This is a great activity for encouraging students to do more than just glance at a text before trying to write a response, or answer a direct question. A lot of the time, our students want to rush ahead and just, “get the job done,” when we really want them to provide a thoughtful response. The one minute, three minutes, five minutes, write! activity encourages students to carefully read, reread and annotate a text before attempting a written response.
Preparing for the activity
Like many of the activities that I use in the English classroom this one relies on short extracts of texts for close reading. To prepare for this activity you’ll need to select a passage that is short enough that it can be read quickly in a minute, but complex enough that students can comfortably reread it and annotate it over the full length of the activity. A perfect example of this is the following passage from George Orwells Nineteen Eighty-Four.
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the
vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions,
though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering
along with him.
The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats. At one end of it aGeorge Orwell – Nineteen Eighty-Four
coloured poster, too large for indoor display, had been tacked to the wall.
It depicted simply an enormous face, more than a metre wide: the face of a
man of about forty-five, with a heavy black moustache and ruggedly handsome features. Winston made for the stairs. It was no use trying the lift. Even at the best of times it was seldom working, and at present the electric
current was cut off during daylight hours. It was part of the economy drive
in preparation for Hate Week. The flat was seven flights up, and Winston,
who was thirty-nine and had a varicose ulcer above his right ankle, went
slowly, resting several times on the way. On each landing, opposite the
lift-shaft, the poster with the enormous face gazed from the wall. It was
one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about
when you move. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran.
Start a timer. For the first minute students just read the text without picking up a pencil or a highlighter. The point of the first minute is for students to get the gist of the text, and to understand the broad strokes of what is happening in the extract.
After the first minute take a break. Close the book or turn the extract over if it’s on paper, and give students 30 seconds to talk about anything they like, as long as it has nothing to do with the extract. Now the students have had a chance at an initial look at the extract it’s time to cleanse the palate and get ready for the annotation.
If you wish the students to target a particular idea or prompt, such as How does Orwell make the reader feel uneasy in the opening scene of Nineteen Eighty-Four? now is the time to provide that prompt. Otherwise, students may annotate anything they choose.
Start the timer again, this time for three minutes. Now, students can pick up a pencil and annotate anything that they find interesting. As with any annotation, encourage margin notes over simply underlining and circling words. Even if in the three minutes the student only gets two or three sentences into the extract, it’s much better to have margin notes on those few phrases, then an entire passage that is meaninglessly underlined.
Once that 3 minute timer ends give students another 30-second break.
In the third part of the activity it’s time for students to discuss what they found with a partner. Set a timer for a final five minutes, and instruct students to work in pairs or threes, comparing their initial annotations, and adding to their margin notes. Tell students that this is the final opportunity they will have to annotate the text before doing a short piece of writing, so it’s in their best interest to share around as many ideas as possible in the five minute window.
Now that the students have spent a bit of time grappling with the extract, and discussing their notes, it’s time for them to produce a short piece of writing. Depending on the year level, the text, and the students you have in front of you, this could range from a sentence or two, to a full paragraph, or even the beginnings of entire text response.
If at the beginning of this activity you decided to use a prompt, now is the time to return to that prompt for the written response. I’d recommend timing this part of the activity too, normally letting it run on for no longer than 15 minutes. At the end of that 15 minutes, there can be another opportunity for students to compare their responses with a brief discussion, or a whole class discussion.
Here’s an overview of the process from start to finish:
- Provide students with the extract
- 1 minute: reading, no annotation
- 30 sec pause
- Provide prompt (optional)
- 3 minutes: annotation
- 30 sec pause
- 5 minutes: discussion
- 30 sec pause
- 15 minutes: writing
- Discussion (optional)
Providing students some structure around close reading can take some of the guesswork out of what they are supposed to do when confronted with an extract of text. However, unlike many close reading activities, this one is not entirely teacher lead, and still relies on the students getting their own thoughts and opinions down on the page. In my experience, these types of student lead close reading activities are always more successful, and create much more varied and interesting responses.
Many more Close Reading activities will be featured in my upcoming book Practical Reading Strategies from Amba press, due 2022. Sign up to the mailing list to stay informed: