All Articles Education Edtech Building the habits of close reading to support comprehension

Building the habits of close reading to support comprehension

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This post is sponsored by Curriculum Associates

A key objective of the Common Core State Standards is for students to cultivate close reading skills—the ability to read literature and complex texts and interpret their meaning. D. Ray Reutzel, education professor at Utah State University, outlines the key principles of close reading and offers ideas to help teachers and administrators guide students to success.

What is close reading? What are the key principles and essential steps?

Close reading is making a comeback with national adoption of the Common Core and other college and career readiness standards in English Language Arts. Educators have been doing this type of reading with students for decades under other names. Close reading is deep, effortful and sustained reading versus casual, surface, or quick reading of text. It requires students to peel back multiple layers of meaning embedded in text to derive an interpretation of text meaning that is not explicitly stated. Close reading is highly focused on helping students to make reasonable inferences using text-based information.

How has close reading been taught prior to the renewed attention on close reading demanded by the Common Core State Standards? In the past, teachers focused on the big idea, topic or theme of a text during the first reading. Then, on the second reading they often focused on details found in the text that related to the main idea. Thus, the practice of close or analytic reading, as some call it, was for the reader to identify big ideas and then drill down to the supporting details in the text. This process is actually the reverse of how we should be teaching close reading when referencing the CCS ELA reading standards.

The Common Core standards were designed in such a way so as to be sequenced in three clusters around the new reading anchor standards. The first reading cluster is focused on helping students identify key ideas and details in text. The second cluster is focused on helping students identify the author’s craft and structure used for the writing of the text. The third cluster is focused on helping students to integrate knowledge and ideas from the text with the readers’ background to construct an interpretation of the situation described in the text. These three standard clusters when used in a sequence along with carefully selected comprehension strategies will unleash a virtuous comprehension cycle where knowledge begets comprehension, and comprehension begets more knowledge.

Why is close reading important?

The big answer to this question is that close reading increases students’ reading comprehension. We don’t want students to read to memorize; rather we want them to construct meaningful interpretation from text using their unique background knowledge and experiences to do so. In short, we want students to learn how to learn from text.

Close reading demands that students learn how to make reasonable inferences. We also want to improve students’ abilities to comprehend texts independently in order to ensure they will be successful when encountering more complex texts throughout school and later on in their careers. Much of reading is done privately for the reader’s own cognitive purposes. For example, if a student becomes a mechanic as an adult, he or she will need to be able to comprehend a repair manual independently in order to succeed in that career. Mechanics will not be able to ask their teacher what the manual means and how to comprehend it!

How can educators get started in teaching the principles of close reading?

To provide effective close reading, educators need to understand the theories and models about how people actually process information in text. To begin, students need to be able to understand each word’s meaning in a text. They then have to string word meanings together to understand sentences. Next, they need to be able to connect sentence meanings to construct the meaning of paragraphs in text. Once they can understand the meaning of larger units of text, paragraphs and beyond, they can also determine how texts are structured as well as connecting text-based information to their own background knowledge and experiences.

When starting out, educators should focus on assisting students’ efforts to achieve local level text comprehension by using texts that are fairly brief. At the local level of reading comprehension, readers focus on making inferences that connect sentence meanings together. This is often difficult when authors leave out vital connecting terms in order to lower text difficulty indices such as Lexiles. Unfortunately, decreasing a text’s Lexile level through writing short sentences and by leaving out connecting terms only serves to increase the readers’ need to make inferences at the local or intersentential level. For example, Jane and Jacquin went to the store. They were hungry. The connecting term “because” is missing and must be inferred by the reader. Making inferences between sentences and beyond in text, such as how the authors have organized or structured information in texts, becomes an important part of teaching close readings of text effectively. Lastly, students integrate the information in the text by connecting it to their own knowledge and backgrounds. This is a key step in helping students construct meaningful interpretations of text in order to grow what they know.

What further advice or strategies can you offer teachers to ensure students are successful with close reading?

It is important to select the right length and kinds of texts. Close readings should typically use shorter text length because of the effortful, focused and demanding nature of the text’s content and structure. Educators should look for texts that contain compelling content while leaving some inferential gaps for students to fill in. High-quality close reading texts are complex and don’t give up their meaning easily. Text selections, like those found in Curriculum Associates’ Ready® Reading program as well as those in their online i-Ready® Diagnostic & Instruction close reading lessons, are two great sources.

Teachers can also examine how many and what types of text-dependent questions, or those that can only be answered by referring back to the text, are necessary for students when selecting texts that are worthy to be read more than once. Texts that very explicit may not be very good candidates for close reading unless the content is challenging or unfamiliar. On the other hand, familiar text content that is written in ways to conceal deeper meanings can also be good candidates for close readings. A rule of thumb is how complex and difficult the ideas are to extract from the text.

To support the development of students’ abilities to make inferences, teachers can help students know which types of inferences the text is asking students to make. Many teachers and students think there are an infinite number of inferences that can be made from a text. In truth, there are only about ten different types of inferences. Students can learn to make these inferences by identifying and answering questions such as “Where did it take place?” and “What was used to make it happen?” Doing so is akin to playing the popular board game of Clue®.

How can administrators be supportive of teachers in elevating their classroom instruction to support close reading?

Principals need to understand that teachers are learners too. Teachers get better at guiding students’ close reading the more they do it. Principals need to provide adequate professional development and carefully designed support materials in order to elevate the quality and efficacy of close reading instruction. Providing opportunities and resources to build teacher capacity to use higher levels of text-dependent questions is one example where teachers could use substantial professional development. Research by Janis Bulgren and others at the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning can help educators sequence text-dependent questions so that they advance from low-level questions such as “What color was the wolf in Red Riding Hood?” to “How did Red Riding Hood determine the wolf was not her grandmother?” This is the art of effective sequencing of text-dependent questioning.

Reutzel will be conducting a webinar sponsored by District Administration on this topic on April 1, from 2–3pm ET. Register here.

D. Ray Reutzel is Distinguished Professor and Emma Eccles Jones Endowed Chair of Early Childhood Education at Utah State University. He is an elected member of the ILA Reading Hall of Fame and is an author of Curriculum Associates’ Ready Reading and Ready Writing programs, as well as an expert advisor for their i-Ready program.