June 26, 2016

A Cautionary Tale: The Difference between Close Reading and Rereading

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Last Thursday, on day nine of the new school year, Kim’s fifth-grade son, Nathan, came home from school crying.  Within moments of reaching the safety of his mother’s presence, his distress escalated to sobs.

What could possibly make a fifth-grade boy, one who has always happily worked his hardest in school and amiably gotten along with others, this upset?

Bully on the playground?

Trouble with the teacher?

When Nathan finally had enough composure to communicate what was wrong, he uttered four letters (imagine gasp-y hiccups in place of hyphens): U-D-H-R.

UDHR? Kim was desperate to find out what UDHR was and what it had done to Nathan to reduce him to an inconsolable puddle!

As it turns out, UDHR stands for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and it is a document committed to protecting the fundamental human rights of people around the world. It was drafted by a team of international representatives at the United Nations in 1948. The UDHR is chocked full of period language–such as  “whereas,” “shall,” “proclaimed,” and “asylum”–and long, complex legalese that, quantitatively speaking, puts it on a college reading level (based on online readability tests). Qualitatively speaking, one would need a great deal of background knowledge to truly understand the important ideals the authors of this complex text were trying to communicate.

Nathan’s class was reading the UDHR in its original form.  (To see the source of Nathan’s angst, scroll to page 12 of this link).

In fact, on day nine of school, Nathan had been reading the UDHR for seven days and his class hadn’t gotten past the opening paragraph and article one. With 29 articles left to work through, Nathan just didn’t think he could take it anymore.

He cried, “I’m bored.”

He cried, “I hate school!”

He cried, ” I hate reading!”

And we, Jan and Kim, cry that there is something seriously wrong, here!

When the authors of the Common Core set in place their ideals for “college and career readiness,” they issued a call for students to read more complex text and more informational text, including more primary source documents. They also communicated that students should read these texts closely and carefully. This story stands as a cautionary tale, however, warning of the risk we are taking when we misinterpret and misunderstand what reading closely and carefully truly mean.

While surely the UDHR is  complex reading for college students and lawyers and UN delegates, for fifth graders, it is simply too hard to understand.  Reading several times for the purpose of decoding and then several times more (over days and days) deciphering a surface understanding of the text is NOT close reading, it is only rereading.

With close reading, the idea is to notice textual subtleties and nuances that went unnoticed during the first read. The idea with rereading that is productive is to emerge with a deeper understanding.  If the first read yields little to no understanding, a reader is very unlikely to notice nuance and subtlety in second and third reads. While Nathan and his peers across New York State have been told that they are practicing reading closely, in fact, they have been misinformed. They have been engaged in unproductive rereading.

One key indicator that students are unproductively rereading versus reading closely is that you (the teacher) have to do almost all the work. If you are talking during a lot of the lesson, perhaps MOST of the lesson, then the text is probably too hard. If there are so many problems–whether decoding challenges, vocabulary challenges, or limitations with background knowledge–that students can read and reread without actually accessing more and more information with minimal support from you, then find another text! 

In the frenzy to implement the Common Core State Standards, there has been an onslaught of materials created, most of which claim to simplify the implementation process. As educators evaluate these materials, it is important for us to relentlessly check them against the guide we have been given–that is, the thirty-six, actual standards for reading, writing, speaking and listening, and language.  When directions for implementation defy both the standards themselves (in this case reading, standard ten, which calls for students to read grade level appropriate text independently and proficiently by the end of the school year, and standard one, which calls for reading closely and making inferences) AND common sense, listen to your gut and abandon the text!


  1. It is time for administrator’s, teachers, parents and older students to join together in order to put an end to this insanity! No Arne, its not just white, suburban mothers who feel you have destroyed the education system in America.

  2. Antoinette Diehl says:

    I have to read further and look at the module, but in general, I think parents can help their kids more by helping them see that struggle in school is OK. It is how we get smarter and stronger. A child crying that school is hard is not a bad thing. It is the adults response to the child’s distress that is key here.

    This specific module might be tougher than 5th graders should have, but, it may also just be that 5th graders aren’t used to being challenged in this way. Also, 5th graders may not have good models of what to do when they meet a challenge (so they cry).

    I predict there will be many tears in the journey to deeper learning.

  3. Barb McWethy says:

    Sounds like torture! And people wonder why so many kids don’t like to read for pleasure!

  4. We appreciate your well-reasoned and critical stance toward CCSS implementation. As the Director of Curriculum Design for Expeditionary Learning, I follow your blog regularly, and have particularly appreciated your recent posts about the role of informational text with an expository (rather than narrative) structure.

    The lessons you mention – in which 5th graders read select articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) – are a part of NYSED’s CCSS-aligned curriculum “modules” provided for ELA teachers. We selected this text because it meets many of the criteria demanded by the CCSS and aligns closely with New York social studies standards. It merits close reading, both in terms of what it offers and what it demands. Portions of this text are read as part of larger 8-week study of human rights. To get a fuller picture of the module, see http://commoncoresuccess.elschools.org/curriculum/grade-5/module-1.

    It is important to note that only 11 of the 30 articles in the UDHR are included in the curriculum: all students read Articles 1, 2, 3, and 6; students then specialize in small groups in two or three other articles. We carefully selected these 11 articles because they are more relevant to 5th graders (e.g. Article 23 regarding the right to education), more accessible, and rich with vocabulary that will help students understand important social studies concepts and empower them when they read other texts (e.g. Article 1 regarding the right to be treated with dignity). We recognize this text is challenging. Teachers in Expeditionary Learning schools helped author these lessons and have infused them with a high expectation of what students can do based on their own experience from their classrooms.

    During lessons, students are encouraged to “grapple” with each article and also have myriad opportunities for peer interaction and teacher support. They hear each article read aloud while they follow along in the text, reread each article multiple times, watch a background video on the UN, focus on specific vocabulary, sketch the meaning of the articles, “nick-name” the articles, work in smaller “expert groups” on just two or three articles, have myriad conversations with their peers to build understanding, and compare the original UDHR to a “plain language” version. Reading, writing, speaking, and listening are integrated, as is demanded by the CCSS. All lessons include additional recommendations for ways to support struggling readers or English Language Learners.

    Students are engaged in deeper learning, applying and synthesizing their learning about human rights after studying UDHR. They use “human rights” as one lens through which to analyze the challenges that Esperanza and her family face in the novel Esperanza Rising. Providing students with the analytical framework of human rights deeply enhances their understanding of this novel, and also directly addresses CCSS RL.5.2 – “Determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text, including how characters in a story or drama respond to challenges….”

    We agree that new curriculum should be field tested and assessed to make sure it works in practice. Many teachers throughout New York State used this curriculum in the 2012-13 school year and provided us with specific feedback, which we used as the basis for revisions. Teachers using our curriculum have consistently reported how powerfully students respond to this investigation of the UDHR.

    Dorenda Johnson, a 5th grade teacher at Unadilla Valley Central School in New Berlin, NY, who has been teaching for 29 years, said that studying UDHR has led to less bullying and has made her students more compassionate. “We talked about Malala Yousafzai, a student in Pakistan who was shot by the Taliban in October 2012 because they banned girls from going to school. After showing students a CNN interview, a boy in my class who was not into learning, brought in an article he saw about Malala. He did that after learning about the right to education in the UDHR.”

    She added that she does not think the UDHR is too difficult for 5th graders. “People need to come in and watch and see what happens. It’s rigorous, but I think students can handle it. We underestimate their capacity to learn. If we don’t believe they can, they won’t believe they can. If you believe, they will feel it, see it in your eyes, and hear it in your voice.”

    We welcome continued dialogue about text selection and instruction.

  5. PS:
    I think your title should be the difference between close reading and pointless reading! I think that reading something in a language you cannot not fathom is pointless if that is all you get to do and with finite time, sometimes it is all you get to do…..I think re-reading as in what Tim Rasinski talks about is valid and good for many kids in a variety of situations. Just a thought.

  6. My heart aches for this child and the others who are suffering with this kind of nonsensical type of schooling that is doing nothing to develop the reading habit, which in and of itself will eventually move kids to better comprehension and understanding. Also wide reading. Too much of any one genre does not expose children to all the kinds of writing (subtle and nuanced) out there; so the past practice of probably too much literature (Fiction, etc.) in elementary school needed a shift to more NF. (Being a lover in gr. 5 of biography and its effect on me as I grew, I will not go into my feelings about where that fits.) Thank you Jan and Kim for sharing this truly heart-wrenching story because these need to be gathered and spread. My husband responded after I read this aloud, with, “you know we both have high standards, but this is ridiculous, this is not going to generate a love of reading.” He was a real reader at a young age growing up in the later 40s and early 50s before TV and all the other draws on time. He read in the sandbox on nice days, he read American Heritage starting in 5th grade, getting a subscription in 6th. He read all kinds of books, every night because he was sent to bed at 8pm but allowed to keep the light on for a half hour more if he wanted to read, which he did and even used the “flashlight under the covers trick” to read longer. He had stamina. He read the encyclopedia when his work was done in class (as did others..he likens it to surfing the net these days. Gathered knowledge and information, became a professor and back then was called ” the walking encyclopedia” by his friends who liked and admired him….Anyhow he wants kids to become readers. He offers this analogy which I find apt. Imagine being given a text in French. Something hard, maybe by Camus. (He had some French classes in college, but was never good at it.) He said that no amount of re-reading would make him understand it better, and that it would be a VERY UNPRODUCTIVE USE OF YOUR TIME. (You have to look up almost every word, you are not internalizing anything or thinking of all the possible connections inside the text…it is painful, boring and for the purpose of understanding the finer points, practically useless) Here is the point:TIME is FINITE. There is no way to get more. WE have to use TIME WISELY in our lives and for kids, they get this. Thus the tears and frustration and angst for poor Nathan and I assume most of his classmates. We educators know what will make better readers. The problem is that many kids don’t want to read at home. (And being given the UDHR as an assignment is not going to increase pleasure in reading in gr. 5.) HOWEVER if you do what great teachers like Nancie Atwell, Donalynn Miller, Paul Hankins, Shelley Harwayne and many many others talk about, you get kids into books and reading happens. Check out the summer issue of the Reading Research Quarterly for Peter Johnston and Gay Ivey’s article on what happened with reading in an 8th grade where kids were given free choice about what books to read. There is qualitative and quantitative evidence that scores went up, but most importantly kids lives were changed on many levels. ENGAGEMENT is key. Then you do closer reading and re-reading for pleasure or to re-visit text you want to try to absorb and memorize perhaps, like I am doing with Johnston’s Opening Minds and Vinton and Barnhouse’s What Readers Really Do. If Nathan’s experience had happened to me in 5th grade and I can remember it well, I would have been crying too. Give me my Nancy Drews, give me the biographies the librarian handed me every day and let me be a KID. I was a strong student and a reader. I would have hated reading by the time school had its way with me. Keep on keeping on Kim and Jan. We need to get to the CORE of the CC and NOT let people who are going to “throw the baby out with the bathwater” make decisions about what and how are kids will read in school. Close reading should not be rocket science nor should it be torture. It says it in the Declaration of Independence: life, liberty and the PURSUIT of Happiness, (among others) and we are endowed these by our creator as unalienable rights! I point to Fahrenheit 451 as well…… and in closing to Brian Cambourne’s research address at IRA ’13. He called for a huge shift in reading research. Not to look at minutiae, but rather at biology and how that can help us learn to make better decisions about what we do in the name of education. (I am not off to see if UDHR is in the modules.(

  7. A couple of recent posts on my blog on this topic have generated some good discussion so am sharing here…

    Will an emphasis on ‘close reading’ kill the joy of reading?

    Reading logs aren’t learning, they’re obedience

    As always, thanks for your awesome work, Jan and Kim!

  8. Patti Castine says:

    Wow…I felt so badly for Nathan and his classmates. COMMON sense should also be a standard. Somewhere along the line we need to have the ability to analyze what our kids need and marry it with what is being asked of us…

    • Jan Burkins & Kim Yaris says:

      It seems that more and more, teachers are sacrificing their innermost beliefs for teaching and learning in the name of standards or standardized test aligned instruction. It’s like basic things like teaching kids to love reading (especially at the beginning of the year!) don’t matter anymore. The sad irony is that if we don’t have kids who love and embrace reading, it’s going to be very hard to move them to a place where they are meeting the standards by the end of the year. 🙁

      • So true about how we teachers respond to the pressures of the moment (or eon, as it sometimes seems.) Several years ago, during the Howling Darkness that was Mid-NCLB, I asked a fourth grade nephew from Texas whether he liked reading. He looked at me and asked, “Do you mean reading the thing you do with books, or reading the class?” And that answered both the question I asked and the one I didn’t ask.

      • Joseph La Manna says:

        You go Kim Yarris !:)

      • Kathleen Mulvey says:

        That article speaks volumes. There is much misinterpretation on the part of administrators and teachers regarding the implementation of the Common Core standards. It is important for teachers, and more importantly for administrators, to take a more ‘thinking’ approach regarding how we teach to better prepare our students, rather than a ‘reactionary’ one, which I think is more the case in many districts.

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