If This Is Close Reading, Count Us Out

Dan Willingham recently addressed close reading in a column at Real Clear Education, in which he noted that ““Close reading” has become strongly associated with the Common Core State Standards, as it’s touted as the reading technique that will allow students to get out of texts what they are meant to (and hence, score well on Common Core-aligned assessments).”

Willingham’s commentary focuses on close reading treating texts as if they are self-contained, ultimately concluding:

Still, it seems a valid question to ask whether this artificial type of reading is likely to be useful in students’ ongoing work in and out of the classroom. Except in very restricted academic settings — that is, among people who like close reading — it’s not obvious to me how this sort of reading will serve students well.

Careful study of language, focus on the author’s words, assumption that rereading pays off: yes. Excluding knowledge outside of the text: no.

So I was interested to find a video and other materials on close reading in an online collection of professional development materials meant to assist teachers in implementing the Common Core. Unfortunately, user agreements for that collection prohibit sharing of those materials on any other websites. Fortunately, the owners of the video have also made it available on YouTube, making it possible to share it with you here.

This video shows portions of a lesson devoted to a close reading of the story of the inventors of Magic Rocks. Comments during the lesson, and in the companion video showing the class during an earlier close reading lesson (embedded below), indicate that the students have been closely reading a series of stories on the inventors of toys including Silly Putty, Twister, Lego, Mr. Potato Head, and Slinky. Students are apparently (according to the companion video) supposed to be determining “what character traits are essential to being an inventor” in addition to using their close reading skills.

I don’t disagree with Willingham’s conclusion above that there are problems with treating texts as self-contained and, as I was reviewing the videos, I was particularly struck by this image from the first video:

close reading unknown words

Although the teacher acknowledges the use of background knowledge during several points in these videos, these students are not being directed to use dictionaries (or glossaries, for that matter) to determine the meaning of unknown words (perhaps because they exist outside of the text?). This strikes me, as a person who still keeps dictionaries conveniently located near the places I tend to sit and read, as an enormous disservice to these students. This disservice is evident in the second video (1:34 to 4:33) in which the teacher pretends not to understand the word stabilizing but guesses at its meaning through the root “sta-” meaning to stand or to stay and the reading of several more sentences of the text indicating that ships pitch, plunge, and rock every which way. It is also evident in the nonsensical discussion she has with a student in the first video (beginning at 1:10) in which she leads the child to explain that he has determined that the word composition (used in the phrase “chemical composition”) means formula because the other words nearby include “study” and “microscope.” Umm, obviously.

In any case, skilled use of a dictionary could resolve the matter of unknown words in short order while the students could be reminded to use context to choose which definition of a word the author meant (see, for example, the use of the word “pitch” above).

But these videos raise other issues for me as well.

First, if reading logs didn’t already make your child think reading is a tedious chore, close reading just might convince them. My eight year old couldn’t look away from the first video but also commented throughout, “I could not go to that school. It is like a meeting, a boring meeting.”

Second, the fact that the students in these videos appear to be absolutely engaged by close reading seems to me to be a testament to the capacity of many children to be compliant. But these children are engaged with the close reading of what strikes me as absolutely trivial material. Multiple class periods devoted to the study of toy inventors is a waste of instructional time that could be devoted to much less trivial content. This is a real problem when skills are elevated over content. It may also be a sign of disrespect to child readers, who may have been assumed to be incapable of interest in more substantial topics in history, including the biographies of inventors whose inventions have substantially affected human history and/or civilization.


5 thoughts on “If This Is Close Reading, Count Us Out

  1. FedUpMom

    It is just shocking to see the kind of clueless garbage that people think is appropriate teaching. Why would anyone think this kind of meta-meta-meta analysis is helpful for 4th graders? They call it “close reading” but it’s not even about understanding the text — it’s about analyzing your analysis of the text. In short, it’s nuts. I’m just hoping I can get my younger child through school before this nonsense takes hold.

  2. Pingback: Reading Requires Outside Knowledge | Truth in American Education

  3. Mrs. B

    I have a 10th grader who reads well above grade level and has been an avid reader since the age of 5. His English teacher this year is making them annotate novels to death to the point it is making him hate reading. When I brought up at conferences that he was smart and would take notes when he needed, why should he be forced to annotate and have a certain number per page, etc., she said that was how she chose to teach the Core’s “Close Reading.” BOOO

  4. FedUpMom

    I was thinking some more about the refusal to just use a dictionary. I think the reason for this is that they’re replicating the conditions of testing here. You don’t get to use a dictionary or thesaurus when you’re taking standardized tests, so they won’t encourage it during “close reading” time. The purpose of this rigmarole is to prepare the kids to take standardized tests, where chunks of text are shown completely isolated from any context, and the kids have to find answers in the text itself.

    1. Karen W Post author

      Thanks for the comments, FedUpMom. I find the idea that “close reading” is meant to replicate testing conditions thoroughly depressing.

      Your comment reminded me of Peter Greene’s comments about the Common Core and testing:

      The Test is not there to measure the outcome of the Standards. The Standards are there to facilitate preparation for the test. They are not designed to answer the question “What would a great education look like.” They are designed to answer the question, “What will be on the test? What must your students do to prove to the People In Charge that you are doing a good job?”

      Ugh. I’d much rather be talking about “what would a great education look like.” I’d like to think a great education would avoid making reading an unpleasant chore.

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