Common Core’s push for “close reading” goes awry when it ignores the reader’s background knowledge, writes cognitive scientist Dan Willingham on RealClearEducation.
As I’ve seen it described, close reading has three critical features. First, we assume we will spend a good deal of time with a text. We will not simply read, but reread, and likely reread again. The first reading may be devoted to straightforward comprehension, but further readings will uncover other layers of meaning, allusions, techniques of authorship, and so on.
Second, the extended time spent on a text will be devoted mostly to the author’s words. We will pay close attention to the particular words used, to the structure of the argument, and so on.
Third, we will view a text as being self-contained. We will only draw conclusions that are defensible via the author’s words. In fact, we will read the text as though we know nothing about the subject at hand; the author’s words will be not only necessary for our interpretation, we’ll consider them sufficient.
That last part is crazy, writes Willingham. “Pretending that one’s knowledge is not relevant to interpreting a text conflicts with how writers write and with how readers read,
Researchers Eli Gottlieb and Sam Wineburg showed the importance of background knowledge when they asked clergy, scientists and historians to read George Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1789.
Clergy and scientists focused on Washington’s invoking the “providence of Almighty God,” and other religious phrasing, with clergy applauding the Christian tone, and scientists upset by it.
Historians, in contrast, focused on what the document did not say; it did not mention Jesus, nor salvation, nor Christianity. They saw the document as Washington’s self-conscious attempt to craft a statement that would be acceptable to the diversity of religions practiced in the United States, and in so doing send a message of religious tolerance and separation of church and state. That Washington knew his audience may be adduced from the fact that clergy at the time protested the lack of overt Christian references.
No amount of close reading restricted to the text would lead present-day students to this interpretation.
Reading in a knowledge vacuum makes no sense, Willingham concludes.