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Please don’t overdose on “close reading”

I have been asked several times recently, “How often should teachers engage students in close reading?” I don’t have an easy answer on this. I’d like to start by saying that close reading of an excerpt of informational text should be part of a larger integrated unit of study. These units need to be filled with rich, purposeful, intentionally chosen learning experiences for students to pursue enduring understandings. (THIS IS A KEY POINT IN MY BOOK on close reading!!!!) I see “close reading” as an opportunity to reveal an author’s central idea by examining closely how the author develops that idea in a small chunk of text. This can have ripple effects for learning at other points. With these points in mind, how often does close reading happen? At key points during the unit.

Now – I know how we are as educators – we want a specific number of times! If you really need this, I’d say – if you are engaging students in a unit of study- close reading might happen once or twice a week. Or it may happen every day for a few minutes with a primary source photo or a quote or poem – through discussion. My biggest caution here is that it’s an approach to reading and thinking that needs to be used very purposefully – not just all of the time. Otherwise, your students will start to dread reading lessons and may even mutiny! In addition, that’s not close reading’s purpose – to be the sole approach to comprehending texts and getting at the bigger ideas in a unit.

If you need support to back this up in conversations with other teachers and administrators, the International Reading Association has released a paper entitled “Close Reading and Far-Reaching Classroom Discussion: Fostering a Vital Connection.” LOVED THIS!!!!! As I read, I kept writing “YES!” in the margins. The authors, Catherine Snow and Catherine O’Connor, dispel myths like “close reading levels the playing field” and “close reading should not include using any background knowledge” and “close reading should only be done with text dependent questions.” THANK YOU! The authors agree that close reading is “one of many practices that are useful in teaching comprehension and text interpretation.” They close with the following:

We celebrate the move to put text at the center of instruction across the curriculum, to delete talk about the topic that substitutes for reading, and to let students struggle productively with text. But we fear that too much emphasis on close reading will lead to unproductive struggles, will be taken as a prohibition¬†on discussing and questioning texts, and will create an illusion of a level playing field even as the field is being excavated further from under the feet of struggling readers. (Snow & O’Connor, 2013, p. 8)

I highly recommend this paper as a text for educator discussion in Professional Learning Communities, as part of professional development experiences, during department and team meetings!