“Close Reading” or “Reading Closely”?

“Close Reading” or “Reading Closely”?In several blog posts, I have expressed misgivings about “close reading” as an aspect of the implementation of the CCSS, most recently in this post. Last month, CUNY English professor Aaron Barlow expressed a similar view in the Academe Blog:

[CCSS ELA reading standards] reflect the attitudes of what are known as the New Critics of the 1940s and 1950s, a group of text-centric scholars whose influence extended through the “theory” movements of the 1980s but who, today, are not a central factor in how we approach either reading or writing in college. Their “close reading” is certainly a skill we teach and use, but it does not frame the activities of our courses—as it does the ELA “Anchors” above.

“Close reading,” also, is not a gateway skill. Not only do incoming college students not need it, but it does not serve to spark interest in the texts under consideration. That has to come first: students need to want to read before they can engage in the rather precise and difficult exercise of “close reading.”

Through my work reviewing ELA units as part of the EQuIP cadre of reviewers which I summarized here, I have come to realize “close reading” is not exactly the best way to characterize what the reading standards expect from students. Better, as ELA reading anchor standard one states, what is expected is that students “read closely to ….” Is there a difference between “reading closely” and “close reading” that is more than just sophistry or a hair-splitting pedantic distinction? I think there is.

As a classroom activity “close reading” need not depend on New Criticism for legitimacy.  Quickly, “close reading” is as Barlow says a “precise and difficult exercise” of unpacking and minutely examining the language choices, allusions, inter-textual references, intra-textual references, and imagery of a key passage in a literary text. It is an activity I used with high school students occasionally and usually through modeling. It was generally an interactive activity based around questions I posed about key portions of a text, for example the opening paragraph or the short story “Young Goodman Brown” or the opening of the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. It was not a basic strategy for engaging with whole texts.

“Reading closely” first of all implies that reading text is a central focus of instruction.  “Reading closely” as a central focus in strong units and lessons I have been reviewing has these qualities:

  • A focus on sufficiently complex texts for the grade
  • Multiple opportunities to read/hear a given selection including read aloud, silent, and paired
  • An emphasis on summarizing to develop understanding of what the text says
  • Use of text-based questions that go beyond the literal and focus on drawing inferences
  • An emphasis on evidence and support for inferences and arguments
  • Attention to acquiring academic vocabulary
  • Provision for scaffolding and supports for students as necessary
  • A close link between reading and writing activities to support learning
  • A strong formative feedback loop to help students know how they are doing

As students move across units within a grade, there should be an intentional effort to remove supports and have students read more independently. As students move across grades, the questions associated with reading activities may approach and mirror those that are part of “close reading” but for many informational texts, “reading closely” will be all we ever need to do. It is worth adding that in most well-developed units, activities which require “reading closely” are embedded in less than half the lessons.

Recently, David Coleman, who was one of the primary authors of the English-Language Arts Common Core State Standards and is now president of the College Board, has begun to talk more about “evidence-based reading.” In fact, the revised SAT will have a focus on citing evidence in texts as one of its key changes. I think the phrase “evidence-based reading” is much more like what I am describing as “reading closely.” Though this is still an incomplete characterization of what is required for career and college readiness in terms of reading, it is one Barlow and other CCSS critics might find more palatable. I know I do.