September 19, 2014

Has Close Reading Gone Amok? (Part 2)

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On Tuesday, when we first posed the question, “Has close reading gone amok?,” we shared some of the “close reading” tasks we found in the workbooks Kim’s sons are using this year to learn to “read closely and carefully.”  Here are a few excerpts:

Reread lines 27-44.  In the margin, make an inference about how the narrator probably felt about her father’s response to her new talent.

As you read lines 140-179, underline language that describes how the father seems to be changing.  Make notes in the margin in lines 140-150.

Reread lines 169-205.  In the margin, explain how Marlene’s relationship with her father has changed. What is her father doing at night? Support your answers with explicit textual evidence.

Unlike Social Studies and Science textbook questions that appear at the end of a section or a chapter about a specific topic, the tasks in these close reading workbooks are interspersed throughout the passages.  It appears that the design is intended to teach students to chunk text into meaningful sections, pausing periodically to notice relevant details or ask thought provoking questions.

As Matthew and Nathan make their way through their close reading exercises, they  stop when they are told to do so, underlining or circling text and making annotations in the margins. However, as they work, they are also counting how many tasks they have left to complete, calculating how long it will take to finish all of these tasks. They don’t make the effort to find all of the details that indicate how the father in the story “has changed” because they also have to write out their inferences and point to details that support those inference. Then, they have to write four short responses, complete with quotes and evidence from the story. They know this assignment is going to take a while, so they carefully measure their effort. They aren’t working to deeply understand the story, or even to practice “close reading.” Rather, they are working because they want to finish in a reasonable amount of time.

As we think about their work, we are reminded of a parable that Dorothy Barnhouse shared in her new book, Readers Front and Center. The story is about three stonemasons working in a quarry. When someone asks them what they were doing, the first stonemason says that he is cutting a stone. The second says that he is building a parapet. The third stonemason, however, shares that he is building a cathedral.

While all of the stonemasons were doing the same work, only the third was doing so with vision and purpose. Our hope is that when children read, they, like the third stonemason, see the larger goals and purposes of their reading. However, when students are prompted when to notice and connect and infer, close reading feels like a farce. Reading that should be building cathedrals becomes a mere act of cutting stones.

Has Close Reading Gone Amok? (Part 1)

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Social media response to the posts we write and share on this blog help us to keep our finger on the pulse of what really matters to educators. So, when Reading Today recently released its “What’s Hot” list, it didn’t surprise us that “Close reading/deep reading” ranked as one of the hottest topics in literacy. What did surprise us, however, was that “Comprehension” earned only a single yellow dot indicating that, by comparison, it’s not nearly as hot as “close reading.”

Interestingly, in the  “should be hot” column, the experts polled indicated that they think this phenomenon should be reversed, with a greater emphasis placed on comprehension.  We couldn’t agree more and, in our post The Essence of a Close Read, we even cautioned educators against the dangers of overemphasizing “close reading” warning that doing so risks “schoolifying” and subsequently undermining the real purpose of reading closely: to understand.  

By now, the school year is solidly underway in all parts of the United States.  We find ourselves thinking a lot about close reading and its place in American schools.  In fact, Kim’s sons, Matthew and Nathan have shiny new “Close Reading” workbooks for the new school year. These workbooks involve finding and highlighting bits of “evidence” in relatively short, purportedly complex texts.

In these workbooks, Kim’s sons and their peers are instructed to execute discrete tasks, such as the following:

Reread lines 27-44.  In the margin, make an inference about how the narrator probably felt about her father’s response to her new talent.

As you read lines 140-179, underline language that describes how the father seems to be changing.  Make notes in the margin in lines 140-150.

Reread lines 169-205.  In the margin, explain how Marlene’s relationship with her father has changed. What is her father doing at night? Support your answers with explicit textual evidence.

This oversimplification of a sophisticated process, which involves trying to reduce close reading to a few objective responses in a workbook, is what often happens in education, unfortunately. Succombing to political and testing pressures and responding to the abundance of poor and mediocre materials flooding the market, we take a reasonable idea, such as reading for meaning, and we go to extremes,  losing sight of what is really important. Close reading is merely an extension of tenets we all consider important, i.e. students read to understand, to learn, to think.

 

Helping Students Engage with Complex Texts

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Readers Front and Center by Dorothy Barnhouse

In October 2012, we reviewed several texts useful in helping students engage with complex texts. These professional resources predated the Common Core, yet seemed to address many of the themes educators were discussing in relationship to the new standards. Books, such as  Janet Allen’s On the Same Page, Peter Johnston’s Opening Minds, Kelly Gallagher’s Deeper Reading, and Dorothy Barnhouse and Vicki Vinton’s What Readers Really Do, offer insight into Common Core related topics, such as helping children read closely, understand deeply, and access increasingly complex text. However, these books are not how-to guides for aligning instruction with the Standards, but set about to deeply investigate these topics and help strengthen educators knowledge-base and therefore, practice. We relish and deeply appreciate books like these because they delve deep into the heart of “what really matters,” and we are always excited when we find new titles that fall into this category.

This past spring, Stenhouse released one such book: Readers Front and Center by Dorothy Barnhouse. For teachers who have been struggling to figure out how to close the gap between what students can read proficiently and what they are expected to read proficiently, this book sends a powerful reminder that, in spite of the onslaught of educational materials that promise to deliver a silver bullet, the real silver bullet comes down to this: thoughtful teaching.

Dorothy clearly understands that, when it comes to comprehension instruction, most educators default to focusing on the WHAT of the text, asking questions, such as

  • WHAT is the story about?
  • WHERE does it take place?
  • WHAT do you know about where it takes place?
  • WHO is the main character?
  • WHAT do you know about that character?

Readers Front and Center prompts us to question the limitations of such inquiries and what they reveal about a student’s understanding of a text.

Filled with anecdotes from the classroom and transcribed conferences with students, Readers Front and Center skillfully shows educators how to shift from product conversations with students to process conversations, thereby reiterating the important message that, in the classroom, HOW students know something is just as important as WHAT they know.

Reading Readers Front and Center is a bit like being coached and coaxed by a trusted colleague. Through rich examples, Dorothy teaches us how to listen, notice, and name what students are doing as they read.  She reminds us to be active listeners and to take careful notes about what we are learning about students.  Inasmuch as she values students’ processes for making meaning, she values teachers’ processes for understanding what students are doing as readers, and she reassures us that those awkward moments during a conference when we’re unsure of what to say or how to respond are normal.  Dorothy teaches us to embrace and celebrate cognitive dissonance–both in teaching and learning.

By now, most educators are steeped in Common Core implementation and grappling with the question of how to help students access and engage with complex texts. While this is, indeed, challenging work, Dorothy Barnhouse’s new book reminds us that giving students the “right” complex texts or assigning the “right” tasks is not enough.  The whole solution requires active listening and responsive teaching, which means that we must begin by placing readers “front and center.”

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