The Common Core Standards' Obsession with Close Reading

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If there is anything that resonates with an English teacher about the Common Core Standards, it is the emphasis that is put upon the skill of the close read. The way we are to use text in the classroom is different than ever before, focusing on the craft of the writing, author's intent, vocabulary and word choice. And while it is a skill that is important in a variety of fields and certainly will help students become college and career ready, how can one implement close reading strategies with students who quite frankly, couldn't care about getting more intimate with the text they read?


Familiarization

Most students don't have an interest in analyzing text because they don't know how or they don't consider themselves readers. Many times, they are lacking the skills they need to be successful, so at the risk of looking like a failure, they simply will not try. This is understandable as it takes practice and direction to learn how to be a good close reader, how to get down and dirty with a piece of writing and pull it apart for all that it is worth when the need arises (we all know that not everything we read needs to approached in this manner).

We need to work to familiarize students with the skills necessary to become good close readers. We need to show them how to interact with text in a way that breaks down the barriers they have set up between themselves and the words on the page. Above all, we need to let students know that close reading isn't for people who know everything there is to know about a text. No one expects them to be perfect at understanding what they are reading before they get into it. In fact, that is what close reading is all about -- figuring it out.

Steps of Close Reading

The first thing that a person who is set to do a close reading should do is determine how he or she is going to mark up the text. Teachers should provide students with the means to make notations on text, either by photocopy or Post-It note. All those years of "don't write in the book" need to be forgotten. Common Core will not accept that approach.

In order to best discuss a piece of text that is set for a close read, one should number paragraphs and lines in the text. This is so reference to lines later is clear and information is easier to locate. Depending on the age group you teach, you may wish to do this for the students, however, teaching the skill to higher level students is imperative so that they can master it themselves.

Once the document is numbered, the next step is to do an initial skim. Notice headlines, pictures, diagrams, etc. Locate bold words, definitions and anything else that initially stands out to the eye. Use this information to make initial assumptions on the focus of the piece.

Next, dive in. Start reading. Go sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph. Make notes in the margins, ask questions of the text, star information that is important and point out information you disagree with. Make notations. Notice and look up words or phrases that are unfamiliar or new. Make sure you understand them before you move on. As a teacher, guide the students through your own annotations of text. Show them what you do (what you did in your college textbooks) so they can see your thought process.

Whatever you do during this point in time, when you are encouraging students to get down and dirty with the text, do not tell them that there is only one way to do it. We all have our own process. Some highlight, some underline and some circle. Some ask questions; others jot notes. Some have a few scribbles here and there; others practically write a new text. Whatever a student does to arrive at meaning, have them do.

Spend time looking at author's craft. Analyze word choice, stylistic approach, tone, technique, etc. Try to understand why the author made the choices he did and specifically what impact it had on the text as well as on the reader. Have students make notes of this in the margins.

Develop thoughtful, driving discussion questions for each piece of text you have students closely read. Have them consider the time period and cultural implications that surround the text. Let them get the full picture and even better, show them how to find the full picture (in college, background information will not always be provided).

The more you model and the more you let students practice, the better they will become. Much like we picked up the skill of close reading, it will eventually become a habit and your students will want to write and respond to every text they read.

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kschimmel 4 years ago from North Carolina, USA

The more I learn about Common Core, the more thankful I am to be able to sacrifice to send my kids to a classical school. That "close reading" sounds like a recipe for "Readicide" as Terry Gallagher describes in his book by that name. Struggling readers will just hate reading even more, practice even less as a result, and never improve. Analyzing a writer's style and mechanics is a job for a proficient reader, and many, many kids are not proficient.


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NYSEnglishTeacher 4 years ago Author

I agree with you that the idea of close reading is a big turn off, but it is what is being pushed with Common Core. My hope is that with practicing this technique in the classroom, working through it with my students and modeling for them what I do as a reader, I can give techniques to strong and struggling readers that can help them improve their skills. It's not an easy pill to swallow as a teacher knowing that this is what is expected of students and not every student is there, but arming students with the skills and techniques of close reading will certainly help them later on. The more one interacts with the text, the more likely they are to understand it and make connections, even if they cannot identify the motives and intentions of the author and the nuances of the language he or she used.


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jambo87 4 years ago

Great article. I work for a consulting company that specializes in the CCSS (not as a consultant, but as an admin assistant and proofreader). I think the Common Core makes great strides in promoting critical thinking skills, but I fear that some of its expectations are rather stilted. The standards at the levels before high school should focus more on comprehension and literacy, rather than close reading (akin, I know, but they are shades different). Elementary students shouldn't be worrying over tone and style in ways other than "is it funny?", "is it serious", etc. Also, they push implementing more info text in English courses, which bugs me a little, but I can see the merit -- an English teacher is better at explaining the writing craft to students than a science/math/history teacher is (generally). Close reading is more the province of high school and college English. You don't need to explicate a chapter in a science textbook to gain the relevant information from it; you just need to comprehend the words on the page. There's no iceberg in a textbook.

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