Close Reading: Learning to Live with it?

Close Reading: Learning to Live
with it?
P. David Pearson
UC Berkeley
• Get clear on what close reading is really
• Disabuse ourselves of the idea that close
reading = literal comprehension
• Champion the idea that close reading is
interrogating the text for specific purposes
• Work through some examples…
Toward Some Enduring
• Why would we ever want to read closely?
• What do we mean by it?
• Does it vary according to
– Genre
– Discipline
– Purpose of the reading
• Close reading was a reaction to the historicism
and psychoanalytic traditions of the 20s in
literary theory.
– Knowing what Keats had for breakfast won’t help you
understand Ode to a Grecian Urn
• New Criticism: I. A. Richards, William Empson,
Brooks and Warren: a rigorous objective method
for extracting the correct meaning of a text.
– (what does the text say?)
Close Reading in Reader Response:
• read through the text to its connections with
the reader, other books, history. (what does
the text mean?)
– Rosenblatt: close reading to transform the
meaning of a text according to each reader’s
– Fish: transform the meaning of a text according to
norms of a particular interpretive community
Close Reading in Critical Literacy
• Read through the text to its ideological
– (what does the text do?)
• Derrida: read closely to uncover a text’s
different, often contradictory, meanings
because words refer only to conceptual
systems of other words and not to fixed
meanings or external reality
• Get to the subtext…
A debunking of the idea that the meaning is in the text:
From one of the close reading heroes of the past:
Mortimer Adler—How to read a book
• And that is exactly what reading a book should be: a
conversation between you and the author. Presumably
he knows more about the subject than you do;
naturally, you'll have the proper humility as you
approach him. But don't let anybody tell you that a
reader is supposed to be solely on the receiving end.
Understanding is a two-way operation; learning doesn't
consist in being an empty receptacle. The learner has
to question himself and question the teacher. He even
has to argue with the teacher, once he understands
what the teacher is saying. And marking a book is
literally an expression of differences, or agreements of
opinion, with the author.
Definitions of Close Reading
• Mikics: To read closely is to investigate the
specific strength of a literary work in as many
details as possible. It also means
understanding how a text works, how it
creates its effects on the most minute level.
• Bialostosky: Reading with a productive
attentiveness to texts
• Berthoff: attending to the interplay of saying
and meaning
Rand 2000
What the
text says
What the
Reading Comprehension is the simultaneous
extraction and construction of meaning in
response to text.
I am 100% committed to the CCSS
• The 9 standards that define comprehension
are worthy of support
• But I take issue with some of the
implementation schemes.
Stay close to the text
• Staying close to the text. “Materials make the text
the focus of instruction by avoiding features that
distract from the text. Teachers’ guides or students’
editions of curriculum materials should highlight the
reading selections…Given the focus of the Common
Core State Standards, publishers should be extremely
sparing in offering activities that are not text based.”
My concern
• We will operationally define text dependent as literal, factual
• Forgetting that LOTS of other questions/tasks are also textreliant
• Compare
– What were two reasons pioneers moved west?
– What does the author believe about the causes
of westward
expansion in the United States?
– How valid is the claim that author X writes from an ideology of
manifest destiny?
• Fundamental misunderstanding about reading theory:
– Every action—critical, inferential, or literal—requires the use of
prior knowledge to carry it out…
Text before all else
“The Common Core State Standards call for
students to demonstrate a careful
understanding of what they read before
engaging their opinions, appraisals, or
interpretations. Aligned materials should
therefore require students to demonstrate that
they have followed the details and logic of an
author’s argument before they are asked to
evaluate the thesis or compare the thesis to
others.” (page 9)
My concern
• We will view literal comprehension as a prerequisite
to inferential or critical comprehension.
• Compare
– We could read text X. Then read text Y. Then
compare them on Z.
– Or just ask them to conduct a comparative reading
of X and Y on Z.
• Sometimes the comparison or critique question
better rationalizes the close reading
So what about Prior Knowledge
• Why has it taken a beating in the Publishers’ Criteria
• One thought: Too much Indulgence at the trough of
prior knowledge
– Too much Know, not enough Want to Learn and Learn
– Too much picture walk
– Too much story swapping about our experiences with
roadrunners before reading…
• Let’s right the wrongs
• Need a mid course correction not a pendulum swing
– Knowledge in proper perspective?
– Balanced view of knowledge?
– Knowledge in the service of understanding
• Embrace the virtuous cycle
– Knowledge begets text comprehension begets
• From the CCSS: 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 world views.
So what’s a body to do?
• Embrace the construct of close reading but with
BALANCE in mind…
– But make sure that it applies to several purposes for
• Reading to get the flow of ideas in the piece.
• Reading to enhance our knowledge base!!!!
• Reading to compare (with another text or body of
experience or knowledge
• Reading to critique
– how good is the argument or the craft or
– what is his bias/slant/perspective)
• All of these approaches interrogate the text as an
evidentiary base.
More a body can do…
• For the CCSS, Stay closer to the standards than to the interpretations
of the standards we have seen thus far.
• Enact a full model of close reading
– Four Resources works for me
– So does QAR
– Just make sure to encompass literal, interpretive, and
critical reading tasks
I like NAEP’s framework:
Locate and Recall
Integrate and Intepret
Critique and Evaluate
– See Schoenbach, Greenleaf, and XXXX: Reading for
My sure fire Close Reading Strategy
• What do you think?
• What makes you think so?
• All about warranting claims about what the text says,
means, or does...
• From Mary Uboldi at Healdsburg High School
Mr. Martin bought a pack of Camels on Monday night
in the most crowded cigar store on Broadway. It was
theatre time and seven or ten men were buying
cigarettes. The clerk didn’t even glance at Mr.
Martin, who put the pack in his overcoat pocket and
went out. If any of the staff at F&S had seen him buy
cigarettes, they would have been astonished, for it
was generally known that Mr. Martin did not smoke,
and never had. No one saw him.
What you think you
What in the text
makes you think so?
Series of slides on close reading
• 4 successive slides showing a short story with
different close reading routines.
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