By Kevin Perks, Director of School and District Services for WestEd’s Quality Schools and Districts. This article first appeared in the LEAF Subscription for Professional Learning in October 2014. It has been updated and is posted here with permission.

I once observed a high school social studies teacher asking students to engage in a close reading of Charles Joseph Minard’s map of Napoleon’s march to Moscow.

At the end of the lesson, the teacher asked students to respond to what it felt like to read and analyze the map so closely. Although most of the students had been very engaged in the task, many responded with some variation of the following comments:

» Why do I have to read this?

» Why can’t my teacher just tell me what I need to know?

» This made my brain hurt.

In my years working as a literacy specialist, I have found that many students, at all performance levels, pose questions or make comments like these when asked to closely read challenging texts.

Students are not the only ones who wonder about close reading. Many teachers who do not teach English Language Arts (ELA) have their own version of these questions and comments. They want to know why they are expected to help develop students’ reading skills when they are teaching history or science or some other non-ELA content area. And they wonder how they can be expected to teach close reading when they were never taught how to do it themselves.

Their concerns have only increased with the realization that most current standards, including the Common Core State Standards, highlight the importance of reading across the disciplines.

As identified in the work of EngageNY, one of the important emphases in the Common Core and other current standards is that they expect all teachers to “create more time and space and support in the curriculum for close reading” of challenging texts. When teachers become aware of this expectation, they have many questions. These are answers to some of those questions.

Why Do Teachers In All Subject Areas Need to Teach Close Reading?

The ability to read a complex text and to understand what is being stated or implied within it is a skill needed in all content areas, not just in English Language Arts. Every content area has complex material that students need to be able to analyze. Perhaps one of the most common misconceptions about close reading is that the term “text” refers only to printed words. Anything that contains complex information can be considered a challenging text.

For example, all of the following could all be considered complex texts that students might need to read closely: charts, maps (like Minard’s), diagrams, word problems, tables, music (in all forms), artwork, photographs, bodies in motion (imagine trying to explain a football game to someone unfamiliar with the rules), natural phenomena (a fly fisher reading the river and what is hatching in order to select flies), machines, plans for building a piece of furniture, and more.

Given this broad view of what constitutes a complex text, virtually all teachers, irrespective of the subject they teach (e.g., physical education, shop, calculus) will find themselves needing to teach their students how to read closely. And given the importance of teaching students how to interpret complex information from a wide variety of “texts,” it is no surprise that the first Common Core anchor standards in reading for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and the Technical Subjects expect students to “read closely to determine what [a] text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it” (pp. 10 and 60).

When teachers begin to think about these standards, they often wonder what close reading looks like for them, with their students, and with the complex texts they already use in their classrooms.

What Should Close Reading Look Like in the Classroom?

Close reading is a strategic process a reader uses in dealing with a complex text to acquire the information needed to complete a task. There is no single correct way to read something closely. Some experts have argued that to closely read a complex text, students need to read it at least three times. Others argue that teachers should be asking students text-dependent questions.

However, while many close-reading strategies are useful at one time or another, no single approach or specific set of strategies will be appropriate in every situation. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to close reading. For example, Duke and Carlisle (2011, p. 211) write that “there is not a single path to comprehension development. This is largely because there are myriad reader factors, text factors, and context factors that all impact reading comprehension.” Instead, what they and other researchers suggest is that teachers carefully consider the text, context, and readers themselves to determine the appropriate collection and sequence of strategies for the close reading of challenging material.

Thus, the best thing education leaders can do to support close reading is to provide teachers with a common and flexible framework to help them and students select and sequence the right combination of activities that will meet the specific needs and demands of any challenging text.

How Does Someone Teach Students to Read Closely?

A common and flexible framework teachers can use to develop lessons that support the close reading of any complex text is to divide close reading into three phases: before reading, during reading, and after reading. These phases are already familiar to many teachers, and the framework asks them to identify the kinds of thinking that students need to be doing in each phase. The first phase focuses on how students will prepare to read closely. The second phase emphasizes how students will actively think about the information in the text. The third phase asks teachers to consider how students will apply what they have learned from their reading.

Using this framework, the following questions help teachers design and sequence effective activities for close reading of complex texts in content lessons. The questions can also be used to support conversations among teachers who are developing lessons collaboratively. One effective practice is to use the questions as a protocol in professional learning conversations or during common planning time.

Before Reading

  1. What is the student’s reason for reading and how will the objectives be communicated at the beginning of and throughout the lesson?
  2. How will students identify or recognize visible and/or invisible features of the text(s) that relate to the purposes or objectives for reading (e.g., bolded terms, cause-and-effect relationships)?
  3. What knowledge do students need to have before reading the text(s)? How will they gain it?
  4. What might the students predict or anticipate before reading? How will they do this?

 During Reading

  1. How will students actually read (e.g., silently, in pairs, classroom read-aloud)?
  2. How will students gather information or take notes (e.g., two-column notes, coding, graphic organizers, concept maps)?
  3. How will students think deeply about the information they gathered (e.g., discussion, sorting, writing)?

After Reading

  1. How will students apply what they learned and what is novel about this task (i.e., what is the formative assessment)?

The close-reading framework and guiding questions can be used with any of the many resources that provide literacy strategies. There are many books and websites that, collectively, describe a wide array of strategies teachers can use to support close reading.

Kevin Perks is Director of School and District Services in WestEd’s Quality Schools and Districts team. As the principal designer for WestEd’s VITAL Collaboration and Reading to Learn services, Perks leads a team that provides coaching and consulting to schools, districts, and state departments of education around school improvement, literacy, standards-based curriculum, instruction, assessment, motivation and engagement, professional learning communities (PLCs), and teacher effectiveness. 

How WestEd Can Help

Reading to Learn: A PreK–12 Schoolwide Approach to Supporting Literacy Development and Academic Achievement

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