Teacher Scholar Voices

Getting Closer to Close Reading

Teacher Scholar Voices

In Part 2 of  a three part series on supporting students with close reading of complex text, Marguerite Sheffer describes how, through her inquiry work, she begins to better understand how to get students more actively engaged in close reading and original interpretation of complex text. 

 After realizing that text-dependent questions were leading to un-original, repetitive analysis from students, I knew I needed to try something different.  

Students Ask Their Own Questions

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It was hard for me, but in Spring I let go of crafting beautiful questions for class discussions and seminars.

For the next unit, as I went through my inquiry, I was careful not to lead students towards any particular interpretation, or even towards a focus.  I wanted to see what happened when they were responsible, through collaboration, for developing original questions and claims about a “rigorous text.”

I also knew that I needed a strategy for teaching critical questioning–that I could not just pass this crucial part of class on to the students without scaffolding.  On the suggestion of a colleague, I used Costa’s Leveled Questions  to scaffold student question generation.  Costas categorizes the questions into Level 1 questions (surface level), Level 2 questions (inferences) and Level 3 questions (connections).  Familiarizing students with the three levels helped them to be sure that they were examining the text in that “layered” way that close reading requires.  It also put the power to craft and evaluate questions in student’s hands, and out of mine.

Teaching Leveled Questions

Because my goal was for students to be able to apply the skill of close reading to any text, my first lessons were on the process and skill of questioning rather than on the text itself.  I initially asked my students to practice labeling the level of various sample questions (intentionally not about the text we were reading), so that they would be familiar with these three levels of questions.  We also practiced evaluating questions as a class–entering into discussions of what made a good question:  Which one is the juiciest?  Which provokes the longest discussion?  The most debate?

With that primer, students moved into writing their own questions about The Woman Warrior.   Writing and responding to these questions became a daily routine during this 6-week unit.  Seated in groups of four, students would draw numbers (1, 2 or 3) from envelopes on their desk.  They would be responsible for writing questions at that level  for their group discussion.  This gave students practice writing questions at various levels (due to the repetition and randomization) and stressed the importance of looking at the text in a layered way.  It is important to note that level 3 is not the “best” way of thinking about a text, but that it is crucial to examine a text at all three layers in concert: to ask clarifying questions, make inferences and develop connections and implications.


Students chose the strongest question from their group to share with the whole class and these became writing prompts for students to choose from.

A False Start: Strengthening Discussion

Once I felt my students were asking strong questions, their own questions, rather than mine, became the discussion- and writing-prompts that drove class activities.  I was excited because their questions were relevant and critical, and hit all three of Costa’s levels.  My excitement quickly dimmed though, because the discussions were short and simple, not living up to the complex questions.

After writing and annotating the text with their own questions, students would “present” their questions to their group for discussion, round-robin style.  I allotted 4 minutes per question, and would use a timer to clearly mark transitions.

Initially, these discussions ended quickly.  One student would suggest an answer, then the group would move on to the next questioner, without much debate.

To disrupt this, I led a mini-lesson on pushing back, and digging for deeper answers.  I provided sentence stems to aid questioners in this pushing, (“What other possibilities are there?  What about…?  Is this the only way to look at…?”) and decided to stop timing, and let questioners be in charge of “giving permission” for their group to move on, once their group had fully answered their question.  I also provided a simple scaffold for questioners to take notes on their responses, and required them to record more than 1 response.

Students in discussion groups

Something was working: the questions and conversations were getting juicer.

Over the next week I saw students looking up at the board to try out these sentence stems.  They began to complain about not having enough time to get through all four questions–they’d spent their whole twenty minutes talking about the first question.  This told me that something was working–the questions and conversations were getting juicier.

Students at the Helm

Using their notes from their conversations, students wrote “close-reading paragraphs” about their texts

As I read their paragraphs, I was struck by the variety of their arguments.  They focused on different parts of the text, and different aspects of the story.  I could tell more about what each student was thinking and wondering because of their claims.

When students asked the questions, they did zoom in on the areas of the text that were more complex.  Because they were asking genuine questions about things that confused them or about things that they were curious about, they were choosing rich passages to come back to in their discussions.  They were coming from a place of genuine inquiry, just as I was in my teacher-scholarship.  Most excitedly, their paragraphs were no longer boring because each student was crafting an original argument in response to their chosen questions!

Read Part 3 of the series and discover how Marguerite comes to deeply understand her own definition of successful close reading.