Close reading vs. reading

Common Core standards call for teaching “close reading.” How does that differ from plain old reading? Lisa Hansel tackles the question on Core Knowledge Blog.

Many students read to find the main idea, summarize it and make a prediction, she writes. It’s the common comprehension strategy. The details don’t matter, so skimming is fine.

As an example, she provides a Feb. 5, 2014 New York Times story on security concerns at the Olympics.

Main idea: Russia has lots of violence and unrest; the Olympics might not be safe.

Summary: The Olympics might not be safe because Russia has had lots of violence and unrest for decades and currently has people trying to attack the games. Over time, a separatist movement morphed into and attracted small terrorist cells. Even if attempted attacks during the Olympics are prevented, Russia will remain under threat for the foreseeable future.

Prediction: At least one attack on the Olympics will be attempted and prevented; Russia will remain under threat for the foreseeable future.

That’s the skimmer’s version, she writes.  If she were reading the story closely with teenagers, many questions would arise:

Where are all these places? Who and what are nearby?

Is “President Vladimir V. Putin” a president in the sense used in the United States or is the term defined differently in different countries?

What is the Kremlin? Are we to take comfort in its security operations or are there historical reasons to question their apparent good?

What is an independent caliphate?

What is a nihilistic ideology and what are the particular features in this case?

Soviet Union—what’s that? It collapsed? Then what happened?

Close reading requires learning recent Russian history. “We don’t read for the sake of summarizing or predicting plot twists; we read to learn,” writes Hansel. “In our speed-obsessed world, maybe that does deserve a special name.”

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  1. What happened to reading for enjoyment?

    • Don’t worry, “close reading,” while of some value in literary criticism seems to me to be the best way to ruin reading in general, much less for enjoyment, for millions of students. For one, until you have a large enough body of knowledge, in excess of the undergraduate, literary criticism is a fool’s errand.

      That this author of the referenced post thinks it can be applied to a newspaper articles is sad. Although, it would be useful to point out to kids how the reporter/editor of the Times piece use words and phrasing to manipulate the reader’s emotions and provoke a specific comprehension so they can develop defenses against that. That is a rudimentary close reading concept.

      Stand by for complaints that kids don’t read much anymore and revel in the lack of awareness that it is these “brilliant” concepts that are causing it.

      Save close reading for college or a sermon on chapter and verse of the Bible.

      • Right!

        Right, right, right.

        A ‘rudimentary’ analysis of words and phrasing in the Times would be interesting (though I’m not keen on teaching students to develop ‘defenses’ against media….there is ***so*** much of that going on in schools now. Even back when I first taught college composition ‘rhetoric’ textbooks were focusing on ads so students could develop defenses…)

        But news stories should be read quickly, not slowly, and they certainly should not be re-read (not as a general principle).

        News stories are built to be skimmed and understood quickly by good readers: good newspaper reading is fast reading.

        The other problem with the post (which I skimmed, so take this with a grain of salt!) is that the author seems to be conflating background knowledge–or, more accurately, looking up the background knowledge you lack–with ‘close reading.’

        Students need a lot of background knowledge to understand a Times story.

        But having your teacher teach you that background knowledge isn’t a close reading.

    • Jim, as teacher and scholar Carol Jago has so astutely put it, there is a difference between reading for pleasure and the study of literature. “Reading for pleasure” is an extra-curricular activity.

  2. On the other hand, teachers are not allowed to give the historical context of the Gettysburg Address.

    • Ironically, a close reading of the Gettysburg Address could be informative. Such as, why “four score and seven years ago” instead of Eighty-seven years ago? What was Lincoln’s purpose in such language? etc.

      • JKB – have you seen the exemplar reading of the Gettysburg Address?

        I love it, but my friend who was actually trained in “explication de texte” didn’t think much of it.

        I also like the video of David Coleman explaining the difference between a literary reading of the Address versus a historical reading. Historians, he said, would pay a great deal of attention to what is **not** said.

        I asked my husband, a historian at NYU, about that and he said Coleman is completely right.

        btw, my husband team-taught a course with a literary scholar a few years ago. He said he would never do it again because the manner in which the two disciplines approach texts is completely different.

        He wasn’t critical of literary analysis; in fact, he found his colleague’s approach revelatory in many ways.

        But it was completely different from the approach he took, as a historian.

        The difference: literary scholars read texts, historians read documents.

        • OK, I have just read every word of Joanne’s post.

          These questions have virtually nothing to do with a close reading. Yes, they are things you need to know in order to understand the story. They are background knowledge.

          Close reading is a specific mode of “formal” analysis.

          If you haven’t even mentioned syntax, word choir, figurative language, etc., etc., you haven’t done a close reading.

  3. Does anyone know why students have to ‘make predictions’ these days?

    I attended Morningside Academy’s Summer Institute the summer before last & even they were having students ‘make predictions.’

    I asked for an explanation….