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Close Reading and Student Engagement How to Break Down a Text

One year, while I was teaching high school English, whenever I would say, “Let’s get ready to complete a close reading,” all of my students, in near perfect synchronization, would press whatever we were reading to their faces. It became a running gag. At the beginning of the year I had stated emphatically that simply squinting at a text did not make for thoughtful reading – there is nothing quite like the zeal of an English teacher discussing the merits of savoring text. And while this remains one of my favorite practical jokes, it is a very literal reminder of how students often misinterpret the meaning of close reading.
While it would be wonderful to believe that the myriad of students we teach harbor a similar zeal for lingering over text, the truth is that they will struggle to master closereading. Genuine close reading requires that we do more than catalogue plot points. It means that we identify how text discusses the human condition or how it motivates an audience for change. To understand even a fraction of an author’s purpose requires us to slow down, to parse language, to reflect. 
Today, college and career readiness expectations have shifted the realm of close reading from just the subject of English to make it a shared expectation across all disciplines. From 6th grade onward, the Common Core State Standards expect that students will be able to identify argument and comprehend meaning in science/technical texts. But asking students for this type of thoughtful critical analysis means that they must be exposed to a variety of texts and given time to develop this skill. This means practice. What can make this difficult is that all of us, not just our students, can find practice both time consuming and tedious. So how do we combat our natural tendencies to skim text and amass a “CliffNotes” version of what we read?


•Pick short passages that are rich with detail and meaning. The easiest way to have students enjoy close reading is by choosing passages that will make them want to keep reading. Authors such as David Sedaris, Sherman Alexie, and Sarah Vowell offer students conspiratorial narrators who speak directly to them about the challenges of their childhood. Those voices engage students without compromising rigor. While personal essays can be useful for the ELA classroom, the first few paragraphs of nonfiction texts can be of use in classrooms of varying disciplines. The opening paragraphs of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and Five Days at Memorial can be used to discuss the ethics of science and medical research. The introduction to Freakonomics can be used to discuss data collection and authorial voice.  Employing an excerpt from these texts in math and science classrooms can prove to students that STEM disciplines do not simply exist in a vacuum. They are an essential part of cultural conversation.

•Teach students how to identify elements of meaning and argumentation. One of the largest obstacles for students is determining what to examine in a close reading passage. So, ask students to read the passage twice. The first time, read the passage out loud and follow that reading with a brief discussion. The second time, have students reread individually and deepen their annotations. SOAPSTONE, a close reading acronym, is a helpful tool that can be used for any text in any discipline.  Also important is the act of turning students into critical thinkers who question. The ASCD article, “Closing in on Close Reading,” speaks in detail about how to engage students in the act of close reading.  One of the most important points they offer is that of turning students into question writers. Only when students begin to ask questions can they begin to foster independent thought.

•Give students some choice in close reading passages. It is important to have model texts that all students read closely. This builds student confidence and provides framework for expectations. But, sometimes it can help to have several close reading passages from which students can choose. While each of the pieces should be similar in length and complexity, they should reflect a range of student interest. As adults, we read what interests us. The goal of giving students choice is to engage them within an issue that interests them and then pull them towards other topics. Some of the best resources for passages of this sort can be found online.  Wired Magazine’s Opinion Page, Robert Krulwich’s NPR blog about science entitled, “Krulwich Wonders,” and The New York Times online commentary “Room for Debate” are good places to start.
For NMSI, close reading is a large part of our teacher training and material development. It is an essential part of how we deepen teacher content knowledge and improve student confidence with subject material. An excellent example of this crossover between disciplines and close reading can be seen in the free lesson, “It All Started with Sputnik,” available for download on the NMSI website, that allows English, history, and science teachers to collaborate on close reading and analytical thinking.
Close reading doesn’t have to strike terror into the hearts of students.  Instead, let it be the time when students become enthralled with topics and writers that really matter. Then, get down to work. 
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