Just about any text—and even the words and people and patterns around us—can hold layers of intent and meaning that anyone can have the pleasure of revealing with a good close read.
Close reading allows us to peer into a text, rotate it like a kaleidoscope, and perceive it in all its dimensions. That’s why close reading is a critical skill: for school—and for life.
Students need close reading to succeed in all their subjects: social studies, drama and music, science explorations, word problems in math. They need it to understand how writers convey meaning. They need the tools to uncover and interrogate that meaning.
Further, knowing how to read (and “read”) closely,everything, from TV ads to social cues to a lab report to furniture assembly instructions, can also open up increasingly complex understanding, and critical thinking, throughout our worlds.
So let’s do a close reading of close reading. We’ll focus an assortment of lenses on this always-evolving discipline: what it is and is not, its history and importance, some entrenched challenges—and some audacious solutions.
“Close reading is an intensive analysis of a text in order to come to terms with what it says, how it says it, and what it means.”
Shanahan’s definition implies that close reading requires at least three reads: the first for basic comprehension (plot, facts), the second for how the author conveys meaning (data, literary devices), the third for larger impact (What’s the point? What does it connect to? Why does it matter?
To pinpoint evidence, formulate interpretations, and derive conclusions, students of close reading are also invited to read as if through varying lenses. It’s like watching a play where the spotlights change color to illuminate only certain elements of the set, leaving the others temporarily in shadow. One lens or color might highlight the meaning of individual words, another the text’s structural elements.
So, students may filter for and consider individual word choice, narrative structure, idea development, or point of view. They may complete their analysis there, or they may put it all together to reveal a deep understanding of the text as a whole—or they may compare what they observe to their conclusions of other texts.
Close reading matters because words matter.
Close reading helps students develop an “ear” for word, syntax, rhythm, and structure that is applicable across texts, giving them the tools to reflect on and discuss the language of texts. Close reading allows students to read beyond the “gist,” to grapple with texts that might otherwise be assumed to be over their heads.
In school and beyond, students need to understand the power of the words they read, not to mention the words they use—all with a dose of healthy, practiced scepticism. From reading a contract to watching a commercial to listening to a speech, the ability to question what we read and hear is a prerequisite for success in our careers and in life. Especially today, when students and adults alike are bombarded with text in all its forms, close reading provides access to the most important power of all: the truth.
“A significant body of research links the close reading of complex text—whether the student is a struggling reader or advanced—to significant gains in reading proficiency and finds close reading to be a key component of college and career readiness.”
The Common Core has placed renewed emphasis on text-dependent reading. Students need to be prepared to meet those standards and to apply close reading skills to summative tests and across subjects. Texts are treated as sources of evidence that must be used to present thoughtful analyses, well-defended claims, and clear information. Students today face more complex texts, covering a wide range of literary styles and informational topics. They also need the tools to decide whether and why a given text is to be trusted in the first place.
…and in life
And it’s not only about words or text on a page.. It’s about “reading” cues and clues, signs and signals, in ways that can help students not only understand the world but also make their own choices and meaning. Much like math, close reading—in its broadest sense—is a skill all of us use pretty much daily, whether we are making sense of the news, watching a commercial, considering a contract, just doing our jobs, or making profound decisions about who and what to trust or believe.
Problem is, close reading can be difficult.
Just as students may struggle with reading, students may also struggle with close reading. That’s the bad news. The good news: we know why. There are many factors, often several at once. Maybe they’re getting tripped up on vocabulary. Maybe English isn’t their first language. Maybe their teachers don’t have the resources needed to teach it in a way that makes it engaging in the moment or relevant in their lives. Maybe they’re just bored.
Fortunately, there are ways to help.
Students need to be interested and motivated. They need to know that you are actually putting POWER in their hands—even the power to question you. We also know that GREAT STORYTELLING, fiction or non-fiction—or something that’s not text at all—can interest and motivate.
Also, they are super into the apocalypse. Go with it.
Here’s how we put that into practice.
Our mission is to enable students to close-read the heck out of anything. To do this, we send them on a mission to save the world—a world in which machines are The Man and reading is rebellion. While students immerse themselves in interactive close reading adventure The Last Readers, our advanced embedded tools for differentiation and guidance help them discover the unique ways that writers convey meaning. The storytelling is vivid, suspenseful, and complex, designed not only to engage students but also to provide them with purpose and agency as they take on ever more challenging and high-stakes close reading tasks.