Making Sense of Close Reading in the Intermediate Grades
by Nancy Boyles on November 30, 2016
When close reading gained prominence a few years ago, I was a little insulted that as a professional developer in the area of literacy, anyone could think the instructional strategies I shared with teachers did not help students to read “closely.” Then, I learned more about close reading and saw that it truly did push teachers and students to a whole new level of rigor. In time, I’ve also learned there are a few principles and practices that when applied well will make teaching the process of close reading achievable for teachers and the outcomes of close reading meaningful for students.
First, we need to recognize close reading embodies some instructional shifts. Key among them is that for close reading, students need to get their information from the text, not the teacher. This means the “Before Reading” part of the lesson will look different. Limit the focus on background knowledge and even vocabulary. If students don’t have a lot of prior knowledge on a topic, or if they don’t know the meaning of a word, they will have a greater need to read closely to comprehend. Of course, English learners may need vocabulary support, and there may be some content within the text that is not explained clearly enough for some readers. In these cases, it is our professional responsibility to meet these needs before students engage with a text. But when we provide too much support to students who really could do the work on their own, what we’re really fostering is dependence, not independence.
Close reading also needs to be authentic. This means it should fit organically into our curriculum with texts we are already reading with students, or other sources that can enhance our units of study. The complexity of a text is important because it gives them more opportunities to think deeply about its content and craft. But a factor equally important that we sometimes overlook in our instructional planning is coherence: how things fit together. I believe the goal of close reading is not just to teach the skills involved in reading closely, but to help students acquire robust bodies of knowledge and insights into issues capable of transforming their thinking. For this reason, my go–to sources for close reading are often high–quality picture books, both literary and informational, classic poetry, short stories such as fables and myths, and informational articles. I also like to add video, photographs, and illustrations when applicable. I do not put random close reading worksheets and lists of follow–up questions in front of kids because I think these miss the mark in their authenticity, the depth of thinking they inspire, and the connections students can make between their reading and their world.
Empower Students’ Reasoning
This brings me to my next critical close reading component: the questions we ask students—or the ones they ask themselves. Close reading is not simply getting the evidence from a text. When you think about it, that’s a fairly low level of understanding. Close reading should help students dig deeper—into both content and craft. Questions we could ask that empower students’ reasoning include: What evidence in this [article] is most relevant to the author’s claim? Why do you think the author included this paragraph? What detail on this page do you think is the most important? How is the problem related to the setting? Of course there are many other questions we could also ask. Here are some guidelines to keep in mind as you ask questions.
For the purpose of close reading, questions such as those above are better served through oral discussion during reading rather than written response after reading. Of course students will eventually need to respond in writing to questions about their reading. But that is testing, not teaching. For more impactful teaching of close reading, ask these questions as you proceed through a text, pausing at strategic points, and then engaging students in conversation. Even better, in pursuit of close, independent reading, provide students with these four “good reader” questions which allow them to lead the learning each time you pause:
What is the author telling me? (This assures they are monitoring the text’s literal meaning.)
Are there any hard or important words? (This alerts them to key vocabulary that may be problematic or significant.)
What does the author want me to understand? (This highlights inferential thinking, what the author is showing, but not telling.)
How does the author play with language to add to meaning? (This addresses elements of the author’s craft like similes and metaphors.)
(These questions are provided in “poster” and “bookmark” format in my book Closer Reading, Grades 3–6, published in 2014.)
Explicit Teaching at its Best
What I’ve discovered in the past few years is students thrive with close reading when it is implemented thoughtfully. In the intermediate grades, this means teaching a well–designed close reading lesson once a week for about 30 minutes with text–dependent questions I devise, or the four “good reader” questions noted above. Teachers using a core program with questions already embedded could add a few “reasoning” and “text connection” questions to push for deeper thinking. All teachers could incorporate close reading into their social studies and science curriculum where insights into issues and problems are particularly needed. Reinforcing the thinking processes of close reading in small group instruction is especially effective because with just a few students sitting around a table there is ample opportunity for everyone to participate, with thorough monitoring by the teacher.
I’ve found students really enjoy close reading because they feel oh–so–smart when they find meaning in a text they might have viewed as “too hard” without the opportunity to read it closely. Even struggling readers do well with close reading because the approach is systematic and thorough.
Close reading is explicit teaching at its best. It’s no wonder research has found it’s the close reading of complex text that leads to college and career readiness.