Lehman and Robert (2013) discuss the concept of close reading by providing several strategies or steps that need to be kept in mind during the reading lesson. According to the authors, these steps allow students to develop new understandings of the text they read and analyze. The steps are the following: read through lenses, use lenses to find patterns, and use patterns to develop a new understanding of the given text (Lehman & Robert, 2013). The firs top idea that I find useful is “what character/people: say/think/do” (Lehman & Robert, 2013, p. 25). Although it may seem plain at first, students sometimes do not pay as much attention as they should to the character’s behavior and speech, especially if these do not correspond with each other. Paying close attention to characters is crucial because they are the tools that the author uses to communicate with the reader or indicate something. What at first seems obvious becomes a multi-layered message. This way, through analyzing character’s actions and words, students can open access to the deeper layers of the book or any other text medium (a song, a poem, an article, etc.).
The second idea that partially corresponds with the first one is the search for contrasting patterns. Some students may not notice, but texts and narratives are often built on contrasting patterns. Even scientific articles often engage this method (“while one study demonstrated that…, the other study provided different results”). Contrasting patterns in narratives and fiction often reveal new understandings of a character or an action (e.g. Snape’s behavior in Harry Potter) that eventually result in a significant plot twist or a major change in the character. Oftentimes, these changes are perceived as “pointless” because the reader was not able to recognize the contrasting patterns before grasping the meaning of a situation fully.
The last idea that is also useful and valid is the suggestion to “look at patterns to think about the author’s bias or point of view” (Lehman & Robert, 2013, p. 40). The author’s point of view can be too vague to identify even though the character’s behavior. In this case, students might find it helpful to compare patterns they already have to author’s opinion to understand what the author thinks about the issue. Moreover, this approach will also help students see that the author might not be a simple narrator but can have a more meaningful role in a story. It is a problem that the author is perceived as a passive storyteller; later, this approach can complicate student’s understanding of postmodern texts or those texts where the author is an active participant in the events. To ensure that students will not label the book as “too complicated”, the teacher needs to explain to them why the author is not always a mere narrator.
This process has the potential to work efficiently in a secondary reading classroom because it can make the text more accessible and less complex even for those students who do not like reading but prefer analyzing. A specific detail that could have been added to the lenses is the author’s style of narration (do they use short or long sentences? are they used for descriptions of statics or actions? why do they do it?). Nevertheless, I would engage this approach only in the senior grades because it does demand serious reflection and attention. However, the author’s style can be as meaningful as the characters’ actions.
Versions of Close Reading
While Lehman and Roberts’ (2013) version consists of three steps only that can broaden, Fisher and Frey (2013) expand the scheme as “part to whole” steps. Here, students start from a general understanding of the text, review the key details and text structure, proceed to the author’s purpose and inferences, and end with opinions and intertextual connections. This method is more detailed; moreover, it also underlines the importance of the author’s purpose (which is here different from the opinion). This is a significant advantage of the model. Intertextual connections are also important, as they indicate that there is a hidden message in the text.
David Coleman (2012) provides a different scheme that is not based on the most popular reading strategies. According to him, there should not be any pre-explanation of the text; instead, students need to find the information inside this text. Next, the arguments in the text are examined: what are these arguments and how they are defended (Coleman, 2012). One word can be a key to the whole text, and this is what needs to be considered during close reading, argues Coleman (2012). This approach is more suitable for informational texts, while the previous methods could be applied to narratives as well. Boyles (2013) admits that it might be challenging to adapt the learning process to the Common Core standards. She provides her scheme: one should use short texts, aim for student’s independence to read those texts, encourage and teach students to ask the questions that might improve their understanding, focus on observation and analysis of the text so that the basic tasks are not seen as challenging, and students can complete more complicated ones or ask questions themselves.
This scheme is somewhat similar to the one presented by Lehman and Roberts (2013), except that is more focused on independence. Moreover, Boyles (2013) stresses the significance of symbols and metaphors as information units that can enhance understanding of the text as well. Boyles (2013) also suggests addressing the author’s style (length of sentences, tone, text fragments, and their location in the book, word order, etc.) – this approach to the text is not engaged by Lehman and Roberts (2013). As it was already mentioned, the author’s style can provide additional insights into the whole meaning of the text; that is why it is so important to draw students’ attention not only to what the author is telling us but also to how they are telling us these facts. Therefore, Boyles’ (2013) approach seems to be a better and more detailed version of the method proposed by Lehman and Roberts (2013). Both Boyles (2013) and Coleman (2012) argue that single words are as important as sentences and can reveal the text’s meaning or message.
While Coleman (2012) focuses on the arguments in the text, Lehman and Roberts (2013) examine phrases, facts, pictures, and descriptions as sources of data that students can analyze. Here, the patterns are used to think about and reflect upon those definitions that are new and unclear to students. Coleman (2012) does not mention this, although a new word can significantly slow down and complicate the reading process. It also appears that it is only Lehman and Roberts (2013) who focus on patterns in the text, while other authors prefer dividing texts into several parts.
Definition of Close Reading
Although the definition of the close reading given by Coleman (2012) in Common Core Standards is comprehensive and clear, I would nevertheless agree with Ferguson (2013) who argues that a text cannot be understood correctly unless the information inside and outside the text is provided to the reader as well. Close reading is focused on the text details and messages that allow students to develop an understanding of this text; at the same time, this understanding can be improved if students are introduced to the facts that surround the text and its author. Therefore, I find it inadvisable to teach students to read the text but not to look outside of it for additional evidence and clues. Focusing on the text-only can be misleading because students will not be familiar with the historical setting that surrounds any text; social specifics and features, the author’s personal life, their beliefs, and experiences often shape the text’s central message. I would implement close reading about the author, their life, the period during which they wrote a book or a story, the social context, and other personal details that can be reflected in the text. Furthermore, contrary to Boyles, I would encourage students to use their imagination to understand a text. It does not mean that students would be allowed to ask random questions unrelated to the text; rather, these thoughts can unfold a new layer that students will discover themselves. Most of the texts that exist today were written for a potential reader; that is why it is unreasonable to diminish the reader’s role in the understanding of the text.
Boyles, N. (2013). Closing in on close reading. Educational Leadership, 70(4), 36-41.
Coleman, D. (2012). Close reading of text: Letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr. Web.
Ferguson, D. E. (2013). Martin Luther King Jr. and the Common Core: A critical reading of ‘Close Reading’. Rethinking Schools, 28(2), 18-21.
Frey, N., & Fisher, D. (2013). Rigorous reading: 5 access points for comprehending complex texts. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Lehman, C., & Roberts, K. (2013). Falling in love with close reading: Lessons for analyzing texts and life. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.