Where Close Reading Meets Reader Response

Close reading is the cornerstone of an English curriculum. Not only does it offer an opportunity for student voice and interpretation, but it is also a platform for academic rigour and analysis. In the right hands, the close reading of limited excerpts of a text can be much more powerful than a superficial reading of an entire novel.

So, what exactly is close reading? This is where things get a bit sticky. Both the Common Core in the US and literacy work here in Australia describe close reading as a means of extracting meaning from a text through the methodical reading and re-reading of short passages, with guided questions from the teacher.

Doug Lemov’s Reading Reconsidered (2016) posits a similar definition, which I quote here in full:

“Close reading is the methodical breaking down of the language and structure of a complex passage to establish and analyze its meaning. Teaching students to do it requires layered reading and asking sequenced, text-dependent questions; and it should end whenever possible with mastery expressed through writing.”

Doug Lemov

The Close Reading page of the Victorian DET’s Literacy Toolkit describes the main point of contention: that close reading relies only on what is in the text, but that students who lack context may nonetheless find the activities difficult to access.

The issue, then, seems to lie with the degree to which close reading by these definitions is teacher-driven. There is a dichotomy between those who see close reading as ‘levelling the playing field’ by removing the need for a student’s own context or ‘schema’ from the equation, and those who see close reading as limited for precisely the same reason. From my perspective, I like to have my cake and eat it too.

I believe there is a false dichotomy between close reading and reader response. The two are not disconnected, but of necessity there exists a complex relationship between them. If a teacher leads a class through a close reading activity, guiding them for example through layered questions, then they are simply swapping the students’ contexts for their own. Of course, you would expect a teacher of English to have a more advanced grasp of the text, the layers of meaning, and the intertextuality than a student. That does not mean that the teacher’s reading of the text is more valid: simply that it is perhaps more informed.

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Close reading activities, however, do not have to be as teacher-driven as some of the literature suggests. Whilst there are many opportunities in the discussion of a text for the teacher to flesh out an interpretation or tease out some of the subtleties the students may lack context for, it is still important to encourage discussion and analysis from the students’ own perspectives.

Consider a typical close reading exercise whereby a class reads a short passage, and then carries out a line-by-line analysis with the teacher prompting with direct questions. Instead of the teacher prompts, what if the passage was first read, then annotated by the students working in groups to form their own questions? The line-by-line analysis still takes place, but with the student generated questions taking priority over the guidance of the teacher. This requires instruction beforehand on how to ask the right kinds of questions, but it puts the power of close reading back into the hands of students.

Close reading does not level the playing field because of its reliance on the teacher’s context over that of the students. It levels the playing when it allows students to access increasingly complex texts that they may have considered outside the realm of their own context. If close reading is treated as an exercise in teacher questioning, then it will often be seen by students as esoteric and inaccessible. Instead, it should be used in combination with other activities as a tool to expand upon a student’s background knowledge of a subject, opening the door to further, even more complex ideas.

There is no either/or between close reading and a student’s own context: to attempt to remove one from the other is little better than providing a list of comprehension questions. Ultimately, when students participate in genuine close reading exercises, they bring themselves to the text and the experience is richer and more engaging for everyone.

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