Another Perspective on Close Reading, the English/Literacy Common Core State Standards, and Evidence-Based Explanations

Posted on May 7th, 2012, edited on May 16th, 2012 by Anthony Petrosky

Why are so many blog authors and talking heads acting as if aliens just dropped close reading into our lives? It's been a staple of academic studies for centuries. As a metaphor, it represents the myriad ways God's creatures pay attention. Many of these writers seem to be justifying what they—or the institutions they represent—have been asking students to do with reading selections for years as close reading, without actually paying attention to the specific types of close readings invited by the Common Core (CCSS) in English and literacy. One of the essays I read, "Send in the Clowns," makes a similar case. In response to the CCSS, vested interests have begun to create grand rationalizations for mapping and aligning their old stuff to the new CCSS.

Generally the old stuff asks students to identify and recognize correct answers to demonstrate their understandings, usually through short answer and multiple choice questions. The CCSS asks for some of that, for sure, but at their heart, they ask students to articulate their understandings in talk and writing. And they go one step farther. They ask students to cite evidence and to explain how that evidence supports their understandings. These requests are requests for close reading.

So why do these bloggers and talking heads think they have to tell English teachers what close reading is? English teachers spend large chunks of their lives deconstructing reading selections into sentences, paragraphs, and chapters to tell each other what they mean as they muster evidence for claims and explanations and interpretations. Maybe they've forgotten? Or maybe they've been led astray by the personal connection gnomes, those folks who believe reading is primarily an occasion for readers to talk about their grandmothers when they read an essay in which the word "grandmother" appears?

Evidence-based explanations and arguments grounded in close readings are essential to academic work in the disciplines at all levels of education. Through the Institute for Learning (IFL) at the Learning Research Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh, about twenty of us work with teachers and administrators in large urban districts. We promote disciplinary literacy—approaches to teaching and learning that locate literacy in the disciplines.

Each discipline has its particular ways of reading and talking and writing. All disciplines, though, take various versions of evidence-based explanations and arguments as essential to the development of cases, generalizations built on cases, and theories cobbled together from generalizations and cases. Evidence-based studies build their credibility on close reading of such things as texts, details in paintings, empirical data, movements in dance, and so on.

Lately most of our requests at IFL are to help district leaders, curriculum specialists, and teachers align their curricula or design new curricula for the CCSS with particular emphasis on close reading. Their ideas about close reading come primarily from a set of exemplars developed by David Coleman, Meredith and David Liben, and others from Student Achievement Partners for such eminent selections as "The Gettysburg Address," "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave," and "Farewell to Manzanar." These exemplars circulate widely, and it seems that everyone wants students to be asked the kinds of questions used in these exemplars and in the manner in which they are used.

Broadly speaking, these exemplars ask readers to say what they think particular words, sentences, or chunks of sentences mean in the order in which they appear in reading selections. Two engines drive the work—the linearity of the selections and text-specific questions designed to prompt readers to think about what the words and sentences mean. It is a familiar form of close reading to academics that focuses readers on questions specific to the text being studied. Unfortunately, many people in the districts in which we work believe that this IS close reading, that these singular examples (they are all quite similar) stand for close reading when actually these exemplars stand for a particular kind of close reading in a larger repertoire.

When I went through the exemplars for the Lincoln selection, following the questions, answering them as I moved along in my second reading, I became preoccupied with the sense that the local questions, as good as they are, didn't ask me to think about the big questions, the central ideas.

Did I need to answer the local questions one after another, I asked myself, in order to think about the central idea? Couldn't I read for the central ideas and then analyze the selections for evidence of those ideas in the sentences? Couldn't I begin, for instance, by thinking about what Lincoln is saying in this speech? What are his central ideas? What is his purpose? And how, I wondered, does he so masterfully use rhetoric to advance his purpose? Why, I wondered, wouldn’t a study of this speech begin by posing these larger grained questions and then move to close readings of the selections to answer them?

Close readings can ask readers to study selections in a linear fashion sentence-by-sentence or section-by-section, but they also can ask readers to study selections for such things as their central ideas, themes, and purposes. The key, no matter how close readings proceed, is that readers pay attention to sentences and paragraphs as they develop evidence to respond to others’ or their own questions. Close readings really grow a habit of mind, a way of studying that rubs readers' thinking up against sentences and paragraphs to gather and shape evidence-based talk and writing.

By giving us exemplars of this particular kind of close reading, Student Achievement Partners has done two important things. First, they've showed us the possibilities for one approach to close reading. For those us who don't know that such an approach exists or might be useful to students at various points in their studies, that's helpful. But I couldn’t help thinking that in the hands of a teacher determined to march students question-after-question through the literal meanings of Lincoln's sentences, settling for answers from single students in front of a whole class, this approach could be deadly.

Second, Student Achievement Partners helped refocus us on the importance of text-based questions, and they've opened up this national conversation about close reading. That's valuable, because it allows us to imagine once again that sentences do have meanings and that interpretations of texts build their believability and credibility on evidence from the text. This kind of close reading brings readers into sentences and various sized chunks of texts as an antidote for those readings that ask us whether we can recall moments from our lives when we have been at funerals listening to speeches like Lincoln's. It provides readers with fine grain practice in the comprehension of words and sentences.

I worry though that these exemplars, parts of the whole picture of close reading, have become the whole picture for many people. From a policy perspective, it looks as though they filled a need for information and examples even though they were never intended as the be-all and end-all of close reading. The other thing I worry about is that these exemplars have become disassociated from the standards as they are imagined and reimagined by others in states and districts.

The standards promote a range of types of studies of complex selections both fiction and nonfiction while insisting that all such readings be grounded in textual evidence. It would be helpful to see, for instance, sets of questions in exemplars that bring readers to talk and write about the central ideas of Lincoln's speech and his uses of rhetoric.

In order to answer questions on Lincoln's central ideas in his speech, a reader would still have to dig into the sentences, cite evidence from across the speech on his or her way to making a case, to explain how that evidence contributes to the case, and finally to pull it all together into an explanation of the central ideas. A reader would have to work in the same way to cite and explain Lincoln's masterful uses of rhetoric as they contribute to his central ideas.

If I think about the study of a whole book, To Kill a Mockingbird for instance, questions about the grain size of close readings and the length of the reading selection come into play. I could not imagine working through this book sentence-by-sentence, or chapter-by-chapter to answer literal questions (actually I can because that's how one of my sons learned to hate reading in middle school), but I could imagine asking for close readings of words and sentences as part-and-parcel of studies that focus on the development of central ideas and characters as the book progresses. If after such studies, I then pose, for example, a larger grain interpretive question as to who might be the mockingbird in the book, I am still asking for a close reading that requires evidence-building and case-making. The difference now, though, is that I’m asking a close reading question of a larger grain size and of a novel that requires responses built from evidence throughout the book.

Imagine for a moment doing a linear sentence-by-sentence reading of one of my favorite philosophical essays, Immanuel Kant's Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics. A reader interested in metaphysics or Kant could take months with this kind of linear reading, but I also can imagine other readers who would benefit from a larger grain reading that focuses them on Kant's central ideas.

Different types of close readings serve different purposes in the repertoire of such studies. My argument is that readers benefit from regularly practicing the repertoire rather than from doing one kind of reading over and over.

The exemplars of a particular kind of close reading, in other words, have a place in a repertoire of types of close readings, but they do not represent the totality of close reading no matter how people interpret and position them. It's unfortunate when influential people in states and districts promote them as the kinds of instruction that must occur.

The approaches in these exemplars won't work, for example, with whole books or even with long essays, but the underlying technique of focusing readers on words and sentences when necessary or appropriate can be used as part-and-parcel of larger grain studies of books and longer complex texts. That's the important lesson we need to learn from these exemplars.

These exemplars of this linear close reading, in my view, need to be situated in a bigger picture. To be fair, no one at Student Achievement Partners advocates these as the only approach to reading, and they are careful to say that such readings should be distributed over time and across subjects. And of course, as I've been arguing, there are times when we'd want to direct our attention to fine grain close readings of sentences and chunks of sentences in essays and books exactly as they appear in these exemplars.

But I also think that there’s an argument for fine grain close readings being used as well in a steady diet of studies when appropriate or necessary with words, sentences, and paragraphs in selections of various lengths embedded in units of study that focus on a broad range of standards.

That's because I'm a fan of learning repertoires rather than singularities. When readers work with a repertoire of text-based studies, the grain size of the close readings can be adjusted by the kinds of questions being asked and the standards being enacted by those questions.

I might still ask students to study the Lincoln speech the way it's presented in the exemplar, but I'd be careful to situate it for them as an exercise with a specific purpose, and I’d plan to connect their study of that speech to others in a coherent unit focused more broadly on the themes, ideas, and rhetoric of those speeches. I'd do this, as I've been saying, because we almost always read sentences to get to the big ideas of selections and because repertoires of approaches provide students with more tools than singular approaches.

When it comes to close readings, grain size matters. The length and complexity of selections also matter. And everyone benefits from a repertoire of close reading approaches, especially when the standards ask for close readings to determine such larger grain things as central ideas, themes, structures, points of view, author's purpose, use of rhetoric, and tracing arguments.