Slow Sprints: Close Reading, Pt. 2

By Joan Flora and Pattie Sloan

In Part One of Close Reading, we focused on Think Aloud Strategies to help students become aware of their thinking and how to build on-going Think Aloud sessions into your classrooms.

tortoisePeriodically, we slow the pace of our students’ thinking down.  We want to help them capture their thinking as much as possible as they concentrate on a text, but we do the same process for non-print material, too.  And with any good practice, we think less is more–less text, less task, and reasonable repetition because it’s too easy to kill reading and learning with over-teaching.  We think slow sprints answer a mighty call.

So what exactly is close reading?  First of all, it’s not new; it was a movement from the ’40s for poetry analysis and synthesis.  If you’re not sure how to facilitate close reading for literature, we suggest Note and Notice:  Strategies for Close Reading by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst.  But you could also trust your teacher Spidey Sense and focus on key vocabulary and how a few choice words are shaped by context or how levels of meaning change as short passages are read multiple times.  Teacher extraordinaire, Carol Jago, suggests these three basic moves:

  • First reading: What the text is literally about.  What claim is the writer making?  Why is this text titled “Name of Text”?  What are some of the supporting details?
  • Second reading: How the author says it (analyze content).  How does the writer appeal to logic, emotions, and / or ethics?
  • Third reading: Evaluate the quality and value of a text. Compare with other texts (analyze message / compare / contrast thinking).  Why does it matter?

Depending on our students’ stamina and text experience, we may dwell in the first move for 2-3 draft readings.  Much of our class time is spent on the first two moves of Jago’s framework.  We’d save the third move after we’ve built trust and endurance–we’d also add text structure to this move (we feel a future post coming on).

We like short non-fiction to begin our work with close reading.  This one was for a developmental high school reading class (striving readers):

Meet Synthia, from Muse Magazine

Research Craig Venter has an ambitious goal: he wants to create life from scratch.  Although he’s not quite there yet, his team recently reached a new milestone by creating an organism nicknamed Synthia.

To build Synthia, researchers first strung together long pieces of DNA to make a shutterstock_4430164_2_2genome more than a million letters long.  (They didn’t write the genome’s code themselves–they used the genome of an already-existing bacterium, with a few tweaks.)  Then they inserted the new genome into another bacterium that they’d emptied of its usual genes.

The stitched-together genome successfully “booted up” in its host cell.  Ventor who is calling his creation “synthetic life,” hopes to eventually create customized microbes that can be used for biofuels or other helpful products.

This 125 word passage kept Joan’s students engaged for 20 minutes:

First Move: we read it aloud (a student did this for the class, but it wasn’t a cold read; he’d worked one-on-one with CHS’s miracle-working literacy educator, Marie Schmieding, to work out a fluent reading the day before.  He also confided that he’d practice his reading at home).

Second move: students read it silently.  We spent about five minutes on unknown words: milestone, tweaks, customized.  Students knew the technical terms enough to get the gist of the piece (they’d just studied these concepts in their life sciences class).  Technical comprehension wasn’t my point in using this piece; if it were, we wouldn’t have picked it for a close reading exercise for frustrated high school readers.

Third move:  Why is this piece titled “Meet Synthia?”  Students read the piece again, capturing their thinking with a one-minute essay.  Then they compared answers and evidence with partners.  Joan listened closely–lots of theories: it’s a tribute to someone Venter loves; the scientists like that name; it sounds like a robot name; people like weird names.  Joan advised them to stay within the text; don’t bring too much into it.  What is the text literally about?  Finally, a student landed it: “Synthetic life, Synthia.  It’s a joke for nerds.”

One small step for teacher; one giant leap for students.

Here’s another sample for typically achieving high school students:

Rewarding Integrity, from The Week Magazine

Kudos to an honest homeless man in Kansas City, mainly because he doesn’t want any kudos.

Billy Ray Harris last month found that someone had dropped a diamond ring in his collection cup. Sarah Darling forgot she had placed the engagement ring in her coin purse because it was chafing her finger, and then dumped the contents of the purse into the cup.

Billy-Ray-Harris_2492678bWhen Darling realized her mistake, she returned the next day and found Harris. He had been keeping the ring for her.

To thank him, Darling and her husband set up an online fundraiser for Harris. The donations exceeded $167,000 as of earlier this week. Harris will get the money at the end of a 90-day campaign.

Harris, while grateful, says: “I don’t think I deserve it. What I actually feel like is, ‘What has the world come to when a person who returns something that doesn’t belong to him and all this happens?’” So Harris wants no kudos for his honesty. Perhaps he’ll take them for his wisdom.

  • What the article literally says:

(students list 3-4 points)

What the article doesn’t say(students list 2-3 points)
We add to our lists as people share their thinking

On the back of this paper, write a one-paragraph response to Harris’ quote:  “What I actually feel like is, ‘What has the world come to when a person who returns something that doesn’t belong to him and all this happens?’”

This short text, 171 words, took about 30 minutes to do in class.  We discussed students’ unclear words: integrity, kudos, chafing, campaign;  students added margin notes to hold their thinking on those words.  Students re-read, as needed, to list what the text literally said and what the text implied, or what it didn’t explicitly say.  Before writing a response to Harris’ quote, students shared their lists of “what the article says / what the article doesn’t say.”  After writing for 5-7 minutes, a few students read their responses to the class, and the students discussed their thinking about the article and its implications.

The eventual goal of close readings is to move students to independence where they practice slow reading moves automatically with increasingly challenging texts.  After 3-4 weeks of in-class close readings for typical learners, flip this to homework and have students discuss their thinking in small groups in class.  As a reading specialist, Joan urged teachers in her building to offer one close read per week so students could experience 3-4 close reads across the curriculum in various content areas.

Want more moves?  Read What Students Can do When Reading Gets Tough by Sunday Cummins (cool name, btw).

Next week, we’ll go into our third big move with close reading: discussion.

Still here?

Here’s a great example of a non-print think-aloud by Marsha Hill (about 3 min. long):


About Teaching it Forward

We are high school language arts teachers in Oregon.
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3 Responses to Slow Sprints: Close Reading, Pt. 2

  1. Pingback: Making Huck Finn Relevant to Disengaged Readers | Teaching it Forward

  2. Pingback: Floating on a Sea of Talk: Close Reading #3 | Teaching it Forward

  3. Pingback: Slow Sprints: Close Reading, Pt. 2 | Teaching it Forward

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