What is Close Reading?
Excerpts from my Reading Teacher Column:
Serafini, Frank. (2013/2014). Close Readings and Children’s Literature. The Reading Teacher. 67 (4), 299-301.
Close Reading and Children’s Literature
The term close reading was originally associated with the work of the New Critics, in particular Cleanth Brooks, I. A. Richards, John Ransom, and Robert Penn Warren. New Criticism emphasized structural and textual analysis by focusing on the work of literature itself and excluded a reader’s responses, the author's intentions, and the historical and cultural contexts from their analyses. In these writings, close reading referred to an objective, distanced type of reading that places the reader as discoverer of meaning and the text as a self-contained, aesthetic object that holds the meaning to be discovered.
As stated in the CCSS, today’s students are asked to read closely to determine what the text says explicitly, to make logical inferences from their interactions with a text, and cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text (CCSS, 2010). The materials produced in service of the CCSS seem to suggest teachers have been lax in their development of readers’ analytical abilities, focusing too much on personal response and not enough on careful, close reading of the texts students encounter, and allowing students to read texts that are not complex enough. Readers are encouraged to stay within the four corners of the text when trying to comprehend more complex texts. It is suggested that through a more deliberate type of active reading that is purposeful and objective driven, readers will become more proficient in their reading abilities.
Close reading of text is designed to produce a coherent representation of what the text says. Through the interpretation of words and phrases, the analysis of the structures of text, and understanding the author’s reasoning and use of evidence, readers are to deepen their comprehension of texts. It is asserted close reading of text moves readers away from their dependence on background knowledge in order to apply critical thinking skills and develop a logical argument in response to their reading. Through the close reading of short, complex texts, extensive teacher modeling, and asking text-based questions students will develop their comprehension abilities for understanding the textual arguments presented by the author and be better able to write responses to their reading experiences.
Implications for Reading Teachers
In order to support readers’ comprehension abilities and their development of arguments and supporting evidence, teachers need to help students set purposes for reading, promote connections to previously read texts, activate background knowledge, review key ideas and details, create text-dependent questions, talk about what has been read, and spend time analyzing the various visual and textual elements of a text in more depth.
Using shorter texts, teachers need to demonstrate what it means to do a close reading of a text. Demonstrating how one approaches a text, the strategies one uses to analyze the language and textual features, and the citing of evidence to support an argument are all valuable lessons for one’s reading instructional framework. If teachers are unable to demonstrate how to do this type of reading, students will have a difficult time doing it themselves.
A Few Concerns
Readers make sense of the texts they encounter, not by staying within the four corners of a text, but by using their background knowledge of the world, their previous experiences with text, their understandings of language, the context of the text’s production, dissemination and reception, and the text itself to construct meaning. How will a focus on the text itself change the way readers are asked to make sense of literary and informational texts? With all the changes suggested by the CCSS, and the high stakes associated with the new assessments being developed and implemented, where is the funding and support for quality professional development going to come from to help teachers develop the skills they will need to help readers? It is one thing to change the requirements for students and teachers; it is another to successfully implement these changes. We need to develop our own understandings of the requirements for close reading in various contexts, be ready to demonstrate to our students what this type of reading entails, and provide resources and instructional support to ensure our students’ success.