Close reading vs. reading from a critical stance: Is there a difference?

A few months ago, I sent an email to several colleagues describing a proposal to begin a conversation to help pre-service and in-service teachers develop the skills of critical analysis and close reading. In response to my email, one of my colleagues suggested that I not use the term close reading because what I was proposing was not close reading but “more like deep comprehension – reading from a critical stance”. My colleague suggested that close reading is a literary device that does not activate background knowledge.

This description baffled me. In my mind there was no difference between close reading and reading from a critical stance. After I read this description I immediately went to Tim Shanahan’s blog post What is close reading?, which I had just read. I reread the blog post (for the third time) “closely” looking for evidence of the similarities and differences between how Shanahan described close reading and my colleague’s description of close reading. What I discovered is that Shanahan’s description strongly supports deep comprehension (reading text three times, each uncovering more about the text (what the text says, how the text works and critical analysis of the text), which ends in a thorough understanding of the text or deep comprehension.

It appears that the difference between close reading and reading from a critical stance is the evolving definition of the terms and how the context defines how the terms are used. At one time the term close reading referred to a technique to analyze literature. This analysis happened in English class and allowed for  discussion of  text structure. It was not used to support the reader’s understanding of the text. In reading class, text was read from a critical stance, where the reader used their knowledge to think deeply about text. With the implementation of the Common Core Standards, the term close reading describes the process of using the technique of analyzing literature to develop a thorough understanding of the text, which will enable the reader to critically evaluate the text.

As I reflect on this conversation, I am wondering if my proposal should have read “…help pre-service and in-service teachers develop the skill of close reading”, leaving out critical analysis since close reading ends in a critical evaluation of text?  How do you define close reading?


Know Thy Self

What do you see when you walk pass a mirror? Is it just a brief glimpse of yourself or do you see the small details?It is only when we stop in front of the mirror and slowly look at ourselves that we really see who we are.

Who are you as a reader? How do you make sense of text? How do you understand text? Ponder these questions as you continue to read.  These are questions I have asked  pre-service and in-service teachers.  The initial response is silence. After a few minutes, I get responses like, “I make connections”, or “I visualize”. While these are strategies readers use when they read, they read with “soften eyes”similar to the glimpse in the mirror. The glimpse allows the eyes to take in the story including the things the story makes you hear, smell, feel, see and taste. However, to truly make sense of text or understand, readers must read with a “sharp focus”. It is this “sharp focus” that allows readers to notice what they are thinking as they read for understanding.

In order to make sense of text or understand, readers must first identify the behaviors and actions that demonstrate understanding. This identification process begins with knowing oneself-knowing how you come to understanding. To know yourself as a reader, pay attention to what it feels like when you do not understand the next time you read . Be aware of what you do when this happens. Pay attention to what it feels like when you understand. Notice what specific words help you to create visuals or make connections. Think about how the visuals and connections help you understand the text. Listen to the voice in your head as you read. What is it saying? Think about how this internal monologue helps you understand. In other words, pay attention to what causes the ebb and flow of your reading. Having this awareness is like seeing reading with a new lens.

Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University says, “Reading gives you a unique pause button for comprehension and insight.”

What are you noticing about yourself when you use the pause button?

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