By Tim Shanahan
You say close reading requires students to rely solely on the text during reading. But many of the Common Core Standards (and the PARCC and Smarter Balanced prototypes) require that students compare texts. This seems contradictory. What’s up?
This is a bit confusing. The basic idea of close reading is, just as you say, that interpretation is to be based entirely on the text itself. Readers aren’t to turn to author biographies or other works in that author’s oeuvre. No Cliff’s Notes either. Even prefaces, blurbs, statements of context, and explanatory notes provided by the publisher are verboten.
These interpretive “prohibitions” are all aimed at ensuring that readers make sense of a text solely by considering the author’s case as stated explicitly and implied by an author’s own words within the text. (If an author wrote about his earlier book or poem we’d reject those words, too, because they are not from the universe of the text itself.)
However, once one has read a text, grasping what the author had to say, and how he/she said it—in other words, you have successfully read it closely—it is perfectly reasonable to wonder about how this work connects to other universes. What are the implications of this book for how I should live my life? How does it compare with the author’s other works or with other works within this genre? How does it measure up on some external quality scale? These questions are all within bounds, once a close reading has been done… and all are premature and problematic if engaged in earlier in the reading process.
At least one of the authors of Common Core expressed trepidation to me early on about the inclusion of multiple texts, and I imagine the same concerns linger about how multiple texts are now being addressed by the testing consortia. If a text is being used to help figure out some aspect of a companion text, then it is a distraction from the immediate job of the reader—who needs to trace the path sketched out by the author through his/her words and structures. If these multiple texts are being put together to allow for a comparative evaluation or a synthesis of information from already closely-read works, then it is consistent with the goals of Common Core.
Remember, however, that there are other ways to read besides close reading. Some of those other schemes actually encourage readers to seek and use information from outside a text, such as when a reader uses a 19th century dictionary to discern the meaning of a word at the time the author used it in the text, or when a reader uses clues from one of an author’s poems to help decode another. Close reading may frown upon such approaches, and yet I suspect students with these skills will be pretty college- and career-ready, thank you very much.
Reprinted with permission of the author.
Tim Shanahan is a member of the CDL Professional Advisory Board.