Digging Deeper without Digging Your Own Grave

Have you heard the buzzing bees of close reading in your district? Maybe they’ve already settled in and built their hives in your room?

Close reading has invaded my school and my practice, but with anything that’s newish and interesting, there’s backlash. I recently read an article in The Reading Teacher (Vol. 68, Issue 2) that tries to bring some perspective to the idea of digging into text and analyzing our lives away. In “What Counts as Evidence?” Katherine A. Dougherty Stahl talks about being careful not to use close reading “to suck the life from” the texts we read with our students. I agree.

I have been doing something like close reading since high school when I was analyzing figurative language and its meanings in AP English Literature. Common Core wasn’t a “thing” back then and my teachers weren’t trying some new method to get me more engaged in the texts we were reading. Literature criticism is just what you DO when you read literature in school. This is what I think back on when I plan lessons for my students. To me, close reading isn’t about understanding every little thing in the text and breaking it down further and further until I can’t see for the forest for the trees.

Close reading, to me, it a chance to explore the language and think about how it helps the read understand something in a new way. Dougherty Stahl agrees when she says that our units of study should focus on helping students “become better readers and thinkers.”

One fallback to using the text to support your answers is that it can sometimes only “require literal recall” and lead to “children resort[ing] to plucking words, phrases, or sentences from texts to satisfy the prompt.” But this just leads me to think about my questions. Am I asking questions that require students to use the evidence they find in new and interesting ways? Am I creating opportunities in which my students will be able to grow and think creatively?

At the beginning of the year, my students and I read a couple of articles on two different animals. The first was called “Tigers of the Night” from the 95% Group Comprehension Intervention program. The strategy we focused on while reading this article was questioning and we ended up with a lot of “right there” answers that didn’t require us to do a whole lot of deep thinking. We followed up this reading with an article called “Ever Wonder Why Zebras Have Stripes?”

While both articles talked about reasons for the animals to have their stripes, the reasons were, to fourth graders, unrelated. Tigers have stripes (according to the article) to hide from their prey, while zebras have stripes in order to camouflage themselves from the tsetse flies in their habitat. After looking at the evidence, the students decided that there were two reasons the stripes were similar: 1) both animals’ stripes were natural and 2) both animals’ stripe were helpful. We collected evidence in our graphic organizer and wrote a response.

The question required us to use direct evidence from the text, however, as opposed to just repeating evidence to answer a question, we thought deeply about the connections between the evidence we found and had to develop an answer that wasn’t explicitly written in the text. The question “require[d] children to make inferences” and “compose their own arguments.” The question forced students to use the evidence they found in a new way to present an idea that wasn’t clear in the text. This is the goal of close reading. We’re reading texts in a deliberate way in order to glean more than what is on the page and take our learning to the next level.

The article is basically telling us to teach with an eye beyond the text instead of being limited by it. I think we got scared when 'making connections' became passe, but really we're just honing in those skills and ensuring their thinking and connections are relevant.

In a cheesy way, we’re digging deeper in order to level up.

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