“Close Reading” of info texts can have multiple purposes

Close reading of informational text may not always be about identifying the main idea.  I read aloud from Nic Bishop’s Snakes to second graders a few weeks ago and then we did a close reading of two sentences from his book. Our purpose was the following: What types of details does the author use to describe snakes? This was my purpose because I wanted to help students remember the content they had read; I thought by identifying the types of details like part of the snake (“extra large scales”), location of that part (“on the belly of the snake”), purpose of that part (“help a snake slither over surfaces”). (FYI – this made a huge difference for many of them in their ability to retell what they read.) My point is that I used close reading, an instructional approach, at the point of the students’ need to move them forward in understanding Bishop’s larger ideas. They needed to think about the types of details an author is using to help them remember what they read.

With a group of 7th graders, I gave them an article (“Cell Phones on the Brain” by Ornes online at Science News for Students) in which the author claims that cell phones might be harmful if held next to your head. They GOT the main idea quickly. BUT when I asked them to tell me how the author developed the main idea, they were silent. So our purpose for close reading was – How does the author develop the central idea? and as we read we noticed and named the types of details he used – he “quoted an expert,” he “explained a research study,” he listed the “variables” and “alternatives” to using a cell phone (right next to your head).

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In my practice, I’ve identified three categories of purposes for close reading an excerpt of text (and I will probably add more!) –

  1. General purposes like “What is the author’s main idea?” or “What are key words or phrases in the text that support the author’s main idea?” Or “What is the author’s point of view?” and “What are details in the text that reveal this?” (You can develop purposes related to almost all of the Common Core standards.)
  2. Purposes related to explicit content like “What adaptations (physical features or behaviors) help beetles locate and eat their food?”
  3. Purposes related to identified main ideas that also integrate vocabulary – “How did the Jewish resistance exhibit courage?”

Notice – these are all text-dependent questions.

I make the purpose very clear and return to it frequently during the close reading so that students stay clear on why they are engaged in reading, rereading and annotating and what they need to pay attention to during this experience. I post the purpose for close reading – either on chart paper or on the dry erase board and, with older students, I ask them to write the purpose (or a shorter version of it) down at the top of their copy of the excerpt.

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Here are some basic steps I always employ during close reading-

  1. Ask students to read the entire excerpt to begin to understand the author’s gist. (They should not worry about annotating. Just read, enjoy, and begin thinking about the author’s main idea at the text level.) Depending on my purpose for close reading, we may discuss the author’s main idea or topic.
  2. If you haven’t already, Introduce “close reading” approach to deepening understanding of a text.
  3. Set clear text-dependent purpose for close reading; the purpose should be stated as a question and posted for all students to view.
  4. Model close reading and draw students into a shared-think aloud. The think aloud should focus on identifying key words and phrases related to the purpose for reading only.
  5. Coach students as they attempt close reading for a particular purpose – in partners and/or independently. Ask them what they think is important – key words and phrases- and how this provides information related to the purpose.
  6. Close by discussing content learned – related to the purpose.

I feel like there’s so much more to say on this. Hope this helps a bit.

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