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Building the Habits of Close Reading to Support Comprehension

Fostering close reading of texts is crucial to developing students’ knowledge and skills

Close reading is a popular term today in elementary literacy classrooms and a requirement in the Common Core ELA standards in order to ensure students are college- and career- ready. It enables students to independently comprehend increasingly challenging texts. Students need to develop the habits of mind and the skills necessary to unpack the deep, embedded meanings found in complex, challenging texts on their own. In this web seminar, originally broadcast on April 1, 2015, an expert in the field of literacy instruction discussed key strategies to foster close reading that supports comprehension in any district.

D. RAY REUTZEL
Distinguished Professor and Emma Eccles Jones Endowed Chair of Early Childhood Education 
Utah State University
Elected Member, Reading Hall of Fame
Author, Ready® Reading and Ready® Writing
Member, i-Ready® Technical Advisory Committee

When I first started hearing about close reading, I thought about the old tale by Hans Christian Andersen, “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” in which a couple of swindlers promise to provide a vain emperor with a new suit of clothing, and the emperor wears his nonexistent new clothes in a public procession. All those around him pretend that he has nice new clothes, except for one child who is truthful and calls out that he isn’t wearing anything at all. The reason I think about that story is that if you examine the concept of close reading, you’ll see that there’s nothing new here.

Whether it goes by the name of close reading, or strategic reading, or careful reading, the concept has been around for a long time. What this means for most teachers is helping students develop the ability to use a collection of comprehension strategies to talk and think about texts at deeper and deeper levels of meaning and understanding. Students have always read closely in order to understand complex texts. This isn’t anything new. Teachers of English literature in secondary schools and universities have, for many years, employed close or analytic readings to unpack the hidden meaning in challenging literary texts. But today, so much of the noise and confusion surrounding the implementation of close reading in schools concerns its definition, purposes and practices, which are practically being manufactured by the minute. So it wouldn’t be surprising that some teachers and administrators are confused.

Defining close reading

First off, close reading involves the use of a collection of evidence-based comprehension strategies embedded in teacher-guided discussions, carefully planned around several repeated readings of a text in order to increase students’ comprehension. Close reading can be defined simply, in my mind, as repeated readings of a text coupled with discussions to increase comprehension.

Educators also need to understand what close reading is not. Close reading may be misinterpreted as focusing on magnifying the importance of smaller and more literal elements of text with each read—similar to using a microscope to examine something that is too small to be seen with the naked eye. Many scholars are fearful that with each subsequent close reading of a text, teachers may begin to focus in on less important information and become more literal about what’s in the text, which is absolutely not what should be happening.

Close reading implies an ordered process that proceeds from understanding the smallest or most literal ideas in text first—in other words, getting what’s in the text (words, phrases, sentence meanings); then moving on to understanding larger ideas (paragraphs and sections); then helping students understand how text ideas get organized, selected and connected (such things as coherence, structure of text and craft); then moving on to integrating what has been learned from the text with the reader’s background in order to make an interpretation of what the text means to them personally, as well as what it should mean to all of us collectively.

We want kids to read closely to determine what the text says explicitly. We want them to be able to make logical inferences from their interactions with the texts at local and global levels. We want them to be able to cite textual evidence when writing or talking about their conclusions. And we want kids to learn how to get into a text on their own, with a sufficient set of comprehension strategies and skills to be able to learn from the text independently, rather than having to rely so heavily on teachers providing them with information up front.

Developing habits of mind

We also want to develop important habits of mind through this act of close reading. The first habit of mind is to read closely to determine what the text says explicitly. The second habit of mind is to make logical inferences from interactions with text. These inferences occur at two levels. The first is what we call the local level—inferences that you draw from reading sentences and connections between sentences, and at the paragraph level.

When we do this, we help students achieve much higher levels of comprehension. Without being able to make these local inferences, there is little chance that students will move on to the second level, making global inferences, which is when students learn to figure out how the text is organized, structured or crafted by the author.

The last habit of mind is citing specific textual evidence when we read, write or speak to support our conclusions that we draw from texts. We essentially did that at the inference level, but now as we start talking about the text and sharing what we’ve learned with others in different ways, we need to help students learn how to find the evidence that they want to use to support their conclusions, ideas, assertions, arguments, persuasions and opinions by citing textual evidence. Some of the places where students might be asked to do this would be in oral presentations that they would make about what they’ve read—using, hopefully, some digital technologies—or in writing activities we might ask them to engage in, such as producing graphic novels, newspaper articles or magazine reviews.

The last thing to discuss is strategies for school administrators and literacy coaches to foster close reading. To help classroom teachers, coaches and administrators implement close reading as embedded in the Common Core State Standards, this group needs to learn how to work together to provide teachers with the necessary understanding, the relevant instructional materials, the conditions and the support that they are going to need to succeed.

First, we need to build teachers’ capacity to select texts appropriate for use in close readings. Second, we need to help teachers and students understand the rationale for repeatedly reading a text for multiple comprehension purposes. Third, teachers need to be provided with professional development so that they can master how to teach a set of comprehension strategies to construct, analyze and integrate text understandings at deeper and deeper levels of comprehension.

The reason that we emphasize close knowledge is to invoke something that my good friend David Pearson calls “the virtuous cycle of comprehension,” meaning that we want students to read closely so that their knowledge grows through comprehending a text. And as they comprehend, their knowledge grows. And as their knowledge grows, their comprehension gets better. That is probably the very best reason for why we should be doing close reading very often, if not daily, in our classrooms.

To watch this web seminar in its entirety, please visit: www.districtadministration.com/ws040115