Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Reading closely, effectively

The title of this blog post is a nod to the fact that today, September 24, is National Punctuation Day, something of which I wasn't aware until recently. For those of you who might be curious to know more, you can check out Scholastic's Making Your Mark! and the National Punctuation Day web site.

Today's actual topic: close reading. Christoper Lehman, a guy worth following posted Most Fun #CloseReading Post Ever Because Students Are Hilarious And Filled With Rage. (You are welcome to find the mechanical errors in that title on your own; this is the unedited title of the post.) To the freakin' point!

Students can hate a close reading activity when it is not done well. That, my friends, is a tragedy.

Let's start with the obvious question of why do a close reading at all. We can talk about how close reading has become all the rage because of Common Core (I almost feel as though that should be written C****n C**e, expletive deleted). But that would be pointless because close reading isn't new.

Way back in 2006, Linda Elder and Richard Paul wrote a book titled Thinker's Guide to How to Read a Paragraph: The Art of Close Reading. In speaking about that art of close reading, Elder and Paul wrote:
Skilled readers do not read blindly, but purposely. They have an agenda, goal, or objective. Their purpose, together with the nature of what they are reading, determines how they read. They read in different ways in different situations for different purposes. Of course, reading has a nearly universal purpose: to figure out what an author has to say on a given subject.
 The article Closing in on Close Reading reminds us of some fundamentals for an effective and successful close reading. Yes, there are close reading routines and I'll talk about those in a different post, but let's focus on three essentials.

First, use a short text. Trying to do a close read for the entirety of a chapter in a textbook or a novel or anything else is impractical. Select a passage that has a key idea, seems to emphasize your learning outcomes or one of your essential questions for your lesson plan, or that just seems like a cool or pertinent passage. One or two paragraphs tops. Remember that you have to have a purpose for doing a close reading of that particular passage.

Second, ask good questions. Refer to your learning outcomes and essential questions. What is it about this passage that is important or significant? What is it about this structure, this content, this style of writing that will contribute not only to what students need to know, but to their development as skilled readers? Refer to Bloom's Critical Thinking Cue Questions for some prompts of those higher order thinking questions. Remember: ask questions that not only help develop your students' skills as readers, but help them think on deeper and more strategic levels about the text. And if you're worried about them offering an answer you're not sure is "right," then you have a couple of options. Make sure students can support their answers from the text. "Show me the evidence!" Another option is to ask the class what they think about the answer. You have to establish a safe environment that permits dissent and different ideas, and you have to be able to manage the debate that is likely to ensure. But you'll also enable your students to participate in the determination of the "rightness" of the answer--all with evidence from the text--and provide them with opportunity to listen and to speak.

Third, details matter. One possible component of a close reading activity is to have students paraphrase some portion of the passage. As with anything the details you have them observe, find, support, and/or infer must be supported by the text itself or by supplemental texts. Let me complicate things here just a bit by reminding you that "texts" might not be just words on a page, digital or print.

So as you're thinking about the possibility of using a close reading activity in your classroom, do so with purpose. Just as you would any strategy to help your students become more critical, thoughtful, and skilled readers.

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