A Close Look At Close Reading

Learning is not done to you, it is something you choose to do.

~ Seth Godin , “Stop Stealing Dreams”


David Coleman and other proponents of close reading clearly don’t have respect for students or the learning process.

Common Core’s emphasis on deep analysis of text and close reading is an inappropriate and misguided approach to reading instruction that will discourage and dispirit many students.

“…A first reading is about figuring out what a text says. It is purely an issue of reading comprehension. Thus, if someone is reading a story, he/should be able to retell the plot; if someone is reading a science chapter, he/she should be able to answer questions about the key ideas and details of the text…

However, close reading requires that one go further than this. A second reading would, thus, focus on figuring out how this text worked. How did the author organize it? What literary devices were used and how effective were they?…

Finally, with the information gleaned from the first two readings, a reader is ready to carry out a third reading—going even deeper. What does this text mean? What was the author’s point? What does it have to say to me about my life or my world? How do I evaluate the quality of this work—aesthetically, substantively?…

Thus, close reading is an intensive analysis of a text in order to come to terms with what it says, how it says it, and what it means. In one sense I agree with those who say that close reading is about more than comprehension or about something different than comprehension…”

Shanahan on Literacy: “What is Close Reading?” 6/18/12

David Coleman has been promoting and “selling” the Common Core as new and improved learning standards that will prepare all students for college and careers in the 21st century, when close reading, the cornerstone of the ELA Standards, is a 20th century approach to learning and reading instruction.

“Now, it appears, Coleman wishes to impose his own high academic standards on students from kindergarten to high school. Moreover, he has a very deliberate approach to learning, and to reading in particular. He embraces what in the 1940′s and 1950′s was called New Criticism, a movement in U.S. universities that emphasized sticking tenaciously to the text of whatever one is reading.

In other words, all discussion in a classroom about a particular text needs to be based on the text itself (or, alternatively, needs to be compared to another text). New Criticism cautions the reader not to go beyond the text to consider, for example, the biography of the author, the social or historical period in which he/she was writing, or, for that matter, even one’s own personal feelings, attitudes, and experiences in relation to the text.

As Coleman famously stated at an April, 2011 presentation for educators sponsored by the New York State Department of Education: “no one gives a shit what you feel or what you think [about the text you are reading].” He doesn’t want students to take what they are reading and connect it to their own lives, or describe how they feel about what they’re reading”

Thomas Armstrong, “Architect of New National Curriculum: Power in The Hands of One” 9/28/12

Employers do not expect their workers to close read text in most cases, just comprehend it. Employees applying the close reading strategy in a fast paced and competitive business environment will most likely lose a client, an account, and even their job.

The Common Core cultivates compliant and close reading students who take tests, while many employers desire creative learners and confident problem solvers who don’t hesitate to take action.

Close reading enthusiasts claim that all students, regardless of individual ability or disability, will not be ready for college and career until they can independently “dive into” and master complex informational text, with limited or no prior knowledge. 

This claim defies logic as they would have parents and teachers believe that college students and employees do not have access to their classmates, co-workers, supervisors, a dictionary, a thesaurus, audio books, a Smartphone and other assistive technology devices that support weaker and learning disabled readers.

Close reading supporters claim that the ability to painstakingly deconstruct and dissect authentic text and passages that are “rich and worthy of close reading” is essential for the workplace while the vast majority of department memos, company directives, monthly reports, and business correspondence require reading comprehension skills.

Close reading advocates claim the strategy will cultivate essential and widely used college and workplace literacy skills, yet the reading strategy requires students to “discuss what the author is “up to” and demonstrate that they “understand how an author builds and shapes meaning through their craft and structure.”

Do close reading evangelists really envision an employee responding, when called upon for his or her recommendations regarding the current quarterly sales report…

“Well I’m not really sure if this data is good news or bad news because I did not read the previous quarterly report as that would be providing context and using prior knowledge to help me understand this month’s report, and I will need a little more time to go through this report because I am still dissecting the craft and structure of the introductory paragraph and haven’t even started to deconstruct the remaining text and determine what the author is up to.”

The Common Core are a contrived set of learning standards promoted by David Coleman to prepare our students for his ideal and imaginary world without reading disabilities, where all knowledge is derived from close reading text and the answers to all problems are text-based.


20 thoughts on “A Close Look At Close Reading

  1. Why would students care about a close test? What would motivate them to do well on it? Reading will improve naturally if the students are given the right encouragement and tools for discussion of materials they are interested in, materials they choose as being relevant..

  2. John – First, I’m having a hard time with any sweeping, antagonistic claims such as your opening line about people who support close reading not having respect for students. Truthfully, I’d counter that believing in students and working with students so that they learn the skills associated with close reading is a tremendous sign of respect for their abilities and capacities. The Common Core is not New Criticism. Nowhere does it push not including cultural, philosophical, biographic, or historical context. In fact, it’s the first set of standards – outside of IB – that I know of to explicitly include science and social studies as literacy heavy topics, even though both always have been so. I fully agree about his unfortunate statement concerning people not caring what others think or feel, but I also believe this to be poor marketing, not poor reading strategy. Reader’s response, the idea that substantiates students too-long-standing belief that “It’s what I feel this is about. It’s my opinion, and you can’t mark me wrong for it.” is such a tired and often troublesome method of reading that’s been in our schools – and culture – for too long. Yes, you can feel however you’d like and have whatever opinion you’d like about something. Go ahead. We shouldn’t, though, be teaching students to think like that. They should be forming ideas and emotions based on evidence, informed by authors’ words and craft.
    I don’t know if your issue is that using evidence from the text is wrong or that it’s too boring, tedious, and/or difficult for students and people to do?

    I’m not sure how to respond to the second half of this post, about losing one’s job, and that closing reading is only about test taking other than to say that its exaggerations don’t help me understand your issues with close reading. I get that we need to fix the method(s) of testing inside of NCLBs and RTTTs mandates, but I’m not sure how that’s the fault of an evidence-based reading strategy. If anything, it’s the result of too many people saying: “I feel test-based accountability will improve schools” without looking into any of the reports’ evidence.

    • Thanks for reading and the reply David. The comment regarding lack of respect was directed primarily at people who would support the close reading approach that is modeled in the Coleman video and the words “don’t have respect” are a link back to the video to stress that point.

      You may disagree, but I believe telling students they cannot break away from the text to discuss related/contemporary issues, they shouldn’t ask questions, and just skip over the words you don’t understand is disrespectful.

      One speaker in the video claims “good” readers do this automatically, which is very different from teenagers who are still learning to read challenging text.

      I do not believe telling weaker and disabled readers to skip words they don’t understand is an effective strategy to improve reading skills.

      This is a slippery slope when it comes to adolescents, even more capable readers who are not interested in the reading and lack motivation will avoid and skip terms they do not initially understand.

      I do believe the speakers in the video have more admiration and respect for the “rich and worthy” text they are discussing, than for students and the needs of diverse learners.

      As far as my comment regarding employment, the vast majority of occupations require students to read material once, comprehend it, and take action.

      Close reading is much more time consuming, involves multiple reads, getting inside the head of the author, and spending days discussing, deconstructing, and dissecting the text.

      This is not a transferable work-based skill and in many careers and vocational situations, employees will lose their job if they devote this much time to reading text.

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  15. The problem with close reading and indeed the entire Common Core is that everything is labeled K-12. That’s a tremendous range to claim expertise on; what is appropriate for a teenager is not appropriate for an elementary level student. My first graders are just learning to read words and are not developmentally ready to take on the demands of closely reading a text. It’s absurd. And yet, it goes on in the NYC schools every day. Google Ready Gen and you will see. It’s the most awful part of my day.

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