Close Reading is a Conversation

I cannot proclaim to be an expert on close reading, nor would I want to. Although the skill/strategy/idea (?) of close reading is only briefly mentioned in the Common Core State Standards, it has become a staple in discussions among educators. It is listed first in the anchor standards for reading, if that counts for anything:

Key Ideas and Details:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.1
Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

I explored this concept of close reading a couple of years ago in ASCD Express, titled “Reading Like a Leader”. You can see from the image shared within the article that what our leadership team read was covered in highlights and annotations. This worked for us, because we passed around one article and relied on asynchronous dialogue for learning.

But what about when it is just you and the author, mano a mano? Should learners highlight anything and everything relevant to their purpose for reading?

This has been a very ineffective strategy for me. When gathering information for my first book, there wasn’t a detail that I did not like. There are entire pages in some of the resources I explored where there is literally more text highlighted and annotated on a page than text left alone. Yet when I tried to apply said knowledge to my book, I found myself going back to those same passages I had so diligently marked up and ended up more confused. My additions to the text were really subtractions to my understanding. I was distracted by my contributions, because they interfered with my comprehension.

I have learned my lesson, so to speak. In my current writing project, I am eschewing all of my previous attempts to “cite specific textual evidence” and to “determine what the text says explicitly”. Instead, I am trying to have a conversation with the author as I read. One thing that has helped me is using Thin Strip Post-it G18044_7675notes. If I find a passage in a text I want to remember, I place the note next to the passage and write either a question or a statement on it. The question is sincere; it is more of a wondering than anything. When writing a statement, I am trying to come up with a sentence that could surround that passage or quote, as a way to summarize it or transition toward it within my own writing.

Below is an example of what I am talking about, from Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle (2011):

We make our technologies, and they, in turn, shape us. So, of every technology we must ask, Does it serve our human purpose? – a question that causes us to reconsider what these purposes are. Technologies, in every generation, present opportunities to reflect on our values and direction. (19)

Here is my annotation on the Post-it Thin Strip attached to this passage:

Whenever we add something to our plates, something else is pushed off.

I cannot say for certain if this passage from the text will be a part of the final draft for my project. What Turkle shares is profound, but it may not be applicable. This is one of the challenges of close reading – learners assume that whatever they highlight and annotate must be regurgitated verbatim in their written responses to the text. I know this, because it took me a whole book to realize it. I hope today’s students are faster learners than I am.

What I am doing with the above example is not documenting my learning, but rather holding on to a new idea. By responding to the text in my own words, I think I am more likely to come back to the reading and response as I am writing. This is how a conversation works: A back-and-forth discussion around topics that are important to both the author and the reader. I have devoted meaning to my responses, instead of assuming that the text will just naturally mean something to me. I am reading this book because I care about the topics and find the text both informative and entertaining.

There is purpose in my Post-its that extends beyond the room to write my thoughts down. By not highlighting and annotating the text itself, I am not smothering the author’s writing with potential distractions for me as the reader. If I want to reread the passage that I responded to, I am now forced to reading a paragraph or two to locate it. Subsequently, I am revisiting the context in which I found the original passage that struck me as important. In other books I have read for informational purposes, I have been gone as far as simply leaving an asterisk next to the passage I found important, with no response. My thinking might change when I came back to it.

As the title states, close reading is a conversation. It is not extracting every essential bit of information from a text, like you were squeezing a lemon to make lemonade. Reading a text closely is about determining why you want to read a text, evaluating whether the text before you is worth your time, and then finding evidence within the text to hold onto for future reference. It is a partnership in understanding and appreciation between the writer and the reader. Anything less is a recipe for reducing engagement in meaningful inquiries.

Author: Matt Renwick

Matt Renwick is a 17-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th grade teacher. After seven years of teaching, he served as a dean of students, assistant principal and athletic director before becoming an elementary principal in Wisconsin Rapids. Matt is now an elementary principal for the Mineral Point Unified School District (http://mineralpointschools.org/). Matt tweets @ReadByExample and writes for ASCD (www.ascd.org) and Lead Literacy (www.leadliteracy.com).

8 thoughts on “Close Reading is a Conversation”

  1. “I was distracted by my contributions, because they interfered with my comprehension.” I need WordPress to find words for the things I’m experiencing… Thank you. I love how you write

    Like

    1. Thank you for the comment. You know, it’s interesting that you pulled that quote from my post. As I reread it before publishing, this was the one line that I almost cut. I didn’t think it worked with the rest of the text, maybe due to redundancy. At any rate, I guess you never know what will impact your reader when you write. Glad I left it in.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great reflections. Reminds us of “Notice and Wonder” from Barnhouse and Vinton. When we have a purpose for our reading it makes our notes/annotations/highlights more meaningful. We love the quote from Turkle –thanks for sharing.
    Clare and Tammy

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Clare and Tammy. I will have to find that resource by Barnhouse and Vinton. I’m only 40 pages into Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together, but I think you would like it. Also check out Hamlet’s Blackberry by William Powers, about thoughtful uses of technology.

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