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An alternate take on the “close reading” standard

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The first standard in the College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading under the Common Core State Standards for Language Arts says, in part, that students should “read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it.”

There has been a national push to get “close reading” into the curriculum in a variety of ways, and much of the new offerings from almost all of the vendors focus on close reading as an essential instructional skill.

Let’s take a few steps back and look at this from a more aerial standpoint. We are interpreting this in a slightly biased way, I think, dependent upon the resources we are using and how adherent those resources are to what “close reading” should be. Consider this: the anchor standard is the ONLY place that the phrase “reading closely” is mentioned; it is not used again in any grade-specific reading standards.

When we focus on a portion of a standard or decide to agree with what vendors tell us, then we lose the intention of the standard. The intention of this standard, and all of the other reading standards, is for students to comprehend what they read. The skill of reading closely is great, but that is not the objective. Reading comprehension is the objective.

In order to get to comprehension, the focus should not necessarily be on all the ways students closely read a text, but on the evidence they provide for thinking what they think. Metacognition is where it’s at. The important words in the standard are not necessarily “read closely,” but rather “what the text says explicitly.” The grade0level standards are pretty clear about what students need to know and be able to do. At the lower grade levels, they must be able to ask and answer questions about specific details in the text and then in sixth grade, the verb changes. In sixth grade, the students have to “cite evidence” that supports their thinking, which becomes sophisticated over time depending on the best evidence to support their thinking and evidence across multiple texts.

This can be done through “close reading,” and it can also be done through new questioning habits that focus on the details. This can be done whether we are developing “close reads” or not.

When all of this hullabaloo around close reading started, I admit, we read books at home with our six-year-old and we explored main ideas, gists, and re-read text to support the main idea with text-dependent questions. I would try stuff out on her that I was going to use with teachers in workshops, but she caught on to me quickly. She became wary of reading with me and said to me that she would do so, but only if I “don’t test her.” Close reading at home turned into disruptive fluency; we overused it.

What we’ve shifted to at home lately has more of an emphasis on text-dependent questions that are developed in the moment and focus on important details rather than overall main idea. I rarely disrupt her reading to ask a bunch of questions, waiting until we’ve finished a story or a book to ask questions that would require going back to a particular page and providing specific evidence of her thought processes. Often, it is just a question or two, which seems to go over better than the close reading I was forcing her to do. I’d like to note though, that we’ve extended this into her writing as well. She thinks of story ideas and the main message she wants to get across, brainstorms the details and then writes. Often the stories involve the same revolving cast of characters: ponies, princesses and Spongebob Squarepants, but discussions about details in her writing are helping her to be a better reader as well.

I also am not asking questions about everything she reads. Sometimes I just want her to read for the fun of it or because she’s interested in something. We get better at the things we do with regularity and in their totality, not because we learn sets of isolated skills and expect those skills to magically connect when it’s time to perform. Those skills always have to feed the overarching idea, which, in this case, is becoming a fluent reader, not just a close reader.

The research is pretty clear about what impacts comprehension the most: reading voluminously. Lots and lots of text at instructional reading levels is the best way to develop good readers. You don’t tell an athlete how awesome running is and then expect them to win the race. The athlete has to run, often and far, in order to be a better runner. Analysis of their running technique is great, and valuable, but it doesn’t negate the fact that lots of running is necessary to improve.

Reading is the same.

Mike Fisher (@fisher1000) has more than a decade of classroom and professional-development experience. He is a full-time educational consultant and instructional coach and works primarily with school districts to integrate the Common Core State Standards, make data-informed instructional decisions, sustain their curriculum mapping initiatives and immerse instructional technology. Learn more at The Digigogy Collaborative or on his blog.