Sunday, February 17, 2013

Close Reading: What Does It Mean in the 21st Century ELA Classroom?

Close Reading is a phrase that gets considerable attention in books, on blogs, in chats, and in schools as we move toward C-Day: Common Core State Standards implementation. I first encountered the term in the fall of 1977 in the book pictured here, which clearly shows much wear from many years of use. Chapter 8 deals with The Theme on a Close Reading.

When I read about close reading these days, I'm not convinced English teachers speak the same language or define the term the same way across grade level, geography, and even within our own departments.

Before going further, it's important for me to acknowledge that Writing Themes About Literature focuses on New Criticism/Formalism. The book was my baptism by fire into the world of literary analysis. Yet in rereading Chapter 8, I found an interesting suggestion:

The close-reading assignment can change as you change.

The author suggests a little experiment: Write about a passage and in a few years, once again write about the same passage again and compare the responses. WOW! That sounds suspiciously like Reader Response.

Could it be that Reader Response and Close Reading can co-exist. I think so, and I believe that Reader Response benefits from Close Reading. Those who define Close Reading in narrow terms that eliminate considerations other than the text on the page, might find this explanation interesting:

The assumptions behind the close-reading theme are these: if you can read a page, you can read the entire book of which the page is a part; if you can read a speech, you can read the entire play; if you can read one poem by a poet, you can read other poems by the same poet. Underlying these assumptions are others: in a good literary work, each part is absolutely essential; nothing could be eliminated without damage to the work. In the same way, all the writings of each author form a homogeneous unit, with each work contributing something to that unity. A close reading of an individual passage, therefore, or of an entire work, should indicate essential truths about the work or about the author being studied. (97)

Those who interpret close reading as ignoring the author as a person or the author's body of work or even the time in which the author wrote miss the point. Indeed, those who argue close reading ignores or marginalizes the reader's response also miss the point of close reading. Through close reading

what you are showing instead is a skill, an ability to bring your knowledge and understanding to bear on a specific passage and to develop a thematically conceived response and interpretation (98).

Accurate close reading embraces the interests of the reader. For example:

Or you may have acquired some interest in political science and may wish to concentrate on the political implications of a passage in one of Shakespeare's historical plays (97).

This explains why close reading is really closely aligned to reader response. Both change as the reader changes over time and as the text takes on new and continuously relevant meaning as our social and political and cultural worlds evolve.

Those who read the Better Living Through Beowulf blog might be nodding. Professor Bates offers a model of close reading that changes over time as he analyzes the relevance of classic texts to contemporary situations from President Obama's Drone Program to how classic texts have relevance to the Super Bowl.

There's a culprit we can point our finger at in the current conversation about close reading and the misinterpretation of it: The College Board, specifically the current approach to AP Literature courses and AP Language and Composition. Both programs often take a slice and dice approach to close reading by having students practice "analyzing" short segments of works without the student having read the work in its entirety. This analysis often deviates into simply identifying stylistic devices or figurative language.

For true close reading, a student needs to read the entire work, whether it's a speech, a poem, a short story, or a novel. It's somewhat troubling that picking apart and labeling has become such an acceptable practice in language arts classes, something Kelly Gallager mentions frequently in Readicide. We shouldn't blame our colleagues for this as many simply follow the lead of the College Board and those responsible for creating the AP curriculum. Of course, this generally isn't a problem for short works but can be one when dealing with longer texts.

Simply, close reading can be a starting point for introducing students to a difficult text, such as a new novel. Many college professors choose to focus class discussion on a passage from a play or novel and build the discussion outward from there. They work from in-to-out rather than from out-to-in as we often do in secondary classrooms.

The close reading essay and discussion allows both teachers and students to focus on "special circumstances" of the passage, which I define as the context. For example, what is the circumstance for Macbeth's "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" soliloquy? Of course, it's the news of Lady Macbeth's suicide and his realization that he has misinterpreted the weird sisters' predictions.

Close reading makes room for discussion of diction, ideas, style, etc. The discussion, whether in writing or through verbal discussion, focuses on a passage and demonstrates to students their ability to understand the complete text as well as other texts by the author or ones similar in difficulty.

When we begin a whole-class novel unit with a passage from the text and model close reading of it through discussion and writing, we empower our students to read the complete novel. We don't need to begin with the opening passage either. We can treat reading as a recursive process and introduce a book with a reading from the middle.

Last summer, I stumbled upon the Close Reading Cooperative podcasts, which address the need for close reading skills as a way to empower students. Close reading gives students something to say about a text, and isn't that something we all want more of in our classrooms? Through close reading, our students know what a text says and how the text says what it says.

More importantly, close reading builds reading stamina and shows students the reader who resides in each of them.


  1. Excellent discussion! I love the idea that close-reading can change as you change--that the reader brings his/her interest to the text.

    It makes me wonder how this can be tested since one answer won't fit for all readers. And shouldn't. I'm afraid this need-to-be-tested is what is wrong with the idea of close-reading that I'm seeing in schools right now.

    1. I agree, Cindy. This is why I've been thinking about how the CCSS defines close reading, how AP approaches close reading, and how certain folks have manufactured a divide between close reading and reader response. More and more, I think the study of literature should not be aligned w/ testing in its current incarnation in any way.

  2. A practice I impose on myself as a Lit teacher, as well as on my students, who are Pakistanis working in a second language. We're doing The Great Gatsby this year, and a single word (like 'pap') can alter their whole perspective.
    Great article;glad I read it. Thanks.

  3. I chuckled imagining the headlines such a mixed marriage between New Criticism and Reader Response would have created when we were first studying literature. But it is true. I agree with your positioning of the reader as central to the text and meaning. I love your unearthing of Writing Themes about Literature and how what you're writing here demonstrates just what you found out during your re-readingt. Brilliant. As is the ending line, "close reading builds reading stamina and shows students the reader who resides in each of them." Have to write that one on my teacher heart.

    1. Lee Ann, I love that tweet. What a great headline. I feel a dose of satire brewing in my devious little mind. For too long, misreadings of close reading have treated reader response as the illegitimate offspring of literary analysis. It's time to claim the prodigal child as our own.

  4. I like that you want to define close reading. Too many disagreements in education are due to different definitions. I would add to "close reading changes as you change" with because your evidence changes, which includes both personal experiences and background knowledge. I think a bigger issue is what is the purpose of close reading; if the answer is because of the CCSS, we are in big trouble.

    1. Agree. Too many are following the Pied Piper embodied in the CCSS off the cliff. Makes me think: The devil you know is better than the one you don't know. That is, I long for Madeline Hunter and her generation of reformers because they were better than this.

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  6. Glenda,

    I love Writing Themes about Literature. I have the edition from the '90s, I think. Great book, and I've done a close-reading essay for the last several years. It's a tough assignment, but one of the best I do. I would add to your observation that close-reading/formalism is, can, or should be tied to all of the literary theories. Not just reader-response and close reading but also feminsit theory and close-reading, new historicism and close reading, etc.

    1. Thanks, Paul:
      I agree that close reading is necessary for all the theories. I wanted to concentrate on Reader Response since it gets misinterpreted, I think, and since so many seem to think it's antithetical to close-reading. Revisiting, "Writing Themes About Literature," I just don't buy that argument.