What my mother taught me about close reading.

Welcome to the fourth post in our 7-week blog-a-thon on #closereading. We invite YOU to join in! Find more on how-to here. Several selected posts have already been linked to on the Contributors page and we are looking forward to your addition. Let’s closely read the practice of close reading together! close reading button

There was a kid in my school when I was growing up, let's call him Harry, who came from a no sugar home. Now, I like these homes, and essentially live in one now (the chocolate treat I am currently stuffing in my face not withstanding). But I'm not just talking about no sugar cereals and organic vegetables - I'm talking about total and complete surveillance around the food that entered Harry's mouth. I watched his parents inspect every bit of food he ate, steer him furtively away from birthday cake at parties, give him strict instructions not to touch the school food under any circumstances.

Then there was my Dad. When I visited him during the summers, often our pre-dinnertime conversations went something like this:

Me: Hey Dad, what's for dinner?

Dad: Not sure yet. What do you want?

Me: How about a whole box of popsicles?

Dad: Okay!

It strikes me that these two models of parenting - the newly coined "helicopter parent" vs. a more "run with the wolves and be free" style - could be a (very exaggerated) metaphor of a debate educators are having around how to help kids become powerful close readers.

On the one hand, you have a veritable sea of for-profit materials that offer you The Texts for everyone to read,  and The Questions everyone should answer. While perhaps some of these materials (link to a great blog-a-thon post) will be helpful, this strikes us as "helicopter teaching" - it is controlling every "bite" of reading that a kid takes, telling them exactly what to do and when to do it, without really teaching them how to do anything on their own.

On the other hand, there are educators who argue that close reading is not like this at all. That close reading is just good reading, and that really, kids can probably do a lot of this work on their own if we just model it and let them read. (Full disclosure: these are my people, my compatriots, the ones I lean toward and learn from). There is a resistance, for good reason, to the idea that we can break close reading down into a listicle of steps or questions or techniques. Instead, these educators know that the best reading teaching comes from modeling, encouragement, conferences, and, above all, the right books.

I believe that kids can read closely, that modeling will help, and should be the centerpiece of my teaching. I agree that close reading is organic, and should not be reduced to a quick and easy method of teaching, or a long list of questions to make kids read closely without knowing what they are doing.


What if they don't? What if my modeling doesn't cut it? If the kids leave the lesson thinking, "Boy, Ms. Roberts sure is good at close reading. Wonder how she did that?" When I picture the classes I taught, when I really imagine teaching them how to read a text closely, to go back with purpose and careful read each bit, I find myself caught between a rock and a hard place: I agree with freedom, and yet it seems like sometimes the kids need some direction.

A Little Bit of Structure Goes a Long Way

In our upcoming book, Chris Lehman and I posit that while the end goal of any curriculum, unit, or lesson must be that kids are independent, innovative and engaged, along the way students may need a little bit of structure to help them make this new skill a habit, so that they can become independent. 

It seems like that is how people often learn new or challenging things. At first, we need someone to explain how it goes, even a few steps to take to get started. Then we practice that thing a whole lot, both with help and independently, and then we make it our own, not needing the structure or steps as much anymore.

Take my mother. Whereas Harry's family was on him like white on rice, and my Dad left me to my own devices, my Mom struck a beautiful balance. There was a ton of structure at home with very direct instruction, such as:

1. "Stop eating that whole package of  Big League Chew right now."

2. "Eat your broccoli. Yes, all of it."

3. "First you eat your dinner and then you can have dessert."

My Mom knew that I needed some help in my journey to learn good eating habits. But I had freedom as well - I could make my own choices at friend's houses. I was on my own after school.  And if I really didn't want to eat what my Mom was telling me to I could make my own decision.  I could ultimately choose how I wanted to eat, and if that meant that once I ate an entire jumbo bag of cheesy Jax and had a stomach ache for two days, well, I learned something.  Mom knew the perfect balance between teaching me the path towards good eating habits - through modeling and independence yes, but also through steps and methods and instructions - without making me feel like I needed her to choose a lunch at school.

Let's aim for the ideal - for close reading work that is open, independent, and engaged - but let's plan for those moments when our students don't quote know what to do, and our modeling isn't enough. Here are a few ways to walk the line:

1. Start off in the deep end and work your way back. This is, besides "rinse and repeat," my favorite method of teaching. I start off with the work that I think may be tough for my kids, and then see what they can do. As Vicki Vinton describes in her recent blog post, sometimes our students are able to do way more than we think - sometimes it is us holding them back when we teach them bit by bit, one meager step at a time. That being said, the other great part about starting in the deep end is it becomes real clear real quick which kids need some of those bit by bit strategies. This is helpful to know.

2. Have strategies ready. No matter what, kids are going to need help, and I don't want to have to resort to "45 questions to ask when close reading" when they do:

photo (4)

Instead, have at the ready a few ways, a simple method, for helping students to become a little more independent, a bit more confident, in their close reading. My compatriot, Chris, highlights one way to help here, and we outline more in our upcoming book. I remember a guy in my hometown, Utica, who used to say, "keep it simple, stupid." This is good advice, I think, when trying to "teach" close reading. (I also have a friend who changed the phrase to "keep it simple, sassy." To each his own.)

3. Pre-assess to find out what kids can do. It's always good to know where you are going. Spending a little time at the start of a unit or course of study to assess what your kids are able to do can help you to decide how free or how hands on you will need to be, and with which kids. There is nothing more satisfying than knowing before my teaching starts what small groups I may need to pull. There is nothing LESS satisfying than teaching a whole class lesson and realizing mid-way through that only like five kids need this lesson and that the rest of the class is looking at you in bored desperation. Man I hate that look.

bored kids

4. Model not only your brilliance, but the steps you took to be so smart. I may or may not have spent an embarrassing amount of time playing the video game Skyrim last year. At one point, I tried to get my friend, Margaret, into the game. She came over, and I showed off. I shot arrows into dragons from the peaks of mountaintops, I wrestled a bear. She was impressed. But she had no idea what do do when I handed her the controls. So I took them back, and started off more like this: "So if I want to slay a dragon, first I have to level up by doing some quests, next I make sure to be behind cover, see how I am doing that? Then I have to be patient. It takes awhile to bring down a dragon. Watch how I keep jumping out, firing, and then getting back behind my cover." Modeling is not enough - it can be kind of annoying actually to watch someone be good at something you don't feel that great about. Name out what you are doing, the steps you are taking, to help kids see the method behind the madness.

5. Use charts to support. No matter how clear my teaching, chances are the kids won't commit every move to memory. Making sure I hang some charts with strategies or steps or examples can help kids to keep themselves going when they hit a road block. When I chart, I strike a great balance between control - I have listed some of the work I would like you to try -  and freedom - it is still up to you to choose how to get the work done.

Like my mother did when I was growing up, we can teach students that making good choices doesn't mean not having any fun, and that independence doesn't mean a free for all.

Big Idea: Close Reading                                                 Tiny Detail: Balancing control and freedom in our teaching

Kate and Maggie

Your Turn!

What are your definitions or what you consider misuses of “close reading”? What have we gotten right in our’s or what would you revise? Have you experienced misapplications of the term? What have you done or are now thinking you could do about these misuses? What new ah-has or questions are you thinking through?

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