Lately I’ve been posting some excerpts from Reading Reconsidered here on Field Notes. Today I’m posting a section from Chapter 2, which is about Close Reading. The segment I’ve chosen deals with the idea of Establishing Meaning–making sure that students understand the full text and its nuances before you jump fully in to analysis. Colleen, Erica and I assume in this chapter that we are talking about lessons in which students are reading complex and challenging texts–something we feel very strongly about. One key question of course is how to we help them to do that successfully…
Close Reading Module 2.2 Establish Meaning via Text-Dependent Questions
Too often, conversations about literature, from the elementary to the college level, are “gist” conversations—conversations wherein readers understand a text at a broad and general level and proceed to develop and share opinions about it despite an incomplete understanding. Teachers start a discussion assuming that students understood all of the text because they are able to provide or recognize a general summary. The assumption is that, because students have gotten the main idea, they know the text comprehensively. Of course, this is not true. There is much more to a text than a pithy statement of its general argument. Sometimes such a “gist phrase” can even crowd out reading:
Teacher: What is Shakespeare saying about love in the sonnet?
Student: That it doesn’t last.
Teacher: Can anyone develop that?
Student: It’s like a flower. It blooms and then fades.
Teacher: Yes, love, to Shakespeare, is fleeting like a flower. Do you agree?
A discussion about the idea of love being fleeting then ensues. Such a discussion is not without value—it engages students and can be high in Participation Ratio, the proportion of the cognitive work students do—but it’s less demanding in many ways than the careful work of unpacking text. It’s an easy shortcut compared to the harder work of unpacking a thicket of signifiers, or of understanding what else Shakespeare’s language choices reveal about the nature of love’s temporality.
More Than “Main Idea”
Unless the conversation starts with a deep understanding of the specifics of what Shakespeare wrote rather than some generalized proximity of it, the discussion is not an exercise in reading. It is a substitute activity—a philosophical discussion about issues raised in a text, one that competes with careful reading for time and energy in the classroom. This isn’t to say you should never do it; but such discussions don’t generally teach students to read deeply.
Close Reading then starts with establishing meaning via sustained and methodical attention to what the text says, a task that can be immensely challenging—and immensely worthwhile in a variety of often overlooked ways. Consider for a moment how rigorous it can be simply to paraphrase a rich and complex passage from a work of literature. Take this one, for example, from To Kill a Mockingbird, which Maggie Johnson used for a Close Reading with her eighth graders in a recent lesson. The narrator, of course, is Scout Finch:
Somewhere, I had received the impression that Fine Folks were people who did the best they could with the sense they had, but Aunt Alexandra was of the opinion, obliquely expressed, that the longer a family had been squatting on one patch of land the finer it was.
A paraphrase, remember, is different from a summary. It is a restatement of the sentence in simpler and clarified terms that still capture all of the explicit meaning and as much of the connotation as possible. “Scout is reflecting on her interpretation of how class was determined, as contrasted to that of her Aunt Alexandra” is not a paraphrase but rather a summary description of the passage. A paraphrase would be written in the first person and take on Scout’s point of view. It might start: “Somehow I had come to believe that respectable people were…”
If you’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird, try your hand at a paraphrase right now. Here’s some space. Give it a try. We won’t collect it:
How’d you do? There’s no single right answer, but if nothing else, checking yourself against our best effort makes it clear that there are a lot of ideas in that one little sentence:
Paraphrase: I had come to believe, though I’m not sure when [or possibly how], that people of stature were those who lived as wisely and well as they could given their circumstances, but Aunt Alexandra believed, though she wouldn’t come out and say it directly, that status was based on how long you had been living on your land.
The ideas here are interwoven and complex and relate to the important themes in the book. Just unwinding them all is challenging. There’s Aunt Alexandra’s belief that status is conferred by heredity, the implicit connection of that issue to race and class, and the fact that Aunt Alexandra would never just come out and say what she felt (that is, her feelings were “obliquely expressed”).
After paraphrasing, perhaps students could analyze Aunt Alexandra’s “obliqueness”—was she being, as she might have put it, tactful and “ladylike,” or was her obliqueness actually a means of quietly reinforcing the racial caste system—to speak in code to remind those who ascribed to her set of beliefs of their importance while keeping those same beliefs invisible to others who might be angered by them or, like Scout, not understand them? Answering that question would fall in the next step of a Close Reading lesson: analyzing meaning. However, before analyzing meaning, students would first need to understand what it means to express an opinion obliquely and exactly what opinions about class Alexandra expressed in this manner. They would need to understand how Harper Lee used relatively low, uncouth diction—“squatting”—to describe the fundamental premise of Alexandra’s worldview, to subtly mock it. You cannot truly analyze meaning unless you can also diligently first establish it.
The synergies between establishing meaning and analyzing it run even deeper. Establishing meaning often identifies key issues worthy of analysis. Imagine how you could push students into analysis once they’d captured the overall meaning of our sentence from To Kill a Mockingbird, for example:
Q: Why is “Fine Folks” capitalized in these lines?
A: Maybe it’s a common phrase that gets said all the time around Scout?
Q: By whom?
A: By the people Scout most often hears talking, people like Alexandra, white people of middle to upper status?
Q: Why might they say it all the time?
A: (eventually, with a bit of discussion or during some writing) It was capitalized because, like Democracy, which is also sometimes capitalized, it is a proper noun in people’s minds. That is, it was deeply enshrined in the belief systems of the South.
Q: So, given our discussion, why would Lee capitalize these words in the text? What message is she conveying?
Paraphrasing might seem to some like the most straightforward and mundane of activities—banal, even. But as this line from To Kill a Mockingbird shows, paraphrasing a worthy segment of complex text is a rigorous task. As an aside, the fact that To Kill a Mockingbird responds so richly to text-dependent questions is both a reminder that trying to Close Read with insufficiently complex text is not likely to yield successful lessons: the value of establishing meaning correlates to the rigor of the text.
Text-Dependent Questions: Unlocking the Power of the Microscope
TDQs are those that cannot be answered without firm knowledge of the text itself. They cannot be faked by carefully listening to the discussion, for example, or by conducting an earnest but inexact reading of the chapter. They cannot be answered by recalling yesterday’s reading or by having a strong background knowledge of the subject. To answer TDQs requires attentive reading. Nothing else will do.
To gaze through a telescope is to look at the universe at its broadest. This can be inspiring. To look through a microscope, in contrast, is to see the universe at its smallest—and its views, though not perhaps as grand at first as those seen through a telescope, are just as critical. They show the hidden units of structure that shape the interactions of the larger world.
When seeking rigor in reading with students, teachers often seek it through the telescope: with broad, sweeping, grand questions. “What is William Golding’s vision of the ‘natural’ state of humanity in Lord of the Flies? Do you agree with him?”
TDQs, in contrast, help us unlock the power of the microscope; they focus in on small moments that are revealing and rigorous, and that recur again and again in the texts we read. “What does the description of the boy ‘clambering heavily among the creepers and broken trunks’ in the first paragraph of Lord of the Flies suggest about William Golding’s view of the state of nature?” (Hint: when the flora is made up of creepers and broken trunks, you are probably not in paradise.)
To help teachers conceptualize what those questions are and how they can work in different settings, we will build here a map of different types of TDQs, including both definitions and examples.
Our map divides TDQs into two columns, differentiating those that establish meaning from those that analyze it. Further, the map is divided into rows. These rows represent the idea that TDQs can focus on analytical units of different size within the text: words and phrases, sentences and lines, paragraphs and stanzas. Each of the columns is thus subdivided into three levels, as shown in Table 2.1.
Table 2.1 Levels and Purposes of TDQs
Questions to Establish Meaning Questions to Analyze Meaning Word- or phrase-level questions
Sentence- or line-level questions
Paragraph- or stanza-level questions
Questions focusing on each of these three levels are equally important and rigorous. Though some teachers may be slightly inclined to consider questions more rigorous when they encompass broader content, and therefore tend to privilege paragraph-level questions over word-level questions, this is not necessarily the case. Students need to work with challenging questions at both larger and smaller units of analysis; the most rigorous teacher is she who asks all three types of questions.
Word- and Phrase-Level Questions to Establish Meaning
Explaining the vocabulary in a passage certainly matters, but there’s more to understanding words and phrases than that. Students need to understand how words and phrases relate and refer to one another—what they mean in a specific instance, and even how their meaning changes with the situation. Consider this apparently very mundane example from Langston Hughes’s A Dream Deferred, which, you may recall, begins like this:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Many students read the second line of the poem and think “it” must be something mysterious or hypothetical, that Hughes is being vague on purpose; they think maybe poetry just works that way and that we are supposed to wonder about the many things that might dry up in the sun. And they could be excused for doing so. Readers often expect poetry to defy logic and convention. Besides, the second line of the poem is separated from the first by a stanza break, making it easy to think that the sentences are not related. Students could spend a lot of time talking about the poem without realizing that the second stanza consists of Hughes’s descriptions of things that happen to dreams when they are deferred and that this is what “it” refers to. The entire poem, in fact, is a meditation on what happens to “it.” Imagine trying to understand the poem without knowing what “it” is. Asking, “What is ‘it’ in the second line?” or “Who can read that line replacing the pronoun ‘it’ with the noun it refers to?” can help ensure that your deep discussion of the poem is founded on a solid reading. It’s a basic question, so many teachers might overlook it. But for a third grader reading outside her comfort zone, it is a critical question.
Here are three specific types of word- or phrase-level questions that you can ask. For each, examples come from the first paragraphs of The Grapes of Wrath. In several cases, the questions that establish meaning presage a question to analyze that meaning more deeply. Some possible follow-up questions are included in italics.
A referent question asks what a word, often a pronoun, refers to. Asking what Langston Hughes’s “it” refers to is one example. If you were reading the first two paragraphs of The Grapes of Wrath, you might ask:
Steinbeck writes, “and in a while, they did not try anymore.” Who are “they,” and what are “they” no longer trying to do? [Answer: The clouds (not the farmers); they no longer tried to protect the land from the sun.]
A denotation question asks about the meaning of a specific word or phrase. Often it focuses on distinctive or unusual constructs, or those that take on a unique meaning in the specific setting. If you were reading the first two paragraphs of The Grapes of Wrath, you might ask:
If a rivulet is a small stream, what might a “rivulet mark” be? What would have to be true for there to be a rivulet mark on the ground? [Answer: the lack of water; a state of drought]
What are “weed colonies”? How are they different from just “weeds”? [Answer: They are clustered together possibly for strength; possibly to “colonize” new land.] What might that show about the setting?
An explanation question asks what a word or phrase means in this setting. It emphasizes understanding which of several possible usages of a word is relevant, or how its nuance or implication is perhaps different than usual. This type of question can also examine how the presence of a word changes a sentence, often by asking how the sentence would read without it. If you were reading the first two paragraphs of The Grapes of Wrath, you might ask about the phrase “last rains.” The first time students read that phrase, it probably appears to mean something quaint and pleasant—the last rains before the sun came out. By the time they are midway through a Close Read, however, they should have come to see that “last rains” has a darker tinge to it: it refers to the last rain before a deadly drought.
[First time through the passage] What does the phrase “the last rains” seem to mean?
[Second time through the passage] What does the phrase seem to mean now, and how is it different from what you thought?
Sentence- and Line-Level Questions to Establish Meaning
Sentences are the basis of idea-formation—complete thoughts. But sentences are complex and thorny and don’t always yield their meaning simply. Students will often grasp part of an idea from a complex sentence but miss other ideas, or will understand a portion of a sentence but not a subsequent portion that contradicts or undercuts its meaning. In this light, it is important for students to practice reading challenging sentences attentively and technically to understand how they create meaning.
Here are four specific types of sentence-level questions that you can ask. Each includes examples, in this case from a variety of texts that lend themselves to Close Reading.
As we’ve discussed, a paraphrase question asks a student to restate a line of text in simplified language to express its meaning clearly. It takes the point of view and perspective of the original and, unlike a summary (explained in Table 2.2), glosses all key parts of the original.
Table 2.2 Paraphrase versus Summary
|v Is a restatement of the text as if from the narrator’s perspective. Matches the tense and syntax of the original
v Uses more simplified language than the original
v Is intended to capture the full extent of the passage and all of its arguments and pieces
v Is most often applied to a single sentence
|v Is a statement about the text from the observer’s perspective
v Often but not necessarily uses more simplified language than the original
v Is intended to shorten and prioritize the elements of a passage to focus on what’s most relevant
v Is most often applied to a sentence or a longer passage
If you were reading from To Kill a Mockingbird, you might ask:
Paraphrase the sentence, “Somewhere, I had received the impression that Fine Folks were people who did the best they could with the sense they had, but Aunt Alexandra was of the opinion, obliquely expressed, that the longer a family had been squatting on one patch of land the finer it was.” Be sure to gloss all of the segments of the sentence. Write your paraphrase in the first person.
Key Line Questions
A key line question asks about the connotation or denotation of a key line or sentence. Sometimes it asks what role it plays in a paragraph. If you were reading Animal Farm, you might ask:
Orwell writes, “Squealer, who happened to be passing at this moment, attended by two or three dogs, was able to put the whole matter in its proper perspective” (italics ours). What does this sentence tell us probably happened between Squealer and Clover, and why is that important?
A reference question asks who or what a sentence refers to, especially whom characters are talking about, who spoke a certain line, or what event they are referring to. If you were reading Othello, you might ask:
Iago says, “For I mine own gain’d knowledge should profane / If I would time expend with such a snipe, / But for my sport and profit.” Who is Iago talking about?
Sentence Structure Questions
A sentence structure question asks how the syntax of a sentence affects meaning. If you were reading Donald Crews’s Bigmama’s, you might ask:
Crews writes, “We talked about what we did last year. We talked about what we were going to do this year. We talked so much we hardly had time to eat.” Why does the author repeat the phrase “we talked” at the beginning of each sentence?
Paragraph- and Stanza-Level Questions to Establish Meaning
Words, phrases, and sentences are powerful units of analysis for studying how language works. They allow students to see in hyperfocus how ideas come together. Paragraphs (and stanzas in the case of poetry) are also rich fodder for Close Reading; they, too, rely on distinctive forms and structures to create or nuance meaning. Here are four specific types of word- or phrase-level questions that you can ask.
A summary question asks students to distill the elements of a block of text and reduce it in scope to its most important ideas. In other words, a summary inherently asks students to prioritize what is most important or germane. Because summarizing can allow students to skip discussing parts of a paragraph they may not have understood, teachers often use, in addition to a general summary, a “targeted” summary: a summary that asks students to focus on something specific. For example, if you were reading Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” you might ask:
Summarize King’s explanation, in the early paragraphs, of the difference between a just and unjust law.
In this way, the task of summarizing can be trained on an important idea, image, or theme, within a block of text.
A delineation question is similar to a targeted summary in that it asks students to trace the elements of an author’s argument or the sequence of events in a narrative. To return to “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” you might ask:
Trace all of King’s references to children in the paragraph beginning, “We have waited for more than three hundred and forty years.” Where and why does he discuss their perspectives on racism?
Finite Evidence Questions
A finite evidence question asks students to track evidence comprehensively throughout a section of text. It requires students to find multiple pieces of evidence (or all the evidence, or a fixed number of pieces of evidence) from a particular section. This prevents students from finding just the low-hanging fruit—the most obvious pieces of evidence—and forces them to grapple with the evidence in its totality: Is it clean and tidy and all of a piece, or is some of it questionable, hidden, contradictory even? Asking a finite evidence question is often more rigorous than asking for a single piece of evidence, because it causes students to read more carefully (often for what they didn’t see the first time around) and because it prepares students to turn isolated pieces of evidence into a compelling argument. So if you were reading Jared Diamond’s essay “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race,” you might ask:
Diamond gives us three key reasons why the dominance of agriculture has been negative for humanity. What are they?
This would prepare you for a more thorough discussion of the article. Or, if you were reading Number the Stars, you might ask:
Find all the evidence in the passage that shows us that the little sister, Kirsti, fails to perceive the threat of the German soldiers.
As we noted earlier, regardless of what line(s) of questioning you choose to employ in a particular lesson, trying to Close Read with insufficiently complex text is unlikely to succeed. The rigor and value of establishing meaning correlate to the rigor and value of the text.
The synergies between establishing meaning and analyzing it, we have noted, run deep. Establishing meaning often identifies key issues worthy of analysis. In the next module, we move on to analyzing.