Close Reading (aka Not Skimming)

by Lisa Hansel
February 11th, 2014

For a while now, I’ve been a little puzzled by this whole close reading thing. I’ve had a hard time telling the difference between reading and close reading. I’ve always gotten that there’s a continuum from skimming to reading, but isn’t all reading close? I mean, if you’re not paying attention, pulling the meaning from the text, noticing details (including inconsistencies), appreciating the word choices (at least in great works) and occasionally pausing to look things up, then you’re not really reading.

Today, while going through a great close reading lesson on “The Making of a Scientist” by Richard Feynman, I finally realized what the big to-do is. Close reading (aka, reading) is dramatically different from America’s beloved comprehension strategies. Finding the main idea merely requires skimming. Summarizing calls for identifying the key points, but it allows the reader to dismiss details. Making a prediction could be quite complex, but the way I’ve seen it used involves nothing more than a superficial grasp of the story line.

Close reading, in contrast, demands attention to every word. Here’s an example from the February 5, 2014, New York Times:

An Olympics in the Shadow of a War Zone

By Steven Lee Myers

BAKSAN, Russia — On Friday, exactly a week before the Olympics were set to open just 180 miles away, Russia’s security forces appeared on Makhov Street at 8:30 a.m. and cordoned off the area around a brick and stone house. One of the men inside called his father, who said it was the first he had heard from his son in 10 months.

“He said, ‘Papa, we’re surrounded,’ ” the father said. “ ‘I know they’re going to kill us.’ Then he said farewell.”…

For the first time in history, the Olympics are being held on the edge of a war zone. The conflict is one of the longest running in the world, a simmering, murky battle between increasingly radicalized militants who operate in the shadows of society and a security force that can be brutal, even when lethally effective.

The symbolic importance of the Games for Russia and for President Vladimir V. Putin has turned Sochi itself into a tantalizing target for Islamic terrorists who have vowed a wave of attacks to advance their goal of establishing an independent caliphate across the North Caucasus.

The threat has prompted the Kremlin to mount what officials and experts have described as the most extensive security operations in the history of sporting events, sealing off the city and conducting months of operations like the one here to crush militant cells across a region that stretches from Dagestan on the Caspian Sea to Sochi on the Black Sea, using tactics that critics say only fuel more violence….

Even if Russia succeeds in keeping Sochi safe, the violence is certain to grind on here in the Caucasus when international attention moves on, nurtured by the nihilistic ideology of the international jihad and punctuated by terrorist attacks outside the region that experts say Russia, like other countries, will never be able to prevent completely….

The level of violence has dropped significantly since tens of thousands died during Russia’s two wars against separatists in Chechnya, who once hoped the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 would clear the way for the republic’s independence. The second war, under Mr. Putin’s leadership, lasted 10 years, but it crushed the rebels and drove the Chechen rebel commanders underground or “into the forest.” There, they gradually turned the cause of Chechnya’s independence into a broader, more radical vision of holy war that has little popular support but has nonetheless attracted adherents across the region….

The terrorist cells are now so small and so deeply underground that they appear unable to undertake the sort of large-scale operations that seared Russia early in Mr. Putin’s rule, including the siege of a theater in Moscow in 2002 and a school in Beslan in 2004, both of which involved dozens of fighters….

As the attacks in Volgograd showed, the insurgents can still carry out spectacular and deadly suicide attacks against “soft” targets like trains, stations and buses, if not at will, then at least with appalling regularity. While attacks in the Caucasus often target Russian security operations, those outside appear intended to maximize terror by striking at civilians. That kind of attack, rather than one in Sochi itself, experts say, is more likely during the Olympics.

Alrighty, let’s apply some comprehension strategies.

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 wasn’t a useless exercise, but it sure left a lot of stones unturned. I did it by skimming. I would learn much more if I actually read the article—or, according to today’s jargon, if I read it closely. The difference is that to really read it, I have to get into all the details. You know, in there with the devil—in there with the things I don’t know enough about. And that means I have to look up some details. Drum roll: that means I’ll deepen and broaden my existing knowledge!

Here’s just a sample of the questions that would arise if I were reading this article closely with teenagers:

  • 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?

You get the idea. Now we’re not just finding the main idea of a newspaper article; we’re learning recent Russian history. And that, I whole heartedly support. We don’t read for the sake of summarizing or predicting plot twists; we read to learn. In our speed-obsessed world, maybe that does deserve a special name.

 

Sochi…is that in the Alps? (Photo of Sochi’s Red Meadow resort courtesy of Shutterstock.)

7 Comments »

  1. I still think “close reading” is inflationary. I believe “critical thinking” is, too. Either you are thinking or you are not. Educators are renowned for verbal inflation, sad to say. Or should I say really deeply shamefully sincerely sad to say? Not that I against more reading to learn things to think about, and even more——really sincerely serious deeper reading, I should perhaps say to educators.

    Will Fitzhugh
    fitzhugh@tcr.org

    Comment by Will Fitzhugh — February 11, 2014 @ 12:17 pm

  2. Close reading may or may not be inflationary, but anyone who has ever stood in front of a room with 35 8th and/or 9th graders will attest to the fact that there is a huge difference between reading and what kids of that age perceive as reading. If we need to talk about reading something closely in order to fully engage their minds in the enterprise, then, to quote Capt. Piccard, “Make it so.”

    Comment by Gene Williamson — February 11, 2014 @ 3:26 pm

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

    Pingback by Close reading vs. reading — Joanne Jacobs — February 13, 2014 @ 1:27 pm

  4. I disagree with the conclusion of this blog post. If “close reading” were actually as described here, then it would indeed be a worthwhile exercise. However, “close reading” as a literary analysis method (and certainly as the CCSS does it) specifically ignores background information and historical context, instead concentrating just on the words on the page. Lookup on YouTube the CCSS example lesson on the Gettysburg Address for a demonstration. This is a recipe for student boredom without much gain in enlightenment.

    Comment by Ben — March 5, 2014 @ 10:52 am

  5. I agree that Common Core shows the usual mad Progressive flight from academic subject matter into process, for which Pedagogy is all that is needed.

    Will Fitzhugh
    fitzhugh@tcr.org

    Comment by Will Fitzhugh — March 5, 2014 @ 11:56 am

  6. Hi Ben,

    I wholeheartedly agree with you and admit that I’m being a bit cute with the whole close reading debate.

    On this blog, E. D. Hirsch has discussed New Criticism (http://blog.coreknowledge.org/2013/04/05/how-two-poems-helped-launch-a-school-reform-movement/) and Mark Bauerlein has discussed “performance facility” (http://blog.coreknowledge.org/2013/12/16/strategies-for-third-graders-theories-for-graduate-students/), both of which devalue context and background knowledge.

    But as a person examining the standards—a person with more of a K-8 than higher-education focus—I have to say the standards themselves offer a lot of wiggle room for how to approach texts. A quick search shows that “close reading” is not in the standards.

    The standards say:

    “Students who meet the Standards readily undertake the close, attentive reading that is at the heart of understanding and enjoying complex works of literature. They habitually perform the critical reading necessary to pick carefully through the staggering amount of information available today in print and digitally. They actively seek the wide, deep, and thoughtful engagement with high-quality literary and informational texts that builds knowledge, enlarges experience, and broadens worldviews. They reflexively demonstrate the cogent reasoning and use of evidence that is essential to both private deliberation and responsible citizenship in a democratic republic.”

    “Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.”

    “By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas. Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades. Students also acquire the habits of reading independently and closely, which are essential to their future success.”

    There was quite an uproar when the Gettysburg Address lesson first came out. My understanding is that David Coleman has admitted that the lesson went too far in terms of not engaging in any pre-reading instruction (my understanding is entirely secondhand, see: http://www.edexcellence.net/commentary/education-gadfly-daily/common-core-watch/common-core-and-reading-which-one-of-these).

    My hope is that teachers will feel free to engage students in reading “closely” as a means of identifying opportunities for further learning.

    Comment by Lisa Hansel — March 5, 2014 @ 12:17 pm

  7. Lisa,

    Coleman’s backtracking was completely political. He only admits error when something gets enough press attention to potentially threaten the monster he’s built.

    CCSS represents only half of the actual standards — the Core-aligned tests represent the other half. I know from looking at other aspects of the standards that CCSS sometimes gives apparent flexibility that the tests then take away (by requiring one approach over all others).

    The soothing words from Appendix A of CCSS aside, there are too many people I trust who are saying that, in practice, these standards lead to a flavorless, cardboard version of textual analysis that leaves much to be desired.

    Comment by Ben — March 5, 2014 @ 4:15 pm

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