November 8, 2013 by

Close Reading: Teach It When They Need It

Sunday Cummins on how to teach close readingBy Sunday Cummins

“How often should I give a close reading lesson?” I’ve been hearing this question a lot lately, and it worries me. Close reading has become a buzz term and a popular topic for current professional development. I’m guilty of talking a lot about close reading; I’ve written numerous articles on the topic and even a book with the term in the title. But it’s not the be all and end all of instructional approaches to teaching reading. Just as I caution in my recent article in Educational Leadership—“What Students Can Do When the Reading Gets Rough”—we need to follow the needs of our readers in choosing instructional approaches that move them forward in meeting the Common Core standards. We need to choose close reading during planning and implement it purposefully during instruction.

As leaders in the field, if you’re facing a lot of questions (and even arguments) about close reading and its role as an instructional approach, there’s a short paper recently released by the International Reading Association that might help. In “Close Reading and Far-Reaching Classroom Discussion: Fostering a Vital Connection,” renowned educators Catherine Snow and Catherine O’Connor address some of the pitfalls of too much close reading—like how it could become tedious for students and therefore lead to disengagement. They argue that too much close reading might lead to neglecting other equally valuable approaches to teaching comprehension, such as engaging students in meaningful conversations. In addition, close reading’s focus on text-based evidence may lead readers to devalue other sources of evidence that might actually contribute to a greater understanding of the text or a deeper response to text-based questions.

So, maybe the question we should be asking is this: “How and when might we use close reading to move students forward in their analysis of text?”

There are so many potential benefits to close reading. In terms of informational text comprehension, close reading of an excerpt from an article can expand students’ understanding of how the author develops an idea. Students can use this understanding to comprehend many other parts of the same text or even chunks of other texts.

For example, in an article on weathering (the various mechanical and chemical processes that cause exposed rock to decompose), if students read an excerpt from the article closely and understand that the author is introducing a type of weathering, defining it, and then explaining the process, this will help them read and learn about numerous other types of weathering in the rest of the article. (Hopefully, they will do the latter on their own.) So, a close-reading lesson happens when students are asked to dig deeper, grapple, and then use what they’ve learned (whether it’s about the author’s craft or content) to help them write and comprehend other texts without needing to engage in close reading first.

In the end, I guess my answer to the question, “How often should we teach close reading?” is “Teach it purposefully.” It’s not an easy answer, but it’s one that may keep us from overusing and even abusing an approach that can be powerful.