A literacy topic that has been gaining traction in many schools across the country is close reading. Why is close reading important? What texts should you choose to implement close reading? What happened when I tried close reading in my classroom? Let’s dive in and splash around in close reading!

The Case for Close Reading

Teachers have always wanted students to understand what they read. But now, particularly with the implementation of new, rigorous standards in many states, text complexity is becoming more important. Students, beginning in kindergarten, are expected to make sense of complex texts at increasingly deep levels. But fear not: with proper scaffolds built in, most students can access complex texts.

Enter close reading. Close reading is not, as I used to remind my students, reading with a book held right in front of your face. It is, rather, the practice of reading and re-reading complex texts, or portions of texts, to extract as much meaning from them as possible. Just as each ocean wave brings ashore new and more beautiful treasures, each repeated reading of a text reveals new and more meaningful understandings in students’ minds.

Each repeated reading of a text reveals new and more meaningful understandings in students’ minds.

Close reading empowers us as teachers to choose texts that we are passionate about sharing and that are meaningful for our students. It also allows us to develop questions that help students understand what is important about the texts.

students reading books

Selecting the Right Text: It’s Up to You, So Be Creative!

The first thing to consider when planning a close reading lesson may be the most obvious—what are we going to read? Choosing texts to read with my students was one of my favorite tasks as a teacher. Despite teaching in a school district that used a basal reader program, I never forgot about the wide ocean of authentic literature and compelling non-fiction that was within my grasp—it’s within yours, too.

You don’t need a large classroom library or sets of leveled texts to implement close reading. Have you always wanted to read a particular novel with your class, but don’t have enough time (or copies of the book for each student)? Borrow one from the library, make copies of a favorite scene, and take the plunge. Have you fallen behind in science, social studies, or health? Splash around in challenging chapters or sections from your textbooks. Have you found some interesting articles on topics that resonate with your students? Paddle your way through them together.

In close reading, students wade through deeper, complex texts together, with the support of each other and their teachers.

The point is, you can use your close reading time to have students test the waters with beloved stories and poems, make sense of subject-area content, or read articles that pair with topics or issues you are studying. You can use whole texts, excerpts, or even just single paragraphs.

With close reading, you don’t have to worry about finding different versions of texts to accommodate the various reading levels that may exist in your classroom. Opportunities to address individual learning needs will occur during questioning and small group work. Small children first wade into shallow water clutching the hand or leg of a parent. In close reading, students wade through deeper, complex texts together, with the support of each other and their teachers.

Tale from the Trenches

When I taught fifth grade, I wanted to expose my students to more primary source texts to complement our social studies curriculum. I stumbled across The American Heritage Book of Great American Speeches for Young People, edited by Susan McIntire, which contains speeches by men and women from various periods in our nation’s history. We had read a bit about the Jamestown settlement in our social studies textbook, so I was delighted to discover that the first speech in the book was by the leader of the Powhatan tribe, Chief Wahunsonacock. The Powhatan played a critical role in the survival of the Jamestown settlers. I was so excited to have my students read a text written from the perspective of the Powhatan in the words of their leader. The speech was written in 1609, but after repeated readings, shared annotations, and focused vocabulary study (more on these steps later), even my struggling readers gained meaning from it.

The choppy waters of complex texts can seem vast and deep, but with the right supports, we can guide students to sail successfully across these seas.

More on Close Reading

This article is first in a series on close reading. Learn more about how to plan close reading lessons for your classroom by digging into the series:

  1. Diving In to Close Reading
  2. How to Find “Goldilocks” Texts for Close Reading Lessons
  3. How to Design Questions for Deep Understanding in Close Reading
  4. Act I of Close Reading: What the Text Says
  5. Act II of Close Reading: How the Text Works
  6. Act III of Close Reading: What the Text Means
  7. 15 Interventions for Close Reading Lessons