Close reading has had something of a Renaissance in recent years due to the increased focus on the strategies in the American Common Core. This discussion of close reading comes from an Australian perspective, and sidesteps some of the politics tied up in the debate over whether an over-reliance on close reading is detrimental to students. I’ll discuss that issue in a later post…
For me, close reading is a tool for enabling students to access texts that would often be judged as beyond them – either by themselves, or by the various levelling and grading systems that can be applied to text selection. Close reading is also a way to gain insight into a student’s perspective on the text, and to examine their personal and intertextual context. When done right close reading is, above all else, a powerful tool for putting students at the centre of analysis and text discussion.
When I refer to close reading, it is not only in the Common Core definition of the term. Informed by New Criticism, the CCSS approaches close reading through methodical investigation and structured, generally teacher-led, questioning. Whilst this is sometimes appropriate, I broaden the definition of close reading to encompass more of the reader’s perspective and context. Often in teacher-led close reading activities, the purpose is to guide students to a predetermined reading of the text. The criticisms of this approach are obvious: it limits the understanding to a particular reading, and privileges students who have a more comprehensive understanding of text, higher literacy, and more intertextual and contextual knowledge.
Close reading activities are designed around short extracts of text. These could come from a longer text – such as a class novel – or from shorter texts, for example a folio of extracts as part of a genre study. Whatever the nature of the extract, there should be enough complexity to stimulate worthwhile discussion and analysis. But that does not mean that all of the structure must be teacher-driven.
The value of close reading increases when students are given autonomy.
Encouraging students to bring their own context to the text, to ask questions rather than answer them, and to direct the course of the conversation is incredibly powerful. For some purists, this might seem a step too far into Reader Response territory, but I’d argue that a balanced curriculum needs both. Instead of framing a line-by-line reading around teacher questions designed to steer the discussion towards analysis – for example of a particular motif, use of language, or symbol – it can be more interesting and much more productive to hand ownership of the task over to students.
Ultimately, it is the students who will need to respond to the texts they study, not their teachers. Too much direct instruction on a text, whether through an excess of guided questions or – even worse – explicit teaching of the “themes, issues and ideas” in a text, robs students of the chance to form their own opinions. It is also less engaging, and more likely to result in cookie-cutter essays that resemble the teacher’s voice more than the students.
The value of close reading is that it takes a complex text – Pride and Prejudice, for example, or in the middle years a text like Lord of the Flies – and it presents students with a manageable task: read this, look closely, and tell me what you think. From that point, the teacher’s responsibility is to highlight and tease out conventions, techniques, and ideas.
The next time you’re setting up a close reading activity for a text, hand over the reins to the students before trying to steer the conversation. In fact, rather than choosing the extracts for study, hand that over too. You’ll have your own favourite moments of the text, and there will certainly be some points which are just too important to miss in the overall scheme of whatever you are studying. But I guarantee that the students in your class will find passages that are worthy of study, and for reasons which, due to their different context and perspective, would never have occurred to you.
Instead of an exercise in instruction, treat close reading as an opportunity for students to find their own way through a text. In future posts, I’ll be going through the strategies we use to do just that.
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