If you have been keeping up with the Common Core, in particular ELA, you have heard the term close reading a few times and may have asked “what is close reading?” In the last year I’ve participated in several sessions where attendees have asked this same question. The presenters attempted to define close reading, but none of them provided the clarity needed to help a teacher really understand what to do in the classroom. I heard one presenter say to have the students read the text slowly. I’ve heard another say have them re-read the text multiple times. My favorite was when a presenter said “have them hold the text close to their eyes.” That was hilarious! But unfortunately, neither of those descriptions could help teachers support students as they grapple with complex text, and so the question is beckoned: what is close reading?
A clear definition of close reading exists for us all. The fellows at the Critical Thinking Foundation defined close reading for us years before the Common Core even existed. According to their clear definition, close reading has five levels and each level supports students with determining the meaning behind complex texts — yes, even struggling learners too. The first level involves students paraphrasing the text sentence by sentence. This means that students engage with a very meaty piece of text and the text is short. It also means that teachers have to decide on the most important portion of text as it relates to the content they want the students to engage in for the day. At this point of the definition, teachers and leaders tend to respond, “Yes BUT, what about my struggling readers? They don’t know the words in the text.” After I ask, “have they been taught the necessary vocabulary,” their answer is a gaze toward the heavens. A lack of understanding of the academic language is one major reason struggling learners struggle. So if your question is how can I get struggling learners to grapple with complex text, one major response is teach them the vocabulary they need for the day.
The second level of close reading involves summarizing a piece of text, paragraph by paragraph. The foundation suggests the following format for summarizing: state your understanding of the text; elaborate on your understanding; provide an example of the meaning of the text; and illustrate the meaning of the text with an analogy or metaphor (SEEI). This process sounds rather easy, but actually doing it is a challenge–even for the adults I’ve observed. Nevertheless, it is still a great exercise because it deepens comprehension, improves mental capacity and supports the understanding of concepts that can transfer for later use. The third level of close reading asks the reader to analyze the text. This analysis follows a structured format. The format is referred to as the eight elements of thought (purpose, questions, information, inferences, concepts, assumptions, implications and point of view.) Every lesson may not necessarily require students to engage in all elements, but students should be familiar with how to interact with all eight elements of thoughts and should be asked to use them regularly.
The fourth level of close reading asks students to evaluate. Evaluation requires critiquing and/or judging. When one judges they need standards, and in this case the standards are the foundation’s intellectuals standards. They include clarity, precision, accuracy, logic, breadth, relevance, significance, and fair-mindedness. I’ve heard teachers ask, “but how do I teach these standards everyday?” I would suggest that you don’t. Instead, look at your unit plan or lesson and determine what intellectual standards are most appropriate in relation to the text you are using and your learning goals. Developing proficiency in this professional exercise takes time, but it’s time well spent. The more you develop as a practitioner in using these tools, the better you’ll become and the better your students will become. The last level of close reading involves placing yourself in the position of the author. This level requires students to engage in empathy and to consider another’s perspective by thinking the way the author might think. In order to do this, the reader must have already deeply considered the concepts and perspective of the author. The previous levels of close reading provides the opportunity for the deep consideration. Each level is built on the previous level, and so, this model of close reading provides the cognitive scaffolds that students need for success.
So there you have it–a practical definition of close reading. Now you can go forth, and close read.
Figure 1. Draft ELA Framework that recommends close reading for every grade level.