Close reading has quickly become one of the most talked about instructional strategies related to the Common Core. And tips on how to do it are both everywhere and nowhere. Somehow, this strategy has become elusive and intriguing, which is a shame, because it’s poised to increase rigor in Language Arts. So, what’s it all about? And what might it look like in an upper grade classroom?
Are you with me? That simple idea makes all the difference. It will guide you in your lesson planning and give your instruction a lot of focus. Just as Lucy Calkins urges us to “teach the writer and not the writing,” in our reading instruction, we must remember that the ultimate goal is for our students to comprehend text universally. We must teach the “reader” and not the “text.” Of course, they’ll understand the text you’re reading because you’re doing work with it. And, of course, that’s incredibly important. But the bigger picture is what they’re going to take away.
Sure, you’ll need to read through the text multiple times like a lot of people say to do. But it’s more than that. Each read has a clear instructional purpose, and through your close reading lessons, students should be able to take away new knowledge that they can then apply to their other readings, both in school and on their own.
Let’s take a look at the poem “Human Family” by Maya Angelou and an example of a week of close readings in sixth grade.
Before beginning instruction, I need to think about what I’m hoping students will learn from reading this piece of literature, what I hope they’ll apply to new texts going forward. This means I have to really know and understand what the text has to offer. I decide to focus on elements that are important foundational understandings.
- The purpose of poetry (and, ultimately, literature) in regards to the sharing of the human experience (a huge idea we work on for several weeks)
I also notice that the author’s use of repetition draws attention to the theme of the poem, so I choose to focus on that skill, as well.
- Author’s use of repetition in text
- And we always, always talk about the theme, regardless of the lessons.
So, that gives me three areas for instruction. Next, I need to figure out which areas of the text will best serve my lessons.
That means I’ve got to mark this puppy up with my own thinking and teaching ideas.
Now I need to figure out the key questions I need to ask to get students to think about the things I planned. Two types of questions are necessary in a close reading: text-dependent and thinking. Thinking questions get the juices flowing, and text-dependent questions force students to really analyze the text. It’s important to write these questions ahead of time. But during the discussion, you’ll probably think of more on the fly. 🙂 Take a peek at my planning sheet!
Time to read and discuss! I hesitate to list the process in terms of number of reads. This is because I think setting a number can limit the power of the discussions. Just know that if you need to stay on a section for more than one “read,” you can. Sometimes students will need to read a small section several times to pull meaning out of it. Or, students might bring an idea to the class that forces you to spend time on something else that day. Some days the discussion will be stellar, and you’ll need to spend more time on it. Other days will go faster. Don’t be married to the “number or reads.” Authentic, analytic close reading isn’t about a set number of reads. It’s about the thinking and questioning. The reason why people urge you to read the text multiple times is because it would be impossible to really understand each teaching focus in one sitting!
1st Read – Students read the poem silently. The goal is to get them familiar with the text on a basic level. Students talk about their initial thoughts and reactions to the poem. It’s interesting to see what they are drawn to, and sometimes they go just where you want them! “What do you think?” and “What did you notice?” are great questions following this read. Charting student thinking is key.
This chart was created over five days of close reading instruction and discussion. Notice the first thought charted: “We’re all the same.” After some questioning, students modified this to “We’re all equal.” With further probing and discussion, the idea emerged. What was Maya Angelou saying? She was talking about “equality.” We all have the same “value.”
2nd Read – Now that my students have a general sense of the poem, it’s time to focus their thinking on the areas I want. I know that I want them to think about the idea of diversity. So, I draw their attention to the third stanza. This will help them begin to think about the theme. We’re still charting, too.
3rd Read – I know I want a big take away to be the purpose of poetry. So, I draw their attention and have students reread the seventh and eighth stanzas. This will set up a discussion about why authors write poetry and the purpose of literature. The human experience is defined by the students and added to our chart.
4th Read – Repetition is a writing craft. We look at that next. In this poem, it’s related directly to the theme. Students read the last three stanzas. This will lead to a discussion about why authors use this craft choice.
5th Read – This read is about putting it together. Students now understand the poem (equality and diversity), why the author may have written this poem (to reveal a part of being human), a successful tool she used to drive her point home (repetition), and finally, what she’s saying about diversity (the theme). We talk about all these things, and then finally we read the poem start to finish with all our new ideas in mind. I usually end with a quick write, too.
That’s a lot of student thinking, right? It sure is! And it takes a lot of planning! But, the more practice you get, the easier it will be and the more effective you’ll get at pulling out focuses and questions that support them.
What’s most important to remember is that this model of instruction doesn’t end here. The conclusions we draw from our reading experience are constantly revisited throughout the year. My hope is that they’ll notice other authors using repetition. They’ll see what other authors have to say about life. Ultimately, the close reading activity itself just serves as a day-to-day vehicle.
Did you like my Close Reading Planner for Poetry? Grab it for FREE!
Thanks for reading my guest post! And thanks, Rachel, for having me! I’ve had such a blast preparing this post.
Kate Daniel has been teaching for eight years in Southern California and is the author of Second Grade Sparkle in Sixth, where she writes about her adventures as a new upper grade teacher. She loves literacy instruction at all grades and is passionate teaching kids to think! Her favorite types of lessons involve a lot of student control, discussion, strategic questioning, and collaboration. You can find great primary ideas on her blog and in her store – and her upper grade resources are growing!
Top Image Source: Anthony Kelly – Thank you, Anthony!