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05.14.15A Reading Reconsidered Excerpt: Layered Reading

CLose Reading.5.15Colleen Driggs, Erica Woolway and I are busy wrapping up the manuscript of our new book on literacy, Reading Reconsidered.  We’ll put it to bed in a few weeks’ time and you should see it on shelves next winter.  In the meantime here’s an excerpt from the chapter on Close Reading.  The topic is something called ‘layered reading.’


As a student you faced a crisis, during college or in the school that prepared you to go there.  Late at night, perhaps, and holed up on the top floor of the library, you had William Faulkner or Ralph Ellison or Mary Wollstonecraft in front of you, and on first reading, it was a mystery.  You read:

That invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact. A matter of the construction of their inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality.[1]” 


You had to read it again, but more than that you had to figure out how to read again.  This was a form of problem solving.  Should you forge onward and hope Ellison’s next sentence would elucidate a bit of that ornate, beautiful and confounding sentence?  Or should you double back? If you elected to go back, did that mean re-reading just the previous sentence or should you re-read the whole previous paragraph? Or should you scan back for a line that felt relevant to the gist of the sentence, the idea of being seen, or not?  Wasn’t there something about that before? Ah, yes: “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me,” that helps.


If you forged ahead, you also faced choices: you could work methodically, sentence by sentence or you could jump in and start swimming, knowing the text was a river of ideas you would never grasp fully at first.  You could read for a bit, let the ideas wash over you, get your bearings, and then circle back and make better sense of it the second time through. In short you didn’t just rea d and re-read, you adapted the way you re-read to the mysteries of the text.  Each solution was a bit different.


Difficult texts require re-reading.  We often tell students that. But it’s not just re-reading that’s important with complex, challenging text but what kind of re-reading, when and even with what purpose.  Re-reading, in short, is a form of problem solving.


We call reading and re-reading a text to engage it in different ways across multiple readings “layered reading.” In watching teachers use this idea with students we’ve noticed them read passages in three different ways that can be applied in different combinations. As we explain them, we’ll also provide examples of how Colleen used them in a Close Reading lesson of her own on the first paragraphs of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.


The contiguous read: In a contiguous read, students read a passage with a minimum of interruptions or stoppages.  The idea is to experience the text as a whole, to glimpse its broad context; to hear its voice.  It can be an ideal way to introduce a text— the most common way that a text is read the first time in Close Reading lessons—but it can also be a superb last step allowing students to see the pieces they’ve analyzed come together as a whole.


Typically, a teacher might use a contiguous read to begin a close read, asking her students to read for its broad context and make general observations about its narrative voice before going back through to unpack complexities, nuances and thorny syntax. “Sometimes,” a professor of mine said, regarding Faulkner, “You just have to jump in and start swimming; with time you will come to understand more about what you did not know you were reading about.  Then you can circle back.”  In fact it can be an especially empowering experience for students to struggle with a text’s seeming impenetrability, and then watch its mysteries revealed by careful study.


Colleen chose to start this way on her Grapes of Wrath Close Reading lesson.  The first paragraphs of the book forms a sort of prose poem—a landscape painting in words of Oklahoma just before the dust bowl.  Colleen wanted her students to hear how it was different and to get a broad sense for the passage’s feel before she dug deep with Close Reading. She also chose to start with a contiguous read, frankly, because so much of Steinbeck’s meaning in the passage is communicated with subtlety.  She wanted them to read it, think they “got it” and then go back through and be blown away by how much more was there.


Though she sometimes asks students to do a ‘silent solo’ contiguous read in this case she had them read it aloud, Control the Game style with her stepping in from time to time to bridge and model fluent expressive reading.  She wanted to hear them read so she could better assess how much they seemed to be picking up on the nuances of the text just in how they could or could not express meaning in their oral reading. As she read she didn’t stop much to ask questions, merely to define a few key vocabulary words that she had students note in their texts so they could use them later on.


The decision to use their reading as a tacit assessment of their initial comfort with the text’s language recalls that a contiguous read often works well in concert with Check for Understanding.  Just after the contiguous read is an ideal time to check for understanding by asking questions or by asking some initial questions designed to gauge their understanding or by asking students to respond to the text in writing.  The relatively unmediated read—few teacher hints; no student discussion–gives you a strong indication of how much students got (or didn’t) on their own.  For this reason the sequence of events in many Close Reading lessons is: 1) contiguous read 2) initial writing to CFU 3) re-read with text dependent questions 4) final writing.


A contiguous read also works well as an opportunity for synthesis after a round of more deliberate questioning.  A teacher might follow up on a reading where each line and allusion is explicated, by going back and using a contiguous read without any interruptions to let students experience how the pieces, now-understood, came together.  A teacher might even combine two contiguous reads: the first to experience the text and all of its mysteries-and especially the aspects of a text that students do not yet realize they do not understand, the second, after deeper analysis, to read it “as if for the first time” to “see how much more we understand” or “how much we didn’t understand the first time through.”


The line-by-line read: In a line-by-line read, pauses for discussion and analysis are frequent: you and your class read a line and then stop to make sense of it, unpacking, explicating and analyzing before moving on, so that as they read, students build up their understanding of the argument in a methodical way:  As they read “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” you might ask students to stop and paraphrase (often in writing) and reflect on King’s argument every few sentences. You might do this not only because his text is full of important allusions and complex syntax and because his argument builds so systematically and logically off each previous point.  The name “line by line” can perhaps be deceiving- you don’t need to stop every single line.  One of the key things every teacher wrestles with in any lesson, but especially a Close Reading lesson, is pacing.  Line by line reading could indeed mean unpacking or paraphrasing every single line, as you might do with a soliloquy from Hamlet or a sonnet, or perhaps just frequently and with a significant number of key lines. Alternatively a line-by-line read could let students encounter two or three sentences at once and then pause and examine them as a group. It could also gloss over some less thorny segments


Colleen also used line by line reading in her Grapes of Wrath lesson.  Here are her notes on how often she stopped and what questions she asked about the first two lines of the passage:

Read:  To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. 

Questions: Last rains: What does this mean? Is it a good thing/bad thing?  ‘They did not cut the scarred earth.’ Who or what is ‘they’? What does it mean that the rains did NOT “cut the scarred earth”?  Why does the author describe the earth as scarred?

Read: The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. 

Questions: If a rivulet is a small stream, what might a rivulet mark be? What’s does the author intentionally show is NOT there?  Who’s driving the plows? What’s the hidden subject of this sentence?

We will come back to this at the end of the passage but for now think: why would the author leave out the people driving the plows?

Colleen didn’t stop after every single line as she read as she does in this short segment, though you could if you wanted to.  The idea here is that a text builds up meaning in intentional ways that require focus and attention at the micro level. This in a way is learning to read in a whole new way- learning to read deeply and attentively as if for the first time.


The leap-frog read:  A leap-frog read follows an image, phrase or idea through the passage. It gets its name from the idea that this means leaping over some parts of the passage to glimpse, in close proximity, the related images or phrases in others.  Colleen’s goal in reading the first paragraphs of Grapes of Wrath, for example, was to highlight the role of the sun, which is not the positive image it is in most texts but, here, a relentless antagonist attacking the land and creating a deadly drought. The nameless farmers of Oklahoma are caught in the middle of this battle between earth and sky- a key insight into Steinbeck’s portrayal of them, and an insight begun by tracing the three references to the sun in the first two paragraphs.   They are spread out throughout the first paragraphs but here they are, extracted from the narrative and put in close proximity to emphasize the point:

  • The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet.
  • And as the sharp sun struck day after day, the leaves of the young corn became less stiff and erect; they bent in a curve at first, and then, as the central ribs of strength grew weak, each leaf tilted downward.
  • Then it was June, and the sun shone more fiercely.


The paragraphs describe an epic battle between sun and earth in which the sun is violent, inexorable. But it would be easy to miss this unless you looked at all three of those references in close proximity.  So Colleen did just that: asked students to find the first reference to the sun; asked them to read and interpret the line; asked them to skip ahead and find the next reference to the sun; asked them to read and interpret that; asked them to find the third and do that same; finally she asked them to make sense of the imagery of the sun as a whole.


Here are Colleen’s questions:


Scan the passage and find the first place that you notice the sun mentioned.

The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. 

  • What is it doing? Underline the phrase, the sun flared down. Normally when the sun is out, is it positive or negative?  Let’s find out from the text if that holds true in this case…
  • What’s the sun flaring down on?
  • What’s starting to happen to the corn as a result?
  • If it’s getting brown lines, that means it’s drying out. What happens to plants if they get too dry?
  • What’s being described as a “green bayonet’? Given me one literal and one figurative reasons why the author would describe the leaves of the corn plants that way?
  • Note in margin to summarize: “Sun at war with Earth” or similar.


1)      Find the second mention of the sun.


And as the sharp sun struck day after day, the leaves of the young corn became less stiff and erect; they bent in a curve at first, and then, as the central ribs of strength grew weak, each leaf tilted downward. 


  • Underline the phrase sharp sun struck day after day.
  • The author could have used any adjective and verb to describe the sun, but he chose sharp and strike. How would the effect have been different had he said, “The bright sun shone…”
  • What kinds of objects usually are sharp and strike?
  • What’s the author trying to imply?
  • Why does the author say day after day?
  • What’s it striking down on?
  • Underline the rest of that sentence and paraphrase…
  • Note in margin to sum: “Battle ongoing; sun is winning,” or similar.


2)      There’s one more mention of the sun. Find it and keep your pencil by it.


Then it was June, and the sun shone more fiercely. 


  • Underline the phrase sun shone more fiercely.
  • More fiercely than what? 
  • (If needed-Break it Down): The last time the sun was mentioned it was like a …? More fiercely than a sword?
  • So now we’re sure that the sun is like a weapon. What’s it doing?


STOP AND JOT #1:  Jot down 2 words in the box that describe the role of the sun. This is going to help us to better understand the rest of the passage.  (Share out)



A leap frog read could just as easily look at an important phrase as a recurring image, however. Consider the power of examining both the repetition of and changes in the similar phrases Donald Crews uses to describe visiting his grandmother’s house  in Bigmama’s:


  • First, when they arrive: “Then off with our socks and shoes. We wouldn’t need them much in the next few weeks.  Now to see that nothing had changed.”
  • Later, after casing the farm: “We stood on tiptoe to watch the bucket go down and fill with water so that we could have a drink from the dipper than hung nearby. Everything was just the same.”
  • In the middle of the visit: “Plenty of water for fishing and swimming this year. Everything was just as it should be.”


Tracking the differences in these similar phrases would help second grade students, perhaps, to understand  how Crews’ expresses the comforting timelessness  of his visits, but having students find and then study the lines one after the other in close proximity is, if not the only way, probably the best way to help them see it.


[1] These lines are from the opening chapter of Ellison’s novel the Invisible Man.

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2 Responses to “A Reading Reconsidered Excerpt: Layered Reading”

  1. Eric J Pollock
    May 18, 2015 at 3:42 pm

    One of the nuances in doing a line-by-line read is that we may foster our interpretation into the passage with questions, which then is transferred to the student. This may or may not be the “correct” interpretation, nor may it be an interpretation the student necessarily agrees with.

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