by Tim Shanahan
My daughters are Erin and Meagan. When they were little, Meagan would get upset because we always “ran Erins,” but never “ran Meagans.”
That’s cute when a little one doesn’t know the meaning of a word. But such miscommunication can be a real problem in Common Core State Standards implementation.
It’s getting so that I hate to hear the term “close reading” because it is misused so often these days.
A comment from a reader of last week’s blog entry challenged me to evaluate an online video of a close reading lesson. I gave it a quick review and replied.
It’s been bugging me ever since, and I decided to give this 8-minute video a close read of my own. I’m going to be pretty critical, but please don’t take that as an attack on this teacher (these video minutes are all I know or her). She looks to be pretty good teacher. But the close reading espoused here is not especially well connected to the concepts of close reading or Common Core.
Because of length of my critique, I’ll spread the analysis over two blog entries. Here’s the first:
1. The video says close reading is an “instructional strategy.”
It is not. More properly, it is a way of reading text. Viewers should not watch this with the idea that this is how you teach close reading. There are some great teaching techniques here, but a teacher who followed these steps scrupulously would not be teaching kids to be close readers.
2. The video indicates close reading helps students “conquer complex text.”
That’s sort of true, but not as demonstrated in this video. Texts are complex in multiple ways, and all approaches to reading can be expected to address some of that complexity. For example, I don’t know of any reading approach that doesn’t require readers to come away with a text’s main points and key details. All past reading standards in the U.S. trumpeted those particular skills already, so a shift to close reading would change nothing in that regard. No wonder some teachers tell me that they have always taught “close reading.”
The teacher in the video is correct that close reading is useful for dealing with texts that have “layers of meaning.” But she doesn’t demonstrate that in any way in the video (main ideas and key details are not layers of meaning).
In this kind of text, “layers of meaning” might require a consideration of the effects of how the text conveyed the information (how the telling extended or reinforced those main ideas and key details). For example, in his explanation of natural selection, Darwin writes: “The tail of the giraffe looks like a fly-trapper; and it seems at first incredible that this could have been adapted by successive modifications for so trifling an object as to drive away flies.” A close reader should wonder why Darwin focuses on such a “trifling object” in this magnificent argument.
But that, of course, was Darwin’s point. He wanted to show that even the tiniest organs of little apparent importance were affected by natural selection in ways that we could only guess at. Asking students what the giraffe does with its tail or toward what end the adaptation of the tail progressed are fair questions, but they aren’t close reading questions, per se because they don’t include an analysis of those rhetorical considerations.
3. The teacher reads the text to the students.
If this is the “close reading instructional strategy” and its purpose is to teach students to “conquer complex text,” then reading the complex text to the students is going to be many teachers’ takeaway. And it would be a bad one. The kids need to do the reading if they are going to become better readers.
Close reading has nothing to do with whether a text is read aloud to students or whether they read it themselves. Doing the reading for kids will not make them stronger readers. The point of having kids read texts with higher Lexiles estimates is not so teachers can practice their reading skills, it is so kids can do so. I think this teacher makes a big mistake reading the text to the kids instead of giving them a chance to make sense of what it says.
This is not an issue of close reading, but of complex text. Those are two separate, but overlapping, issues in Common Core. Students need to learn to deal with text complexity, including learning to read complex language and dealing with the complex ideas. The teacher here seems to recognize that close reading won’t help the kids to read the challenging language of this text, so she does that part of the work for them (she takes challenging language out of the equation by making sure that no one actually has to deal with it).
4. Close reading requires multiple readings of a text.
This idea is correct. Going through a complex text more than once is often necessary to figure out what the text says and how it works, or to develop a deeper understanding of it. But, again, there are two ideas operating here. One of them is that reading and rereading is a kind of “try and try again” or “practice makes perfect” idea; if you didn’t get it the first time, maybe you will on a second read. Repeated reading in fluency is kind of like that: a student reads a text aloud making fewer miscues on each rereading.
That’s not a bad thing, and I have no doubt these third-graders will benefit from this kind of thorough attention to the content of this book. This teacher definitely is not just rushing through the text to get it done; it looks to me like these students will come away knowing something about adaptation and that’s a real plus.
However, the rereading that is inherent in close reading requires a bit more than that. It isn’t about doing a better job each time. It’s about doing a different one. Yes, it might take 8-year-olds two or three readings just to come to terms with what a text has to say. But that isn’t the rereading that is central to close reading.
In close reading, now that you understand what a text has to say, you can reread it to determine how it works. For example, how did the illustrations help you to understand what the author meant by adaptation? Or, why do scientists use the term “adaptation” instead of “change”?
The video shows kids rereading to figure out what the main idea and key details of the text were. That’s terrific and this teacher did that well. But that isn’t what we mean by close reading alone isn’t what is meant by close reading, and kids who can only do that with a text will not accomplish the standards.
Disclaimer: Publicly critiquing a video lesson is inherently risky. It’s possible that the instructional segment is just part of a lesson, and that had the viewer seen the whole thing, the analysis would be quite different. Or, perhaps it is one lesson in a developmental sequence, and in future lessons the teacher would move the reading over to the kids, and would have them dealing with the more analytical and evaluative aspects of close reading as they read additional texts. The point of this critique is not that this is a bad teacher, or even that this is a bad lesson (neither of those conclusions are mine), but that this is not a particularly apt illustration of close reading or close reading preparation.
Reprinted with permission of the author.
Tim is a member of the CDL’s Professional Advisory Board.