Teacher Scholar Voices

The Close Reading Conundrum

Teacher Scholar Voices

In Part 3 of her three part series on close reading, Marguerite Sheffer describes how she arrived at  a personal definition of close reading and ultimately synthesized the varied messages she was receiving around best practices in teaching close reading of complex text.

After concluding my inquiry on close reading, I became a believer in having students ask the questions about complex text.  In retrospect, it seemed obvious.  If I wanted students to make an original, bold claim about the text, I had to empower them to find their own meaning.  If I wanted to help them find meaning, I had to start by encouraging them to ask their own questions.  Most crucially, questioning seemed to encourage the elusive skill of grappling with a text. 

Grappling: Shakespeare and I

When I was a senior in high school, I hated King Lear.

I was vocal about it–I rarely hated books, I loved reading Shakespeare, so this play must be defective.  I had to write a literary analysis essay, and I had no idea where to start.  I procrastinated, I complained, I didn’t feel smart enough even as I felt too good for the assignment.  Ms. Elwood, patient with my braty-ness, conferenced with me.  What did I hate about King Lear?  Why had it gotten under my skin?

“It’s about nothing!”

“That’s it!” Ms. Elwood grinned.  I had found my topic, my point about King Lear.

The play suddenly seemed to be not an impenetrable wall but a maze, a puzzle.  I spent the next few weeks avidly searching for clues–references to nothingness and futility.  There were plenty.  The more I searched, the more I felt that I was in on Shakespeare’s joke.  I was proud of my findings, which were different from those of my classmates.  I still have the essay, somewhere, and feel little waves of understanding when someone brings up King Lear.  

By starting with my frustration with a complex text, I had found my way to a deep reading–a reading that was my own.  Ms. Elwood didn’t lead me away from the part of the text that was bothering me, instead, she helped me work through the contradictions in the text that were nagging at me.

This is the kind of close reading I want my students to experience, and that I only felt in my very last essay before going off to college, in one of the rare instances when I was asked to (or even allowed to) formulate my own argument about a text.

Grappling: Alma and Malcolm Gladwell

Alma hated Malcolm Gladwell.

We were reading What the Dog Saw, Gladwell’s collection of essays, as part of our AP English Language course in November.  This was well before my inquiry work had found its focus on close reading, and months before I began using leveled questions with complex texts.

Alma is an exemplary student, and often helps to engage other students in discussions, so her disengagement in this text created a vacuum in the class.  She was also pretty dramatic about it.

“I can’t do this…”  “I hate this book!”  “Can we read something else?”

From the girl who borrowed Gatsby from me to read at home, this was troubling.
Thinking back to Ms. Elwood, I tried to be patient.  I love Malcolm Gladwell, so this wasn’t easy for me.

“What do you hate about it?”

“It’s so boring!–It’s about ketchup and hair dye!  Couldn’t he write about anything else?”

“Of course.  But, why might he choose to write about these things?”

I could see that I already had her.  She sighed theatrically, but as she returned to her seat, she picked up the book.

Grappling is hard to quantify or qualify, but I saw Alma work through her frustration with this text, not by pushing it to the side, but by following it.  She followed the thread of “boring” topics throughout the book, eventually putting forth the argument (in a seminar discussion) that: “He’s saying that intelligent people are curious–that they are interested in things that other people aren’t, like ketchup.  He’s saying that if you look hard enough, everything is interesting.”

Later, she wrote a piece in which she defined intelligence as curiosity:

“There’s an idiom, ‘Curiosity killed the cat.’ It’s often said to people who are poking around in something that they shouldn’t be. However I think that the cat died for a great reason, he was looking for an answer. Yes, he did die but at least he never gave up. With curiosity comes great risk.”

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Throughout my inquiry work, I kept coming back to Alma’s experience as a touchstone.  She was close reading–she was making meaning of a text in a way that was not easy or simple.  I began to think that her discomfort, sighs and all, were an important part of the close reading process.

These examples show that close reading is student-driven, and involves grappling with the complexities of a text, not shying away from them.

Perhaps this is why many teachers find close reading so daunting to teach, because the act of teaching usually requires the teachers to drive the lesson, and to make tasks somewhat easier for students.  When teachers overstructure or overscaffold the task of close reading, students are not close reading at all.

This definition of close reading brings up several questions of practice for teachers

  • As teachers, how can we help students be comfortable with discomfort?
  • How can we measure and support grappling?
  • Howcan we provide tools to make something easier for students, when it is the very difficulty of close reading that defines it?
  • How can we lead students to creating their own original arguments about a complex text, not just mimicking their teachers’ readings?

For me, these were intimidating questions as I went into teaching close reading.

Leveled questions became my “happy medium”–my answer to what close reading “is” and how to teach it.  They allowed me to have some structure and support, but to leave the thinking to the students.  Leveled questions helped me find a way to acknowledge frustration, because students were able to ask questions about the things that bothered them about a text, and to support grappling, through seeking answers to those questions.  Teaching the skill of questioning allowed me to free myself of teaching the content of the text, and to make sure that students were leading discussions.

 The Close Reading Spectrum

Teachers might use a spectrum of close reading strategies, from teacher-driven to student-driven approaches

As professional development in the Common Core takes off, it is apparent that there are various definitions of close reading. The different methods of close reading espoused are so different that they amount to different practices that require different skills of students.  However, they could also be used not in isolation, but in concert, to gradually release students to independent close reading.  In my own research, I moved from asking text-dependent questions to supporting students in asking their own leveled questions, but I could potentially have deepened student understanding by using the other methods as well.

For me, Mills Teacher Scholars helped given me the time and support to figure out what this crucial skill of close reading meant cognitively, and how to support my students to analyze more deeply.  I was initially frustrated by the conflicting messages I was receiving about close reading, but my MTS research helped me realize that there is a debate happening, and brought me into this debate.  Now I will happily argue with anybody about what close reading really means.  My confusion and frustration have become my path and my argument, just as I have seen with my own students as they ask and investigate their own questions about texts,

Marguerite Sheffer teaches English 3, and AP English Literature and Composition at Castlemont High School in Oakland, where she is also the adviser to the Castle Crier.   She has been a member of Mills Teacher Scholars since 2012, and is also a BayArea Writing Project Teacher Consultant and member of OUSD’s Educating for Democracy in a Digital Age (EDDA) Initiative.