Practicing Close Reading to Inspire Social Action

Joan Flora and Pattie Sloan:  two teachers challenging the status quo

If you are familiar with Common Core reading standards, you probably already know–and maybe dread–standard #10: read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.

Fisher_&_Frey_Model_-_Structure_for_Instruction_that_WorksFor now, let’s think in progressions–leave off the “independently and proficiently” part for now; that’s our goal, not our starting point. Remember, too, the these standards are benchmarks for what students will know and be able to do by the end of 10th grade. We have time, but we need to get started now.

But which texts merit close, critical reading? We recommend you begin with less complex texts (think vocabulary, academic language, concepts) to build stamina and reading as thinking habits. We’ll address more complex texts in future posts; for now, we want to get good at progressions of text complexity and text difficulty (sentence structures).

Students won’t understand close, critical reading unless we teach it, so we think it’s vital that we understand how to teach it.  We don’t resort to simply assigning it and rewarding students who happen to already read analytically while accidentally teaching the rest of the class to hate close reading.  To ease the way, educators Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey and Diane Lapp share these guidelines for choosing a text for close study:

  • Select a short passage that is complex and worthy of study focus and time
  • Choose a section within a novel or another body of work that demands close reading for deep comprehension

In a sample lesson below, Fisher and Frey highlight Chief Joseph’s surrender speech, “I will Fight no More Forever.”  To understand the progressions of close, layered reading, follow these steps:

  • First reading: What does the text say?  This is the literal foundationScreen Shot 2014-10-11 at 6.24.00 AM
  • Second reading: How does the text work? Notice the structural features–how does the author communicate?
  • Third reading: What does the text mean? This is the inference layer, which is the heart and soul of reading for us.  Without this, we wouldn’t love reading and thinking about it. You may be tempted to  rush this part; don’t.  Your patience will pay off in rich classroom discussions and writing if you follow the text-dependent questions.  With time and consistency, your students gain stamina and strength to tackle this work independently.

Insist that students hold their thinking via notes, guiding students each step of the way–don’t just throw this list at them.  Slow down and do it with them; show them your notes for each layer.  Be patient.  Be zen.  This is teaching as art.

  • annotating_textAnnotate the text in the service of comprehension; this becomes students’ visible footprints of thinking and future evidence for discussions and writing
  • Underline major points
  • Circle key words  or phrases that are unknown or confusing (this helps students monitor their comprehension and stops them from saying, “I didn’t get it.  Fix it for me.”)
  • Write margin notes restating author’s ideas
  • Consider additional annotations for students, once they understand the process; add “customized” notes that correspond with the text.  For example, we like highlighters for Tracy Chapman’s song, “Fast Car,” marking evidence that indicates success for escaping poverty in one color and evidence that refutes success in a second color; look for facts vs. dreams.
  • Ask text-dependent questions (some literal, some structural, some inferential)—see progression of text-dependent questions chart above.
  • Give students a chance to struggle a bit—pause in disequilibrium to wrestle with problem-solving (aka thinking).  Use your teacher spidey sense to read the room, allowing students to think not sink into frustration and quitting.

Close reading of Chief Joseph’s surrender speech from Fisher and Frey:

  • Chief Joseph speech text-dependent questions via PowerPoint
  • Who is delivering the speech? What happened? (General understanding: what does the text say?)
  • What concerns does Chief Joseph have about the health and welfare of this his people? How do you know? (What does the text say? Key details)
  • What does Chief Joseph mean when he says, “From where the sun now stands?” (How does the text work? Figurative language)
  • What’s the tone of this speech?  What words and phrases support your claim? (How does the text work? Vocabulary)
  • How does the structure of the speech convey Chief Joseph’s mood? (How does the text work? Structure)
  • Consider this line: “I will fight no more forever.” What is it about the word “forever” that makes this statement so memorable? (How does the text work? Structure)
  • Who is Chief Joseph referring to in this line: “I want to have time to look for my children?  What other parts of the speech support your claim? (What does the text mean? Inferences)
  • Consider the second passage of his father’s deathbed plea (see PowerPoint above to access).  How does this help you better understand the speech?  What inner conflict would Chief Joseph have experienced?  Where do you find evidence of conflict in the speech? (What does the text mean? Inference)

Essay challenge:  What is the role of surrender?  After reading and discussing Chief Joseph’s speech, write an essay that defines courage and explains the courage of his decision to surrender.  Support your written discussion with evidence from the text.  What conclusions can you draw from this speech?

Watch Doug Fisher deliver this lesson to students:

Once students comprehend a short passage at a deep level, we find that they’re ready to move beyond the three steps of close reading into the fourth level of social action:

  1. Reading and re-reading with you as the tour guide
  2. Annotating the text to hold thinking
  3. Creating text-dependent questions (literal, structural, inferential)
  4. Paying attention to social action challenge–what does this text move us to do?

The fourth level of close reading is where your students will likely out-pace you in passion and energy.  You’ve empowered them with deep understanding of one worthy text.  Let them discuss and problem-solve disparities they discover in their lives.  We don’t have to tell them that authentic learning carries the responsibility of action–they’ll feel it.  We need to get out of their way to let them lead.

Meanwhile, you’ll be selecting the next worthy passage to study, repeating the steps above. We’re cheering you on and will post resource sites and strategies for worthy, short passages for future study.


Joan and Pattie

About Teaching it Forward

We are high school language arts teachers in Oregon.
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