Colleen, Erica, and I are about to put our manuscript of Reading Reconsidered to bed. One of the most important chapters is on Close Reading, and Close Reading has a definition problem. We set out to start our discussion of it with a rock-solid definition and that process required a bit of Close Reading in and of itself. Over the next few days, I’ll follow-up on this post with a few more nuts-and-bolts excerpts from the chapter.
Defining Close Reading
Arriving at a definition of Close Reading was no simple task. As with any carefully wrought text where the author(s) feel(s) strongly about an idea, the language shifted and evolved over time. We discussed and refined it through dozens of conversations between us and our colleagues. In the end we arrived (with help in particular from our colleague Steve Chiger) here:
Close Reading is the methodical breaking down of the language and structure of a complex passage to establish and analyze its meaning. Teaching students to do it requires layered reading; asking sequenced, text-dependent questions; and should end whenever possible with mastery expressed through writing.
We hope this definition proves sturdy and useful, and that by the end of our discussion, you can use it to guide your implementation, but we’re also pretty sure that it will require a bit of careful reading of its own. So here is an unpacking of some of its key terms.
Close reading is:
methodical …This word is important. It communicates the thoroughness implicit in Close Reading a segment of text. The Close Read involves studying both the parts that fascinate readers right away as well as the ones that may escape initial notice; it is to work just as diligently to make sense of the parts that resist meaning-making even after several passes.
breaking down… Close Reading involves taking the whole machine apart to understand how it works. Imagine an engine disassembled and laid out systematically in an auto shop. This let’s you see how fuel enters the cylinder and, expanding, drives the piston which transmits force to the crankshaft. If you want to work with engines, you need to know the relationships of such things. If you want to work with complex text, you also must understand how the pieces fit together, how specific word choice and the contrast of two sentences placed in stark proximity yields a biting irony.
of language and structure… Close Reading includes the study of language—the denotation and connotation of words, the meaning of phrases both formal and idiomatic, and the subtleties of subordination in sentences—and the study of structure, or how the elements of language are placed next to or far from each other, the way they repeat or echo one another, build or break a rhythm.
of a complex passage… Close Reading is a set of tools students need when unlocking text that is difficult, challenging, a struggle. The struggle is critical: if students can read and learn from what is challenging and unfamiliar, the world is open to them; if they are intimidated by texts that could enlighten them, their horizons are limited. This is one of Close Reading’s primary reasons for being, and if the text isn’t challenging, the purpose of Close Reading is undercut. There is no reason to methodically break down an easy text. If you try, your lesson will likely fall flat and the endeavor appear to be without value. The proof lies in the flash of insight gleaned from what once seemed impenetrable, a thicket of words like brambles.
to establish and analyze its meaning Establishing Meaning is locking down the argument or narrative with thoroughness and precision. It explains: Here is what the passage says. All of it, even when it’s very hard to determine. Analyzing meaning explains how the argument is formed, what forces shape it, and how they might be discussed to build a disciplined, text-based interpretation. Both establishing and analyzing meaning are critical to Close Reading. The balance of emphasis shifts, of course, based on the text, but the two tasks require one another. A quality analysis requires careful establishment; Establishing Meaning is only sustainable if it leads, ultimately, to student insights and epiphanies. We discuss both topics later in this chapter. For now, we point out that getting to rich analysis before students have shown they really understand the text is often an empty victory—or a victory for only some of your students.
using layered readings Students need to read a challenging text more than once. Ideally each reading would be different, with the changes in approach modeling a topic that students are rarely taught: the problem-solving implicit in deciding how to re-read a passage when it proves difficult.
[and] text-dependent questions The answers to some questions cannot be faked by earnest, broadly informed opinions or general knowledge about the main idea of the text, augmented by the comments of peers. They can only be answered if a reader has generated understanding directly from reading the text. These are text-dependent questions. Asking readers of Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, ‘Do you agree that injustice anywhere is an affront to justice everywhere?’ is a worthy question, but it is also, teachers should recognize, a question savvy students can answer without having read the text or fully understand it. In fact you could probably answer the question pretty well right now, whether or not you have read or can recall anything about Dr. King’s searing argument. Text-dependent question require students to engage Dr. King’s words directly and comprehensively, with focus and diligence. Then they can opine on the great man’s question.
mastery expressed whenever possible through writing Causing students to capture their ideas in precise arguments and carefully chosen language is not only highly rigorous, it causes them to practice expressing ideas in the format they will use for their most important ideas throughout their schooling and professional lives. And writing is durable. It endures on the page where it can be revised, assessed, and referred to again and again. And it is universal: at the end of a lesson you will want to know not just that the class generally generated meaning directly from the text but that each student was able to make sense of the text independently and autonomously. You will want to show students the development and progression of their ideas over time. Only interpretations expressed in writing can allow you to do that.