What is Close Reading?

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Read to learn about trends in close reading history and how this process might be used today to support literacy learning.

Read to learn about trends in close reading history and how this process might be used today to support literacy learning.

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  • 1. What is “Close Reading”?A closer reading of texts improves literacy learning bystretching the capacity for critical thinking and reflection.In the fall of 2009, more than forty states agreed to enact the Common Core State StandardsInitiative. The K-12 standards would define essential knowledge and skills necessary for collegeand career readiness. After considerable input from teachers, postsecondary educators, andinterest groups, the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) andthe Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) released the final draft to the public. Inconcert with this release came a score of proposed changes and ‘instructional shifts’. Anemphasis on close reading of complex texts is but one example of an instructional shift impliedby the standards. It should be noted, however, that the words ‘close reading’ are altogetherabsent from the current draft of the literacy standards.So, what IS close reading?
  • 2. It depends on whom you ask (and when). In its simplest form, a close reading is nothing morethan a careful observation of text. It usually begins with a text selection worthy of repeatedreadings and close reflection on language, structure, and meaning. In a stricter sense, closereading is a formal skill refined by practice in developing precise interpretations of literaturethrough linguistic, semantic, structural, and cultural lenses. This approach typically begins bylooking at the smaller details before moving to larger issues and more often follows a rigidformat, sequence or set of preplanned steps.Various approaches to close reading have come and gone over the years. Each approach can bedefined by the fundamental tenets or beliefs of its advocates. In each case, the lens throughwhich quality literature is analyzed appears to be influenced by intellectualism and the leadingphilosophies of the day.New Critical FormalismIn the early 20th century, a group of American critics, most of whom taught at SouthernUniversities following World War I, developed an approach to literature characterized by closeattention to the text itself. This approach acted in direct opposition to both impressionistic andhistorical approaches that prevailed during that time. Impressionistic approaches werecharacterized by a more subjective description and interpretation of literature that formalistsfeared was too shallow and arbitrary. Historicists’ approaches, on the other hand, werecharacterized by an emphasis on the historical context or time period in which the text waswritten. Formalists argued that such approaches served to distract readers and thesedistractions prevented readers from arriving at an accurate interpretation of texts. Formalists’attempts to systematize the study of literature were centered on a stringent study of the textitself.Reader Response to LiteratureIn the late 1930s, a teacher by the name of Louise Rosenblatt published Literature asExploration (1938). Her theories served to reject New Critical Formalism theories that werequite popular at the time. Rosenblatt opposed the idea that texts were sufficient in-and-of-themselves. She also rejected the notion that “teachers were to teach the skills of close,concise, attentive analysis while discouraging expression of and attention to differences instudents own individual responses” (Inquiry, 1997). Rosenblatt believed close reading ofliterature involved a ‘transaction’ of sorts between the reader and the text (Rosenblatt, 1978).She also believed that readers developed special and often unique meaning through complexinteraction with words and images. Simply put: meaning results from the interaction between
  • 3. the reader and the text. Any response or approach to literature that does not consider thereader strays from the true path to meaning.New HistoricismBy the 1990s, New Historicism became quite popular as a form of literary criticism andapproach to close reading. Unlike traditional historical approaches of the early 20th century thatfocused primarily on the context or period in which a work was written, New Historicismevaluated a work by placing an additional emphasis on the life of the author. Where did theauthor live? Did the environment or social setting influence his or her work? To what degreedoes the writers emotional or psychological state influence his or her work?TodayClose reading today comes in many forms. In some settings, it is practiced as a skill, strategy orrigorous approach to critical analysis that encourages careful observation of texts worthy ofreading and re-reading. Practitioners may choose to conduct a close reading using canonicalliterature and contemporary literature, informational texts, art, or even media and such areading is usually accompanied by rich discussion and analytical writing. Here are a few greatexamples of close reading approaches that can be modified to suit your specific interests andneeds:Language ArtsSelect a short excerpt, passage, or poem that you deem worthy of closer consideration. Readthe text multiple times (at least once aloud if this is possible). Begin with a meticulous look atthe smaller details such as word meanings and diction. Use references, if you must, to ensurethe most accurate descriptions and connotations of word meanings. This is essential beforemoving to larger ideas. Consider the syntax, structure, and rhythm of the text as well asimagery, voice, and rhetorical devices. Now, the reader can more accurately discuss largerthemes presented throughout the work including historical importance and context. It is at thispoint that the reader constructs a thesis based upon detailed observations made during theclose reading of the text. This argument is constructed using the finer details gathered duringthe close reading. The written analysis serves as an opportunity for the reader to make a strongcase grounded in solid evidence. Author and philosopher Sophia McClennan provides a step-by-step guide which makes clear the connection between close reading, writing, anddiscussion. Additionally, the Council of the Great City Schools offers an excellent guide tosupport the development of text-dependent questions for close analytic reading.
  • 4. Social Studies/HistoryUnlike the language arts example, a close reading using social studies or history-related contentbegins with the big ideas and works its way down to the smaller details and observations. Bothapproaches are similar in that each approach requires careful observation of text or mediaworthy of close, thoughtful, careful consideration. However, a close reading in this content-areais less subjective and the emphasis is more on how a speaker or writer makes a case, provesideas, or how the work reflects a significant moment in history. The best way to begin a closereading in this area is to present students with a text that clearly puts forth a powerful ideasuch as Patrick Henrys Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death speech. Pull an excerpt of thetranscript of the speech and ask students to consider how Henry conveys his ideas. What doeshe mean by truth? For whom? What does Henry mean by illusions of hope? Can you provideany text-based examples? Readers can and should be allowed to consider this excerpt in thecontext of other important events during the period as well as other source documents. Thisonly adds to the accuracy of observations made by the reader. In this case, the goal is not thatlearners take an important part of history and create their own versions of what happened.Instead, readers are encouraged to use the text as validation for arguments and themescontained within them. A well-constructed thesis or argument is one that can be supportedonly after close examination of the source text in question.ScienceThe underlying aim of the practice of close reading in science is the development of skeptical,reasonable, and thoughtful readers. One approach is the close reading of a scientific report.Readers are guided through questions that begin with a general overview of the report. What isthe objective of the study? What were the claims? How do the results support the claims orconclusions made? Then, readers begin analyzing the text and making closer observations. Arethe author’s credentials appropriate? How do you know? Is there any proof? Are there anybiases? If so, to what degree might these biases influence results? Finally, readers areencouraged to consider the implications of the study. What might this mean for the populationstudied? Does it mean anything for us? Another approach to close readings in science is gainingpopularity due to the Common Core State Standards Initiative. The Partnership for theAssessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) has developed research simulationtasks requiring students to synthesize information from a variety of multimedia sources. Thesimulation begins with a prompt that defines a problem or a situation. Additionally, studentsare required to read 2-3 informational text selections which might include a table, chart, orgraph. The task? Through deduction and close observation, write an argument or analysis which
  • 5. solves a real-world problem. This task currently appears within the literacy/language arts testitem samples. However, it is gaining in popularity as an approach to conducting close readingsin science.Specific approaches to close reading continue to evolve and—still—are informed by the leadingphilosophies of our time. Despite what may appear to be competing public interests there is atleast one common thread that seems to hold true:A close reading requires deep thought and attention to the finer details of a work; it shouldstrengthen our mental capacities, spark interest in further reading, and ultimately teach ussomething about others and ourselves.Sources  Abrams, M.H. "New Criticism." A Glossary of Literary Terms. 7th ed. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1999. 180-182.  Church, G.W. from Inquiry, Volume 1, Number 1, Spring 1997, 71-77  Lynn, Steven. Texts and Contexts: Writing About Literature with Critical Theory. 2nd ed. NY: Longman, 1998.  Rosenblatt, L. (1938).Literature as Exploration. New York: Appleton-Century; (1968). New York: Noble and Noble; (1976). New York: Noble and Noble; (1983). New York: Modern Language Association; (1995). New York: Modern Language Association.  Rosenblatt, L. (1978).The reader, the text, the poem: The transactional theory of the literary work. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois Press; (1994). Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois Press.  Wirt, William. Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry . (Philadelphia) 1836, as reproduced in The Worlds Great Speeches, Lewis Copeland and Lawrence W. Lamm, eds., (New York) 1973.Copyright Dessalines Floyd