What Is Close Reading and How Can You Effectively Teach It? 

By: | 06/11/2020
Category: Instruction

Close reading involves the use of evidence-based comprehension strategies embedded in teacher-guided discussions that are planned around repeated readings of a text in order to increase student comprehension. Close reading can be defined simply as “repeated readings and discussions of text in order to increase text comprehension.”

To understand close reading, educators must also understand what it is not. Sometimes teachers and students think that close reading means focusing in on or magnifying the importance of increasingly smaller or more literal elements of the text, similar to using a microscope to examine something too small to be seen with the naked eye. Many reading researchers and scholars fear that close reading will be interpreted incorrectly in this way.

Close reading can be defined simply as “repeated readings and discussions of text in order to increase text comprehension.” 
—Ray Reutzel

In actuality, close reading implies an ordered process that proceeds from understanding the smallest or most literal ideas in text (i.e., word, phrase, and sentence meanings) to understanding larger ideas (i.e., paragraphs and sections) to understanding the organization of ideas (i.e., coherence, structure, and craft) to integrating text information with background knowledge to interpret what the text means.

Close reading is required in the English Language Arts (ELA) (K–12) reading standards. This requirement is an important reason to implement close reading consistently in today’s classrooms, but it’s not the most important reason. Close reading is an uber-strategy that helps students independently comprehend increasingly challenging texts. Students need to develop the habits of mind and the skills necessary to unpack the deep, embedded meanings found in complex, challenging texts in order to become college and career ready.

Building Reading Habits That Support Comprehension through Close Reading

Now that we understand what close reading is and isn’t, let’s look at how it supports the development of strong reading comprehension skills.

Close reading is intended to develop the reading habits that students need for college and careers, described in Anchor Standard 1 in the Common Core ELA (K–12) State Standards, which states that students are expected to:

  • Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly
  • Make logical inferences from their interactions with text
  • Cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text

The theoretical and research literature on reading comprehension supports the importance of developing these three habits of mind through close reading.

Read Closely to Determine What the Text Says Explicitly

Reading to determine what the text actually says is an essential reading habit that supports initial text comprehension. In practice, this means that early close reading lessons should focus on determining what the text says. Educators should be careful to not spend too much time on accessing, activating, or building students’ background knowledge before they begin to read.

Students can be briefly reminded to activate their background knowledge about a topic or theme in the text, but this practice shouldn’t replace a focus on determining what the text itself has to offer. Students and teachers should value the text as a rich evidentiary base to be used in constructing knowledge and meaning.

Teachers shouldn’t think of text as an obstacle that needs to be overcome. If students become too dependent on teachers providing information to fill in the knowledge gaps that the text could provide, they won’t develop the close reading habits needed to build their own background knowledge independently from the text. “As a profession we have overindulged at the trough of prior knowledge, [but] the remedy is to balance its role, not eliminate it,” said P. David Pearson, Dean of the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley, from 2001 to 2010.

Make Logical Inferences from Interactions with Text

Then, as required by the standards, students need to learn how to make logical inferences from information provided in the text. It’s important to remember that ideas are located at different levels. Some are local to a specific section, and readers need to understand how ideas in words, sentences, and phrases connect to one another. Others are more global and spread out, and readers need to understand how ideas in paragraphs and sections are crafted and structured.

It can help to teach students that the number of types of local inferences that any text might require is finite. Research shows that systematic instruction of the 10 local inference types significantly improved third grade students’ abilities to make inferences from text. The 10 local inference types are:

  • Location or Place: Where are we?
  • Agent or Actors: Who did it?
  • Time: When did it happen?
  • Action: What is happening?
  • Instrument: What tool or device was used to accomplish what is happening?
  • Category: What other events is this an example of?
  • Object: What person, place, thing, or idea was used?
  • Cause/Effect: What caused this to happen?
  • Problem/Solution: How did they solve their problem?
  • Feelings/Attitude: How did this make you or someone else in the text feel? 

When reading a text closely, students also need to learn how to make global inferences to determine the text’s organization or structure. Helping students reread to improve this skill is critically important for improving text comprehension. Without recognizing and using text structure, readers often fail to identify the importance of key ideas represented in informational texts or recognize how the key ideas fit together.

In addition, the singular text structure of narratives differs from the multiple text structures found in informational texts. Narrative texts typically follow a story’s grammar or structure, with characters, a setting (i.e., location and time), a problem, a plan or goal, attempts to solve the problem, and a resolution. Informational texts, in contrast, can use several text organizations individually or in combination, including description, compare–contrast, problem–solution, cause–effect, or sequential–procedural.

When texts do not present readers with an inferable text structure or organization, students need to be taught how to impose a structure or organization on a text to aid their comprehension and ability to identify, remember, and integrate key text ideas into their understanding of a text’s meaning. Helping students re-represent the author’s structure or organization visually using graphic organizers has been shown to be highly effective.

Cite Specific Textual Evidence to Support Conclusions

The final set of close reading skills or habits required by the standards calls for students to use evidence from the text, in both writing and speaking, to support their interpretations of the meaning and their conclusions. To help students cite specific evidence, teachers typically teach the following comprehension strategies:

  • Answering text-dependent questions
  • Teacher-guided discussion/dialogue around the text
  • Text annotation

For optimal results from close readings of text, students need to write and speak about what they have learned. They need to combine this learning with their background knowledge, link the new information to similar texts they have read, and merge the new knowledge acquired from the text into their existing network of knowledge.

This can be accomplished through a variety of evidence-based and engaging learning activities. This can include oral presentations using digital technologies and writing activities, which can include text summaries, graphic novels about the text, newspaper stories about the text, and magazine reviews of a story about the text.

To learn more on how to implement close reading techniques in your school or district, click below to download the whitepaper, The Habits of Close Reading: Renewing Our Focus on the Essential Skills for Comprehension.

Teacher and students sitting on the floor.

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