The Best Close Reading Strategy There Is

Close reading is the buzz word up here in New York (and any other state implementing the Common Core State Standards). EngageNY is surely not at a loss for lessons that help teachers with close reading strategies. And if there is one thing they all have in common, it’s that before we ask students to “closely read” a text, we must first model it.

But how authentically do we model an approach to reading? I know we do a lot of modeling, but how authentic is it? One of the best ways teachers can model their approach to grappling with literature is to read a piece in front of the class for the first time. That’s right, a cold read in front of a group of students.  Probst (2004) suggests that by doing this, it forces you “to rely on the very processes you are espousing for your students” and “gives you the opportunity to model some of the behavior you hope to elicit from them” (p. 67).

This is a great lesson to start the year. I’ve done this for years, and without fail two things happen when I do: 1. Increase in active participation; and 2. Allows the student to see the teacher struggle.

The biggest problem we have as English teachers is that students have been trained to wait for the answer. Every kid sitting in your classroom at some point in his or her English education has waited long enough for the teacher to tell them what the theme of the novel is. They might have a few ideas floating in their heads, but why chance being wrong when the teacher is eventually going to tell them? After all, the teacher has already studied this poem and knows what the theme is, so eventually he’ll tell me, right? Unfortunately, this is all too common.

Reading a piece cold in front of the kids eliminates the fear that a student’s thoughts will not align with some preconceived teacher-answer. Students think to themselves, “hey, if this guy doesn’t know, why don’t I chime in?” As I read through a piece for the first time with kids and think aloud my annotations on the overhead, students blurt out what they’re thinking. Because I’ve made myself vulnerable in the process, the students feel more comfortable in challenging me or sometimes simply pointing out details that agree with where my analysis may be going.

This also allows students to see that closely reading a piece of literature is difficult. As teachers, we spend hours developing lessons, and much of that time is spent reading and rereading a text so that we can be prepared to teach it properly. The kids don’t see this, and think we’ve effortlessly analyzed a specific element within a piece. Because of the difficulty students have with literary analysis, this only frustrates them since it suggests that it should be easier than it really is. A cold read can let them know that it’s not supposed to be easy.

So give it shot. Have another teacher make some copies of a text and put them in an envelope. (I just ask my neighboring teacher to make X copies of a specific genre, usually asking that it be within a certain length. And yes, you’ll need one for each class, so you’ll want to find a teacher who really likes you.) As you take the copies out of the envelope, tell the kids that you’ve never seen the poem/essay/short story before that you’re about to read, and that you want to show them how you analyze a text for (pick one):

  • theme or purpose
  • comprehension of a complex text
  • an author’s craft
  • how you want them to utilize a specific reading strategy

Then put the text on the overhead or smartboard and model the process. I guarantee will be authentic.

Good luck and be sure to email me or come back to the blog and let me know how it went.

McConn

NOTE: If you’re on a grade level team, have each teacher on the team make copies, place them in envelopes, and trade with each other.

 

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