Close Reading of Literary Texts
About this Strategy Guide
This strategy guide will help you choose text that is appropriate for close reading and to plan for instruction that supports students' development of the habits associated with careful, multi-engagement reading of literary prose and poetry.
Fisher & Frey (2012) remind us that “the practice of close reading is not a new one, and in fact has existed for many decades as the practice of reading a text for a level of detail not used in everyday reading” (p. 8). Buckley (2011) explains that “as English teachers, we have to empower all our students to use texts to construct and represent meaning skillfully, because by every measure, it gives them a better chance at having a better life” (p. 3). She goes on to say that “all students deserve a chance to learn how to demonstrate their ambitious exploration of text” (p. 29), a notion supported by Fisher & Frey (2012) when they remind us that “close reading should be accompanied by purposeful, scaffolded instruction about the passage” (p. 8).
Strategy in Practice
- Selecting a text:
- Engaging carefully with the text yourself:
- First, to determine the general meaning of the text (leaving knowledge and application of literary elements more or less tacit for now). Keep asking yourself, “What’s going on, and how do I know?”
- Second, to examine the ways the author uses language and the discipline-specific structures of literature to create meaning. Your focusing question here might be “How do the author’s choices help me understand or appreciate something that I didn’t notice the first time I read?”
- Third, to consider thematic meaning and connections between this text and others like it. Here, ask yourself, “What does this text cause me to think or wonder about some larger aspect the text and of the human condition?”
- Developing text-dependent questions and accompanying learning activities:
When selecting a text or passage for close reading, consider two questions: First, is there enough going on with the language and craft of the text to warrant the attention of multiple readings? Second, does the understanding that comes from close reading sufficiently benefit students in light of the larger goals of the course or unit? The answer to both needs to be yes in order to keep close reading from falling into its reputation as merely an exercise.
These purposes are certainly not exclusive of each other, and do not necessarily happen in the order listed here, but having these multiple purposes helps students see the value in re-reading text they might otherwise work quickly through just once to “get the gist.” See the Close Reading Planning Sheet for a printable guide to this process.
This process is not unlike preparing for a think-aloud, only here, you work is not to plan what you will say about your understanding of the text as you read, but rather to think of the places where you want to prompt students’ thinking with questions that cause them to consider the text carefully.
You can see the Sample Close Reading Questions that resulted of my multiple readings of the first section of the short story “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry and the poem “Latin Deli” by Judith Ortiz Cofer. The questions are listed here for clarity as first read, second read, third read to show how the focus of questioning might change over multiple readings. You would decide, of course, how the questions were actually asked with each reading, how much time should pass between readings, and so forth.
Remember that close reading should be embedded in an instructional context that values not only the careful attention to text that the questions prompt, but also writing, collaboration, and talk. The specific ways in which you balance these elements will vary, but the scaffolding provided by the text-dependent questions you prepared will likely connect them all.
More Ideas to Try
- If the deep understanding they develop through the process does not extend into meaningful talk or writing, students will see close reading questions as an end themselves, rather than a means. See the Writing Arguments about Literature Strategy Guide for ideas on framing close reading around a larger writing task.
- Providing students with close reading questions is a scaffold to the actual task of reading and re-reading carefully. After they use questions you’ve prepared, have students dissect the kinds of thinking each reading represented. Use this discussion to prompt them to develop multiple sets of close reading questions for a text.