Taking off the Training Wheels: Close Reading Practices that Promote Independent Learners


Closer Reading Banner Inservice 2015[1]By Eric Russo

Lessons About Close ReadingIn a previous post in April, I explored strategies for supporting struggling learners through rigorous tasks. The premise of that post was that cultivating independent learners is just like riding a bike: you have to give students the opportunity to work through rigorous tasks if you want them to learn how to do so on their own. Today, I’m revisiting some of that thinking and exploring the deep-dive into text known as close reading. I’ll be continuing with the bike imagery, but in this case the focus will be on taking off the training wheels to create independent readers who can balance the demands of increasingly complex text. In order to accomplish this task, it is important that all readers, but especially our most needy readers, feel supported throughout the learning process so that they won’t fall flat on their faces once we take our hands off the back of the seat.

Defining Close Reading  

Anyone who has been working with the Common Core State Standards is at least familiar with the term close reading. In a video interview from 2012, Douglas Fisher begins by describing close reading as “a careful and purposeful re-reading of the text.” And in a Grant Wiggins article from 2013, he states “that a rich text simply cannot be understood and appreciated by a single read, no matter how skilled and motivated the reader.” Dave Coleman provides a clear example of close reading in action by looking at Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” In the video, he demonstrates how different standards may apply to different portions of the text and how a paragraph or even a sentence might be enough for deeper analysis. These resources, among a thousand others out there, have helped me shape my own practice to support my students’ close reading. Here are the five most important things I’ve learned so far about implementing the close reading process to promote independent learners.

  1. Lay the groundwork during the initial read. Since a close reading implies a re-reading of the text, it stands to reason that students must have something to do when they read a text for the first time. We need to be comfortable with allowing students to think independently about the text without skewing their thoughts. The initial read is an opportunity for students to make some basic sense of the text on their own, and the way I gauge their thinking is through text annotations. Students must annotate while reading—that is, make inferences, visualize, summarize, ask questions, etcetera—and we need to give them the space to do so. Annotating teaches students to chunk the text and to monitor their own thinking while reading. The annotations will also assist students when they go back for a close reading.Once these annotations are completed, we need to utilize them to plan for our close reading lessons. We need to consider them as a formative assessment to see what misconceptions need to be cleared up and who needs assistance when revisiting the text. This is an important step, because students will have a difficult time close reading for deep analysis if they missed some of the basics during the initial read. Looking at student annotations also gives us some insight into portions of the text to focus on for close reading the following day. For example, if the majority of the class is missing a key idea from a particular part of a text, devise a question that ensures that they need to re-read that section closely so that they can clear up any misconceptions for themselves.
  1. Find targeted passages and start small. I had the pleasure of working with a specialist from my state who would very often ask the question “What is screaming out to be analyzed?” She would actually scream out loud when asking this question, which brings a smile to my face even as I am writing this. The point is, not every text is perfect for every standard. The key is noticing what the text has to offer and considering which standards can be addressed. This is extremely important to consider when developing our questions for close reading and picking out passages for analysis. As in the Dave Coleman video above, you might be talking about organization in one section, language choice and usage in another, and what the text implies in yet another portion of the text.We need to pick and choose our passages intentionally as we are planning a close reading lesson. It’s extremely overwhelming for students to be told to read through an entire story to look for examples of characterization or how the setting affects the conflict of a story. That is a recipe for having students tune out. Reluctant readers need to feel supported if they are going to make connections and inferences on their own. That’s why I like to start small. At the beginning of the year, the passages that we look at may only be a few lines or a small paragraph. As students start honing their analysis skills, the portions of the text they look at become increasingly longer, causing them to have to read more closely to find evidence to support their analysis. This is one way that I differentiate for my students. If I see a student struggling, I can always pull back the size of the passage, ask some scaffolding questions, or do a model think-aloud to demonstrate the thinking behind the analysis.
  1. Maintain a relentless focus on evidence. At a recent parent meeting for rising middle school students, I explained that the shift in the standards from elementary to middle school is one of concrete to abstract. The demand moves from identifying or describing what a text says to making connections and analyzing specific elements and their interactions. One parent asked what they could do over the summer besides just reading, and I gave her my standard reply, which is to read the same text as her son and discuss it with him. There are only really two questions that you need to ask: “What did you think?” and “What in the text made you think that?”No matter what any student says about a text, it is imperative that we direct them back to evidence. I ask the second of those two questions more than any other on a regular basis. It is such a simple idea, but it truly drives home the point that anything students say about a reading needs to be grounded in the text. As they get better at finding the evidence to justify their claims, we need to challenge them to consider the strength of the evidence by actually rating it from strongest to weakest. Too often, students will stop at the first piece of evidence they find, rather than searching for the best support possible.
  1. Provide opportunities for collaboration. Have you ever heard that the one who is doing the talking is doing the learning? If that’s the case, then there are an infinite number of teachers and workshop leaders that are doing a whole bunch of learning. There is nothing new about having students work in groups, but for close reading, I believe collaboration is essential to building understanding and confidence around complex texts and ideas. Setting up collaborative strategies—from simple “turn and talks” or “think-pair-shares” to more involved “consensus placemats” to the pinnacle of classroom discussion, the Socratic Seminar—takes time and effort, but once the systems are in place, students truly benefit from the discussions with their peers. For struggling readers especially collaborative activities provide students with a chance to gauge their thinking against what others in the class think and learn from their peers. This is one additional layer of support before we strip off the training wheels and ask them to support themselves during an individual assessment.
  1. Remember that continuity and recognition lead to transfer. The more we require students to use these strategies and go through the close reading process, the more naturally they will begin to do it on their own. Like any behaviors we want our students to adopt, they have to be presented with continuity and consistency. And as we bring our students on this journey, we have to be sure to recognize the close reading behaviors we are hoping they will acquire. Just as we would celebrate our children for peddling even a few feet on their own, we need to recognize our students for their reading accomplishments. We should strive to be deliberate and specific about our recognition to help students transfer these habits into their regular practice. For example, instead of saying “good response” or “great point,” try saying something like “I really like the way you supported your thinking with evidence from the text.” I always acknowledge those that are looking back in the text as they are answering questions during an assessment, and I provide extra credit for those that automatically annotate on their own.

The more we practice and acknowledge the specific reading behaviors we want to see, the more our students will actively do them on their own. Before we know it, our students will be challenging others to come up with evidence or helping others find the best evidence to prove their claims. They will be reading closely without you running beside them, preparing to leave you in the dust as they ride off toward the horizon.

For more close reading resources, click here.


Eric Russo is an instructional lead teacher and special educator for English language arts at Drew Freeman Middle School in Suitland, Md. Drew Freeman is a member of the Whole Child Network of Schools, and Russo has been working to ensure that all students in his classes are healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged. In addition, he is a member of the 2014–16 Teacher Advisory Council for the Bill and Melinda Gates Education Foundation. Connect with Russo on Twitter @erusso78.


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