When I was in college, I took a number of intensive, literary seminar-type courses. We read Dostoevsky, Dante, Homer, Machiavelli, and a mountain of philosophers. We read essays. We read letters. We read recent works. We read analyses of religion and art, of science and logic, from experts and cornerstone writers. The reading load was enormous. A few weeks into the first course, I realized with a start that I simply didn’t pick up on details or themes that my classmates seemed to notice on first reading. While they were identifying symbolism and allegories and parallels with other texts from the course, I was reading for sheer enjoyment (The Odyssey and Dante’s Inferno are entertaining, if nothing else), and for comprehension (ever notice how elaborately and circularly ancient scholars come to their point?). I focused on simply getting through the reading, knowing that my mind would be stretched during the 2-hour class discussions by the professor’s guiding questions and my classmates’ analysis. While I kept up and even brought my own unique perspective to the discussion, time and again, I wished that instead of assigning new reading, we could go back a second time to the same text. I would think, “Now that I know what this is saying, I wish I could reread and find out what it’s REALLY about.”
I’ve never felt confident that I recall more than fuzzy themes from important texts, because I simply didn’t—couldn’t—read them closely.
There seems to be this understanding in college, certainly, but even in earlier schooling, that reading is cut and dried. You read a text, you digest its message quickly and easily, you say “That was [interesting/informative/formational/boring],” then you move on to the next text. Each book is like a merit badge, earned by meeting some requirement—reading it cover to cover perhaps, or passing a quiz or writing a summary. Some texts work within this approach, particularly fiction with a clear plot that is at the appropriate language and cognitive levels for the reader. But as the Common Core has us move away from fiction and toward non-fiction while simultaneously setting the expectation that students form articulate, evidence-based arguments, books-as-badges is not going to work anymore.
If I, a native English-speaking college-bound nerd, grappled with complex texts, trying to assimilate surface meaning, deeper themes, cultural context, structure, and style all at once, I wonder how younger, nonnative students with fewer academic resources will fare?
The trick is implementing close reading practices in the classroom. By taking chunks of challenging non-fiction, or, as Erick Herrmann describes in his article, short excerpts that are “robust, complex and related to the subject area being studied,” students can grapple with content beyond their current capabilities while appropriate scaffolds and demonstrated approaches are available to them. The cognitive burden of understanding individual words or background concepts can be lifted with some time and familiarity, freeing students to attend to the deeper meaning and structure of a text. This strategy shouldn’t be reserved for ELLs either—it’s for every student.
Necessity is the mother of invention, or so the saying goes. When students need to know a word or idea in order to understand, they’re more motivated to learn it. (Hey, that sounds uncannily similar to the premise of our curriculum!) Bear this in mind as you weigh the extent of explicit vocabulary instruction needed before diving right into a text.
What has your experience been with close reading? How do you prepare your students for the variety of texts they’re now exposed to in school?