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.