What Close Reading Actually Means

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what-close-reading-actually-means

by Grant Wiggins, Ed.D, Authentic Education

What is close reading? As I said in my previous blog post, whatever it is it differs from a personal response to the text.

Here is what the Common Core ELA Standards say:

Students who meet the Standards readily undertake the close, attentive reading that is at the heart of understanding and enjoying complex works of literature. (p. 3)

What Close Reading Actually Means

Here is Anchor Standard 1:

Key Ideas and Details

1. Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text. (p. 10)

Here is how Nancy Boyles in an excellent Educational Leadership article defines it: “Essentially, close reading means reading to uncover layers of meaning that lead to deep comprehension.”

Thus, what “close reading” really means in practice is disciplined re-reading of inherently complex and worthy texts. As Tim Shanahan puts it in his helpful blog entry, “Because challenging texts do not give up their meanings easily, it is essential that readers re-read such texts,” while noting that “not all texts are worth close reading.”

The close = re-read + worthy assumption here is critical: we assume that a rich text simply cannot be understood and appreciated by a single read, no matter how skilled and motivated the reader.

The next five ELA anchor standards make this clearer: we could not possibly analyze these varied aspects of the text simultaneously:

    • 2. Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.
    • 3. Analyze how and why individuals, events, and ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.
    • 4. Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.
    • 5. Analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text (e.g., a section, chapter, scene, or stanza) relate to each other and the whole.
    • 6. Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.

College readiness and close reading. Since a key rationale for the Common Core Standards is college readiness, let’s have a look at how college professors define it. Here is what Penn State professor Sophia McClennen says at the start of her extremely helpful resource with tips on close reading:

“Reading closely” means developing a deep understanding and a precise interpretation of a literary passage that is based first and foremost on the words themselves. But a close reading does not stop there; rather, it embraces larger themes and ideas evoked and/or implied by the passage itself.

Here is how the Harvard Writing Center defines it:

When you close read, you observe facts and details about the text. You may focus on a particular passage, or on the text as a whole. Your aim may be to notice all striking features of the text, including rhetorical features, structural elements, cultural references; or, your aim may be to notice only selected features of the text—for instance, oppositions and correspondences, or particular historical references. Either way, making these observations constitutes the first step in the process of close reading.

The second step is interpreting your observations. What we’re basically talking about here is inductive reasoning: moving from the observation of particular facts and details to a conclusion, or interpretation, based on those observations. And, as with inductive reasoning, close reading requires careful gathering of data (your observations) and careful thinking about what these data add up to.

University of Washington handout for students summarizes the aim of close reading as follows:

The goal of any close reading is the following:

  • an ability to understand the general content of a text even when you don’t understand every word or concept in it.
  • an ability to spot techniques that writers use to get their ideas and feelings across and to explain how they work.
  • an ability to judge whether techniques the writer has used succeed or fail and an ability to compare and contrast the successes and failures of different writers’ techniques.

Remember—when doing a close reading, the goal is to closely analyze the material and explain why details are significant. Therefore, close reading does not try to summarize the author’s main points, rather, it focuses on “picking apart” and closely looking at the what the author makes his/her argument, why is it interesting, etc.

Here are a few of the helpful questions to consider in close reading, from the handout by  Kip Wheeler, a college English professor:

II. Vocabulary and Diction:

    • How do the important words relate to one another? Does a phrase here appear elsewhere in the story or poem?
    • Do any words seem oddly used to you? Why? Is that a result of archaic language? Or deliberate weirdness?
    • Do any words have double meanings? Triple meanings? What are all the possible ways to read it?

III. Discerning Patterns:

    • How does this pattern fit into the pattern of the book as a whole?
    • How could this passage symbolize something in the entire work? Could this passage serve as a microcosm, a little picture, of what’s taking place in the whole narrative or poem?
    • What is the sentence rhythm like? Short and choppy? Long and flowing? Does it build on itself or stay at an even pace? How does that structure relate to the content?
    • Can you identify paradoxes in the author’s thought or subject?
    • What is left out or silenced? What would you expect the author to say that the author seems to have avoided or ignored? What could the author have done differently—and what’s the effect of the current choice?

Of note is that in all these college examples the focus is on close reading as a prelude to writing. This is an important heads-up for students: close reading invariably is a means to an end in college, where the aim is a carefully-argued work of original thought about the text(s). And, in fact, the second part of Anchor Standard #1 makes this link explicit: the expectation is that students will communicate the fruits of their close reading to others in written and oral forms.

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Close Reading vs. Reader Response

A key assumption implicit in all these quotes as well as in the Common Core – a controversial one, perhaps – is thus what I briefly argued in the previous post:  “close reading” has implicit priority over “reader response” views of the aim of literacy instruction. The reader’s primary obligation is to understand the text. That emphasis is clear from the anchor standards in the Common Core, as noted above: the goal is to understand what the author is doing and accomplishing, and what it means; the goal is not to respond personally to what the author is doing.

As I noted in my previous post, this does not mean, however, that we should ignore or try to bypass the reader’s responses, prior knowledge, or interests. On the contrary, reading cannot help but involve an inter-mingling of our experience and what the author says and perhaps means. But it does not follow from this fact that instruction should give equal weight to personal reactions to a text when the goal is close reading. On the contrary: we must constantly be alert to how and where our own prejudices (literally, pre-judging) may be interfering with meaning-making of the text.

Here is how the caution is cast in a college handout on close reading for students:

One word of caution: context needs to be examined with care. Don’t assume that the context of your own class or gender or culture is informing you correctly. Read context as actively and as rigorously as you read text!

This is especially true when reading rich, unusual, and controversial writings. Our job is to suspend judgment as we read – and be wary of projecting our own prior experience.

Let me offer one of my favorite sections of text to illustrate the point – two early sections from Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil:

SUPPOSING that Truth is a woman–what then? Is there not ground for suspecting that all philosophers, in so far as they have been dogmatists, have failed to understand women–that the terrible seriousness and clumsy importunity with which they have usually paid their addresses to Truth, have been unskilled and unseemly methods for winning a woman?…

5. That which causes philosophers to be regarded half-distrustfully and half-mockingly, is not the oft-repeated discovery how innocent they are–how often and easily they make mistakes and lose their way, in short, how childish and childlike they are,–but that there is not enough honest dealing with them, whereas they all raise a loud and virtuous outcry when the problem of truthfulness is even hinted at in the remotest manner. They all pose as though their real opinions had been discovered and attained through the self-evolving of a cold, pure, divinely indifferent dialectic (in contrast to all sorts of mystics, who, fairer and foolisher, talk of “inspiration”), whereas, in fact, a prejudiced proposition, idea, or “suggestion,” which is generally their heart’s desire abstracted and refined, is defended by them with arguments sought out after the event. They are all advocates who do not wish to be regarded as such, generally astute defenders, also, of their prejudices, which they dub “truths,”–and VERY far from having the conscience which bravely admits this to itself, very far from having the good taste of the courage which goes so far as to let this be understood, perhaps to warn friend or foe, or in cheerful confidence and self-ridicule.

This is a classic close reading challenge: one has to read and re-read to make sense of things – even though all the words are familiar. And one has to put many prejudices and associations aside – about august philosophers, about scholarship, about “reason,” about truth and our motives in seeking it, about manhood! – to understand and appreciate what Nietzsche is driving at.

Oh, C’mon Grant: I Teach Little Kids

No matter. The same close reading needs to be done with every Frog and Toad story. Let’s consider my favorite, “Spring.” Frog wants Toad to wake up from hibernation to play on a nice April spring day. Toad resists all entreaties to wake up and play. The climax of the story comes here:

“But, Toad,” cried Frog, “you will miss all the fun!”

“Listen, Frog” said Toad.  “How long have I been asleep?”
“You have been asleep since November,” said Frog.
“Well then,” said Toad, “a little more sleep will not hurt me.  Come back again and wake me up at about half past May.  Good night, Frog.”
“But, Toad,’ said Frog, “I will be lonely until then.”
Toad did not answer.  He had fallen asleep.

Frog looked at Toad’s calendar.  The November page was still on top.
Frog tore off the November page.
He tore off the December page.
And the January page, the February page, and the March page.

He came to the April page.  Frog tore off the April page too.
Then Frog ran back to Toad’s bed.  “Toad, Toad, wake up.  It is May now.”

“What?” said Toad.  “Can it be May so soon?
“Yes,” said Frog.  “Look at your calendar.”

Toad looked at the calendar.  The May page was on top.
“Why, it is May!” said Toad as he climbed out of bed.

Then he and Frog ran outside to see how the world was looking in the Spring.

All sorts of interesting questions can re raised here – all of which demand a close (re-) reading:

    • Why did Frog try to wake Toad? How selfish or selfless was he being?
    • How did Frog eventually get Toad to get up? Why did he do that (i.e. trick him)?
    • Why didn’t the other attempts work to rouse Toad?
    • What convinced Toad? Why did it convince him?
    • Is Frog being a good friend here? Is Toad? (The title of the book, of course, isFrog and Toad Are Friends).

Notice that we could ask the following reader-response-like questions:

A. Have you ever been tricked like that, or tricked someone else? Why did you trick them or they trick you?

B. Do real friends trick friends? Is Frog really being a good friend here?

From my vantage point, however, in light of what we have said so far, the first question pair is less fruitful to consider – less ‘close’ –  than the second pair. The first pair takes you away from the text; the second pair takes you right back to the text for a closer read.

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The Openness Required In Close Reading

Close reading, then, requires openness to being taught. Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren in their seminal text How To Read A Book make this issue of openness quite explicit at the outset. When the goal is understanding (instead of enjoyment or information only), we must assume that there is something the writer grasps that we do not:

The writer is communicating something that can increase the reader’s understanding… What are the conditions under which this kind of reading – reading for understanding –takes place? There are two. First, there is an initial inequality in understanding. The writer must be “superior” to the reader in understanding…second, the reader must be able to overcome this inequality in some degree…To the extent that this equality is approached, clarity of communication is achieved.

In short, we can only learn from our “betters.” We must know who they are and how to learn from them. The person who possesses this sort of knowledge possesses the art of reading.

The essence of such open reading is active questioning of the text. As the authors say, the “one simple prescription is… Ask questions while you read – questions that you yourself must try to answer in the course of reading.”

Here are the four questions at the heart of the book:

What is the book about as a whole? You must try to discover the leading theme of the book, and how the author develops this theme in an orderly way…

What is being said in detail, and how? You must try to discover the main ideas, assertions, and arguments that constitute the author’s particular message.

Is the book true, in whole or in part? You cannot answer this question until you have answered the first two. You have to know what is being said before you can decide whether it is true or not. When you understand a book, however, you are obligated to make up your own mind. Knowing the author’s mind is not enough.

What of it? If the book has given you information, you must ask about its significance. Why does the author think it is important to know these things? Is it important to you to know them?

Note the caution: you shouldn’t jump to judging the merit or significance of the work before understanding it – a maxim of close reading.

The bulk of the book describes dozens of practical tips, with examples, for how to annotate texts and develop better habits of active reading in pursuit of the answers to these reader questions. I can heartily recommend How To Read a Book as one the best resources ever written for learning close reading. Hard to argue with the facts: written in 1940 and a longtime best-seller, it has had over 30 printings and is still used today.

Most importantly, to yours truly, How To Read a Book taught me how to read properly. It was in a brief skim of Adler’s book, while lounging in a friend’s dorm room when I was a junior at St. John’s College – the Great Books school – that I realized with a terrible shock that I had never really learned how to read actively and carefully up until that moment. The book changed my life: I became more skilled, confident, and willing as a reader; I went into teaching in part motivated by the simple yet powerful lessons taught me about the joys of reading and thinking in the book.

What St. John’s also taught me is the power of so-called Socratic Seminar – the way all of our classes were run – for learning close reading. Indeed, that’s all a good seminar is: a shared close reading of a complex text in which students propose emerging understandings, supported by textual evidence, with occasional reminders and re-direction by teacher-facilitators.

So, ELA and English teachers – and history, math, art, and science teachers too: let’s teach kids the joys that come from discerning the richness in a great text, be it Frog and Toad, Plato’s Apology, Euclid’s Elements, or Picasso’s Guernica. I think you’ll be surprised how much a wise text can teach and reach even the most unruly kid – and, in the end, make them feel wiser, too.

This post first appeared on Grant’s personal blog; image attribution flickr users katerha and deepcwind

  • Jennifer

    Yes, but wouldn’t it also be helpful to consider other kinds of readings. Close readings came from one specific kind of literary theory, formalism. And while it is a very useful tool, it might be nice to at least share with students a bit of gender, post-colonial, structuralism, and reader response, just so that they see the larger framework. Remember that looking just at the text and ignoring context and an author’s intentions was a fairly new approach in the early part of the twentieth century. I am certainly not advocating getting rid of close readings, just broadening the discussion for students and allowing them to see the big picture.

    • terryheick

      Interesting point. Normally that kind of “reading through theory” doesn’t surface until college. Want to write a short post identifying how teachers might approach new approaches to “consuming text” that parallel the spirit of close reading, but in wider social or historical contexts, for example? Would love to share this idea with our readers.