You Oughta Know About...Designing a Close Reading

April 04, 2015


Close reading is not a new strategy, but seems to be a buzz word these days thanks to the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers). If you think close readings aren't essential practice in any subject, think again. According to the PARCC, "a significant body of research links the close reading of complex text—whether the student is a struggling reader or advanced—to significant gains in reading proficiency and finds close reading to be a key component of college and career readiness."

So now you are freaking out because the PARCC is endorsing close readings (and they pretty much run the education world these days, along with Charlotte Danielson) and you aren't doing them and you aren't even sure you know how. Relax. All will be well. I will explain everything you oughta know about designing a close reading.

The first step to designing a close read is to pick a short, rich text. It could be a non-fiction article, a short story, a poem, or a page or two from a novel. It could even be a graphic or info graphic. The genre and type of text don't matter as long as the length is manageable, a page or two would be my recommendation, although there is probably a more specific research based length.

Even more important than keeping it short is the depth of the text. How do you know if the text is deep enough? The PARCC tells us students should be "engaging with a text of sufficient complexity directly and examining meaning thoroughly and methodically, reading and rereading deliberately. This attention to the text itself empowers students to understand the central ideas and key supporting details. It also enables students to reflect on the meanings of individual words and sentences; the order in which sentences unfold; and the development of ideas over the course of the text, which ultimately leads students to arrive at an understanding of the text as a whole." 

To break that down, consider the following questions: Would students gain better understanding and greater meaning from reading the text multiple times? Are there multiple possible interpretations of statements made by the author? Is there challenging vocabulary students would have to use context clues to determine the meaning of?  Can students identify a series of causes and effects? Are there enough details for students to determine a theme? Will students be able to make inferences or draw conclusions based on character description? Can the author's word choice be examined for meaning and purpose? For me, it's bonus points if the text sparks conversation or debate among students or leaves them wondering. If you aren't answering yes to many of those questions, then the text you are looking at probably isn't worth a close read.

Once I have selected a text worthy of a close reading, I think about the text-dependent questions I will ask that will require students to dig deeply into the text. Using an excerpt from "The Family of Little Feet," a vignette from The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, I will first give some examples of questions that don't require true close reading or critical thinking (some non-examples) and then examples of questions that do.

Excerpt:
Do you want this? And gave us a paper bag with one pair of lemon shoes and one red and one pair of dancing shoes that used to be white but were now pale blue. Here, and we said thank you and waited until she went upstairs.

Hurray! Today we are Cinderella because our feet fit exactly, and we laugh at Rachel's one foot with a girl's grey sock and a lady's high heel. Do you like these shoes? But the truth is it is scary to look down at your foot that is no longer yours and see attached a long long leg.

Everybody wants to trade. The lemon shoes for the red shoes, the red for the pair that were once white but are now pale blue, the pale blue for the lemon, and take them off and put them back on and keep on like this a long time until we are tired.

Then Lucy screams to take our socks off and yes, it's true. We have legs. Skinny and spotted with satin scars where scabs were picked, but legs, all our own, good to look at, and long.

It's Rachel who learns to walk the best all strutted in those magic high heels. She teaches us to cross and uncross our legs, and to run like a double-dutch rope, and how to walk down to the corner so that the shoes talk back to you with every step. Lucy, Rachel, me tee-tottering like so. Down to the corner where the men can't take their eyes off us. We must be Christmas.

Non-example questions:
What caused the shoes that used to be white to now be pale blue?
Why are the girls excited?
How is Rachel different from the other girls?

While these are decent questions, requiring students to use comprehension skills and make inferences, they will not generate real discussion and they all have a "right" answer, even those that don't call for direct "facts" from the story. These questions also only touch upon the first three Common Core standards (#1 citing evidence/making inferences, #2 main idea/theme, #3 character development), all of which fall under the category of "key ideas and details."

Example questions:
What does the narrator mean when she says, "today we are Cinderella?" How would the meaning change if she said, "today we are Snow White" or "today we are Sleeping Beauty?" 
(standard #4 and #9, author's word choice and connecting ideas/themes between texts)
Why does the author decide to include the information that the shoes are a gift from a neighbor? Would the shoes have the same effect on the girls if they were already theirs? 
(standard #5 text structure)
How does the girls' view of themselves change when they put on the "magic high heels?" What evidence in the text supports this change? 
(standard #6 point of view)

These questions will generate discussion and have no one "right" answer as long as students can logically support their response with evidence from the text. These questions hit upon higher level Common Core standards with standards 4 - 6 falling under "craft and structure" and standard 9 falling under "integration of knowledge and ideas."

Want to read more about close reading and see more sample questions? Check out this article.


If you are a secondary teacher, check out my seasonal nonfiction close readings. Many of them could be used in a history class or even science class! My close reading on giving and the holidays is free, so grab it for next year or use the questions as a model for your own nonfiction close reading.

I also just posted these close readings for Of Mice and Men. If you are looking for an example of a literary close reading, click here to download one for Chapter One.

If you are an elementary school teacher, check out this post by Miss DeCarbo at Sugar and Spice. You can see some examples in her post and and follow her directions to download a free sample.  

For more close reading tips and resources:

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5 comments

  1. I don't need to tell you how awesome your non fiction ones are. Thanks for more information.
    Kovescence of the Mind

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  2. Thanks so much for sharing, I think this really helped me understand close reading better!

    Mrs. Plemons' Kindergarten

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    Replies
    1. You are welcome. Glad to be of help. I think the toughest part is making sure our questioning is really challenging students.

      Brynn Allison
      The Literary Maven

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  3. Thanks for sharing about close reading. I have tried it a little with my first graders even though it can be a little complex for them. I like the challenge that close reading presents to students because they really have to thinking critically.

    Jasmine
    Buzzing With Mrs. McClain

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