Warning! Close reading questions pose more problems than they appear - SmartBrief

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Warning! Close reading questions pose more problems than they appear

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Start reading a novel. Then ask:

  • What has happened so far?
  • What details help you understand the characters?
  • What is this story beginning to be about?
  • What in the story makes you think that?

These are a few of the questions associated with practice of close reading, a practice advocated by the common core in the English/Language Arts Literacy Standards. Good readers internalize these questions. Newly developing readers use them to scaffold understanding.

However, I have growing concerns that some efforts to adhere to CCSS close reading questions may directly interfere with an author’s narrative. The use of a steady stream of questions to assess a reader’s understanding in a work of fiction is little insulting to an author as the practice infers a reader cannot understand a narrative without repeated questioning. Hearing these questions, I imagine an author responding, “Why didn’t you think I was clear enough?” or “Have faith. Stop asking and just read the story!”

I am worried that too much focus on practicing close reading to assess student understanding may lead to what Kelly Gallagher calls “Readicide“: The systematic killing of the love of reading, often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing practices found in schools.

At a time when we are desperate to engage students in reading, at a time when our students are reading less and less independently, the common core advocates the practice of using standard text-dependent questions to determine if students are reading closely. The power of a good story to capture imagination and to develop a reader’s empathy or to provide a moment of escapism will be burdened with rote questioning. This practice cannot contribute positively to students picking up a text and enjoying a story if they have never let a story speak for itself.

In contrast, I do recognize a strong need for close reading with informational texts. The practice of asking a reader these questions to access understanding in non-fiction is important:

  • What details do you want to hold onto in case they turn out to be important?
  • What words are new or unfamiliar?
  • What do you think these words mean in this context?
  • What evidence in the text supports your thinking?

While the frequent interruption of a narrative is harmful, I believe the frequent interruption of an informational text for note-taking or discussion can improve understanding. Textbooks and news articles are often chunked into sections with sub-headings that act as organizing tools. Important information (who, what, where, when, why) is generally grouped at the beginning of these texts. Perhaps, then, it is not surprising that authors of the common core have required an increase of informational texts in every discipline, with 50% informational texts in fifth grade to 70% information texts in grade 12, while at the same time advocating the practice of close reading. Close reading and informational texts are complementary.

However, the “one approach fits all” that close reading promotes should not be a mandate for fiction. There are numerous complex texts that “communicate(s) before being understood” as T.S. Eliot said. The power of a story is delivered in that communication, which should not be interrupted. Otherwise, our students will continue not to want to read. Otherwise we teachers could be the ones committing Readicide and kill the literature we claim to love. Otherwise our students will echo Fern from the E.B .White’s classic story Charlotte’s Web: “’Please don’t kill it!’ she sobbed. “It’s unfair.’”

Colette Marie Bennett (@teachcmb56) is the English Department chairwoman at Wamogo High School (Region 6) in Connecticut. She has also served as the Social Studies Department chairwoman. She has over 21 years of experience in the classroom grades 6-12 and is a regular presenter at education conferences. She blogs at Used Books in Class.