

Text Complexity

Mortimer Adler


Pre-dating the New Critics, Mortimer Adler (along with co-author  Charles Van Doren) popularized the essential techniques of what later became known as close reading with his influential How to Read a Book: The classic guide to Intelligent Reading in 1940. Check out an interesting discussion between Adler and Van Doren HERE

Adler, especially, was concerned about the populace’s preference for easy-reading literature instead of the more challenging classics. Adler advocated reading the Great Books, especially those which inculcated the ideas of Western Civilization. As I write, I’m looking at my set of Harvard Classics on the bookshelves.

Adler developed the rudiments of the close reading strategy to help readers tackle the textual complexity of these challenging books. His belief that everyone could understand any literary work, given the right instructional tools, was highly influential in the 1950s and 1960s. Many educators in private and some public schools developed Great Books programs to implement Adler’s ideals.

Like Adler, the authors of the Common Core State Standards believed that students were not being exposed to complex texts. The authors relied heavily on the 2006 ACT report, Reading Between the Lines, to argue that K–12 reading texts had been “dumb-downed” over the last 50 years and that teachers need to increase the levels of text complexity to better prepare students for college and careers, which will demand better readers. In Appendix A the authors summarize the relevant reading research:

Jeanne Chall and her colleagues (Chall, Conard, & Harris, 1977) found a thirteen year decrease from 1963 to 1975 in the difficulty of grade 1, grade 6, and (especially) grade 11 texts. Extending the period to 1991, Hayes, Wolfer, and Wolfe (1996) found precipitous declines (relative to the period from 1946 to 1962) in average sentence length and vocabulary level in reading textbooks for a variety of grades… Carrying the research closer to the present day, Gary L. Williamson (2006) found a 350L (Lexile) gap between the difficulty of end-of-high school and college texts—a gap equivalent to 1.5 standard deviations and more than the Lexile difference between grade 4 and grade 8 texts on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

Unlike Adler, the Common Core authors did not advocate a return to the Great Books to increase text complexity. Instead, they legislated a move to informational/expository texts, such as technical documents, non-fiction novels, and articles. However, the authors adopted and expanded upon Adler’s close reading strategies to access these complex texts.

Text Dependency

One hallmark of close reading is its dependence upon the text to inform the reader. Two of the primary Common Core authors, David Coleman and Susan Pimentel, have argued against the reader-centered approach to reading comprehension, in which what the reader brought to the reading (prior knowledge) and what the reader took out of the reading (in light of the reader’s own experience and needs) were primary emphases.  Instead, in Appendix A of the Common Core State Standards these authors have championed the idea that to develop reading comprehension and understanding of complex texts, the questions which teachers use to prompt student engagement with the text need to be text dependent, not reader dependent.

Classroom Application

Close reading in one good reading strategy to promote reading comprehension and discuss the author’s ideas and information. However, there are pitfalls to avoid.

1. As Alex Reid says, “Arguing ‘against close reading’ … is not an argument to say that we should stop paying close attention to texts.” In fact, other reading strategies are just as effective as the close reading strategy. Check out “How to Teach Reading Comprehension” for ideas.

2. The close reading technique necessitates reading brief passages, documents, short articles, etc. The breadth of longer text and the author’s flow of ideas, development of theme and character, etc. are not possible. Yes, teachers need to move away from exclusively teaching novels, but reading longer text produces stamina and joy. Too much close reading does not foster a love for reading.

3. Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. Any instructional time is reductive, so don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Some advice from Timothy Shanahan, reading researcher at the University of Illinois at Chicago:

Of course, not every text deserves a close read. Sometimes it’s okay to be interested only in the story—considerations of craft and structure and deeper implications are beside the point. And classroom reads don’t always have to emphasize close reading; the key is to incorporate close reading into your instruction, not use it exclusively. No one knows how many teacher-led close reads would be a good idea, but don’t overdo it; one or two close reads every couple of weeks (some taking place over multiple days) seems like the right dosage.

4. Close reading tends to produce teacher-dependence, rather than equipping students to become skillful independent readers. True that close reading and accompanying text dependent questions can teach students the tools to unlock the meaning of complex text; however, the value of independent reading at accessible independent levels of word recognition produces the same results by exposing students to the vast array of ideas, text genre, and vocabulary development. See this collection of articles advocating the value of independent reading, especially as homework HERE.

Additionally, teachers need to help students monitor their own reading with self-generated questions. The five SCRIP Comprehension Strategies reading comprehension strategies work for both narrative and expository text and provide a language of instruction for literary analysis and discussion: Summarize, Connect, Re-think, Interpret, and Predict.

5. Publishers and school district personnel have produced ready-to-use close readings, many of which only focus on factual or literal text dependent questions. Teachers need to ignore these or supplement with pre-reading and reader-response activities, and add on higher order inferential and application questions. David Pearson, Professor Emeritus at U.C. Berkeley has concerns about the Common Core authors’ narrow and restrictive views about text dependent questions. Pearson fears that “We will operationally define text dependent (questions) as literal, factual questions, forgetting that LOTS of other questions/tasks are also text-reliant.” For example, comparison and contrast questions both use the text and go beyond the text.

6. Teachers do need to pre-teach (the “into” of reading), even with close reading. Accessing prior knowledge and gap-filling are still essential vehicles to promote the reader’s understanding of complex text. The role of the reader still has a place in understanding text. Reading remains a two-way street. Yes, we teachers may have gone overboard with reader response in the past. The KWL (Already Know, Want to Know, What I Learned) reading strategy and its variations come into mind. Because the first two components are reader-centered, there are significant limitations. Students don’t know what they don’t know and they similarly don’t know what they Want to know. Or, they may Want to know what is inconsequential, trivial, or not available in the reading or available resources. More HERE.

Grant Wiggins, educator and author of the influential Understanding by Design, argues for a balanced approach in close reading in his article, Authentic Education:

As I noted in my previous post, this does not mean, however, that we should ignore or try to bypass the reader’s responses, prior knowledge, or interests. On the contrary, reading cannot help but involve an inter-mingling of our experience and what the author says and perhaps means. But it does not follow from this fact that instruction should give equal weight to personal reactions to a text when the goal is close reading. On the contrary: we must constantly be alert to how and where our own prejudices (literally, pre-judging) may be interfering with meaning-making of the text.

7. Re-define the term close reading to mean a variety of strategies that readers use to look closely at text. As noted reading researchers, Isabel Beck and Margaret McKeown, state: “Our view of deeper understanding of text, which we have coined as ‘grist,’ is akin to close reading. Our definition of close reading is keen attention to fine details of language for the purpose of appreciating authors’ craft toward figuring out how broader-level meanings are developed.”

I’ll leave U.C. Berkeley reading researcher, David Pearson, with these last words about close reading and text dependent questioning: “We need a mid-course correction, not a pendulum swing… but with BALANCE in mind… (making) sure that it applies to several purposes for reading (and will) encompass literal, interpretive, and critical reading tasks.”

Get the Close Reading Narrative Worksheet FREE Resource:

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