Tag Archives: close reading of informational texts

Critical thinking across multiple texts – Part I

In a 7th grade social studies class I visited a few weeks ago, the students used an evolving definition of “honorable” as a lens for reading multiple texts on warriors – ancient and modern. In the image below, the blue text was our original definition. As the students engaged in discussions about what it means for ancient and modern day warriors to be honorable, we added to the definition. Our ultimate goal was to get at the complexity of what it means to be honorable. What are abilities, qualities, achievements that demand honor? What training or life experiences are necessary? What is the role of codes of conduct? Is it possible to be perfectly honorable 100% of the time? What is tricky about this? What are sacrifices involved in pursuing being honorable?

Honorable anchor chart

Here’s an outline of the lessons we gave:

  1. One day interviewing a veteran – The class interviewed a modern day warrior, a veteran who works at their school. The students were asked to fill out an anticipatory set in advance. This was a very powerful experience that would launch their thinking as we moved forward.
  2. Two days on knights – The teacher and I modeled and then encouraged individual and partner close reading of multiple passages on knights in the medieval period – training and code of ethics. modeled annotations knightsDuring this close reading, the students underlined and annotated information in response to the question, “What are you learning that might help you think about how this warrior is honorable?” We provided lots of opportunities for 2-3 minute student-led conversations around what students were thinking regarding “honorable” and the content they’d just read and regarding how they were adding to their thinking as they read each additional passage. I quickly modeled having a conversation with a student as my partner (referring to our notes & thinking about what a partner had said before responding). Below is one student’s annotated texts.Student 1 annotated notes
  3. Two days on the samurai – A similar routine. Knight and Samurai texts
  4. Two days on modern day warriors – the marines. Students visited http://www.marines.com/operating-forces/strategic-warrior – a website that describes marines as strategic warriors and then they also visited a site that discusses posttraumatic stress disorder and includes videos (primary sources) of veterans talking about their PTSD.Screen Shot 2016-06-03 at 6.44.55 AMScreen Shot 2016-06-03 at 6.58.11 AM
  5. Time to write in response to what they’d learned – Students were given a menu of options for responding – poetry, illustrating/creating art, writing a letter of appreciation to a veteran. In the future, we’re planning to encourage students to submit to http://www.teenink.com for publication.

Throughout all of these lessons, we continued to refer to the definition of “honorable” as a way to help students articulate what they were learning.

I LEARNED SO MUCH FROM THESE STUDENTS. In my next few blog entries, I’m going to write about what the students revealed in their annotations as well as how we determined which texts to use.

And a BIG THANK YOU to CHRIS, the classroom teacher who co-planned and taught with me!

Hope this helps.



Do students understand what we mean by “key details”?

Is the term “key details” vague for your students? I’m teaching 2nd/3rd grade students this week and trying out an anchor chart that attempts to make the term “key details” more concrete for students.


I think a “key detail” might change depending on what our purpose is for reading. Here are a few of the ideas I have for this anchor chart (which I would add to over time –as we experienced reading for each type of key details)  –

  • a word or phrase that helps us answer a question
  • a word or phrase that gives important information about an event like who, what, when, where, why
  • a word or phrase that gives us a clue about the meaning of an unfamiliar or new word
  • a word or phrase that helps me make sense of what I am reading

This chart might become an anchor for students’ thinking and a living document the teacher can add to or change or revise as students “read for key details” across many lessons.

I’m using this chart (see the image above) this week with second grade guided reading/writing groups who are reading about the USDA. Our text dependent question is “How does the USDA protect us?” I’ve found myself referring to this chart over and over again as a reminder for the kinds of details the students need to look for as they engaged in close reading.

I think it’s helping!!!


Book for Independent or Circle Reading Grades 5-8


Book Review + Excerpts for Close Reading. In Witches! The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem (winner of Sibert Honor Award for Nonfiction), Schanzer’s straightforward text and stunning illustrations will captivate middle grade readers. The narrative is non-stop craziness – revealing how beliefs can drive a community to foolishness and the devastation of members’ lives.

CAUTION: You may need to help launch students’ reading of this text. The first couple of pages are dense in vocabulary and the content is worthy of close reading and careful discussion. Schanzer describes the beliefs of the Puritans – in two worlds – the natural world of humans and “the Invisible World swarming with shadowy apparitions and unearthly phantoms of the air” p. 14. (BTW – chapter one starts on page 13. I’d do a close reading of pages 13-15.) Students have to “get” this idea in order to understand the rest of the book and deepening their understanding at this point may serve to deepen their understanding of the rest. No doubt, there are students out there who may not need this support especially if they have been in a unit of study on this period in American history. Just something to consider.

Schanzer’s writing is strong  – she doesn’t “make up” what happened; her writing is straight forward. For example, when describing how a former minister in Salem village was accused of being a wizard, she writes “Burroughs was examined…” – in other words, she doesn’t turn it into a drama. You can tell she’s relying on primary and authoritative secondary sources and careful not to embellish. 

I don’t know enough about art to comment well on her illustrations – but they set the tone for the book and are worthy of close reading/viewing and discussion by students. I appreciated that at the beginning of the book, she included a two-page layout of portraits of the “accused” with their names and who they were and another two-page layout of the “accusers.” This made for easy referencing if I needed clarity for who the players were at certain points in the narrative.

I’d definitely have this in my middle school classroom library and even encourage pairs or small groups of students to read and discuss. There could be some powerful discussion and essays written in response to questions like, “How does a person’s beliefs drive his/her actions? Why is this important to consider?” These are questions that can serve as lenses for reading other informational texts as well.

Martin Sandler’s new book – his work continues to be amazingly accessible for grades 5-8

imprisoned martin sandler

REVIEW OF NEW BOOK + SUGGESTION FOR CLOSE READING. Once again, Sandler has written a text for our intermediate/middle grade readers that captures the reader in the grip of a devastating experience – the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. What stood out for me in this book is Sandler’s continual revelation of the irony of this situation and the language he uses to make this irony explicit for students. Let me back up. Japanese Americans faced racism when they came to the states – and yet they figured out how to thrive and be successful economically. There was no evidence in general of espionage or lack of loyalty to the U.S. after Pearl Harbor and yet the decision was still made to intern this group of citizens. They could have languished in terrible living conditions and yet they turned these spaces into livable communities and joined the military and received the highest recognition for their contributions to the war effort (combat, nursing, translators, etc.). And all of this in the face of loss of identity, long-term emotional/psychological scarring, loss of wealth or means of making a living – all of which also occurred.

The beauty of this book is how Sandler’s writing helps our student readers access these themes – perseverance, injustice, irony, courage, the effects/impact of displacement, surmounting obstacles, knowledge versus ignorance, determination, ingenuity, etc. The book is crafted in a way that you see how terrible things are and THEN you see what the Japanese Americans do in response (that reveals perseverance, etc.). Next you see how terrible things continue to happen to them and AGAIN you see what the Japanese Americans do in response and WHAT ELSE THEY DO in response AND what else they do in response. Does this make sense? Sandler’s tone, his language, his choices about chronology all contribute to this.

Our instruction or our coaching of students might highlight this. For example, we could do a close reading of pages 76-78 (no text on page 77), where Sandler describes how the internees turned the unfathomable living conditions into culturally relevant spaces. The first paragraph starts with “In the opinion of many of the internees who had become unofficial leaders in their camps, there was only one way to combat the sadness and depression that had come with imprisonment…” He’s clearly setting the reader up here – for a contrast, for a shift, for a defining moment. Students should continue by noticing language like “ambitious projects” and “remarkable achievement.” Phrases that reveal that “and they also did this” theme – like “In addition to improving their surroundings…” You might then engage students in a close reading of the paragraph at the top of 87 that starts with “But despite this type of demonstration and the continual pronouncements of allegiance to the United States by internees of all ages, the question of how loyal they really were would not go away.” Here Sandler proceeds to introduce another obstacle.

courage has no colorBeyond Courage

By doing a close reading – helping readers think through just these few paragraphs – students can  begin to see what Sandler does throughout the book to reveal the Japanese Americans’ determination in the face of obstacles as well as the irony involved. My copy of this text is riddled with sticky notes – all marking where I see him using language and structure to help the reader access these ideas. This should have a ripple effect when they read other texts about the mistreatment of groups like Courage Has No Color: The True Story of the Triple Nickels, America’s First Black Paratroopers by Tanya Lee Stone and Beyond Courage: The Untold Story of Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust by Doreen Rappaport and shorter texts like “Yellow Journalism” by Small Planet Communications.

Please don’t overdose on “close reading”

I have been asked several times recently, “How often should teachers engage students in close reading?” I don’t have an easy answer on this. I’d like to start by saying that close reading of an excerpt of informational text should be part of a larger integrated unit of study. These units need to be filled with rich, purposeful, intentionally chosen learning experiences for students to pursue enduring understandings. (THIS IS A KEY POINT IN MY BOOK on close reading!!!!) I see “close reading” as an opportunity to reveal an author’s central idea by examining closely how the author develops that idea in a small chunk of text. This can have ripple effects for learning at other points. With these points in mind, how often does close reading happen? At key points during the unit.

Now – I know how we are as educators – we want a specific number of times! If you really need this, I’d say – if you are engaging students in a unit of study- close reading might happen once or twice a week. Or it may happen every day for a few minutes with a primary source photo or a quote or poem – through discussion. My biggest caution here is that it’s an approach to reading and thinking that needs to be used very purposefully – not just all of the time. Otherwise, your students will start to dread reading lessons and may even mutiny! In addition, that’s not close reading’s purpose – to be the sole approach to comprehending texts and getting at the bigger ideas in a unit.

If you need support to back this up in conversations with other teachers and administrators, the International Reading Association has released a paper entitled “Close Reading and Far-Reaching Classroom Discussion: Fostering a Vital Connection.” LOVED THIS!!!!! As I read, I kept writing “YES!” in the margins. The authors, Catherine Snow and Catherine O’Connor, dispel myths like “close reading levels the playing field” and “close reading should not include using any background knowledge” and “close reading should only be done with text dependent questions.” THANK YOU! The authors agree that close reading is “one of many practices that are useful in teaching comprehension and text interpretation.” They close with the following:

We celebrate the move to put text at the center of instruction across the curriculum, to delete talk about the topic that substitutes for reading, and to let students struggle productively with text. But we fear that too much emphasis on close reading will lead to unproductive struggles, will be taken as a prohibition on discussing and questioning texts, and will create an illusion of a level playing field even as the field is being excavated further from under the feet of struggling readers. (Snow & O’Connor, 2013, p. 8)

I highly recommend this paper as a text for educator discussion in Professional Learning Communities, as part of professional development experiences, during department and team meetings!

Close Reading of Invincible Microbe excerpt (Murphy, 2013)

invincible microbe jacket

The Invincible Microbe: Tuberculosis and the Never-Ending Search for a Cure  is Jim Murphy’s new book, co-authored with Alison Blank. Murphy’s book The Great Fire is a Newbery Honor book and listed as a text exemplar for informational texts at the middle school level in the Common Core Standards Appendix B. Invincible Microbe would be an appropriately challenging read for 7-8th grade students. Murphy tells the history of TB in a blended text – with narrative and non-narrative language. Did you know that scientists believe that by the mid-1800’s almost 80% of people on earth had TB? Murphy threads together an account of scientists, physicians, public health workers, policymakers – all working together to find a cure for and eliminate the spread of TB. And while TB has been almost entirely eliminated in the U.S. – it is still a huge issue in the Soviet Union. Fascinating content.

So I had the pleasure of working with a group of teachers studying close reading of informational texts last week. I purposefully chose the first few pages from Murphy’s new book to do a close reading (see attached typed up excerpt, hoping this is okay to do under “fair use” – Close Reading Excerpt from Invincible Microbe).

In this excerpt Murphy creates a vivid image of the TB organism; he reveals how this ancient microbe may appear harmless, but it is not, how this germ can hang in the air for hours after someone with TB has sneezed, waiting to be inhaled by someone, how TB can be unpredictable killing a person in a few days or lingering for years or disappearing suddenly, how TB can infect every single part of the body. Murphy begins with an introduction – a narrative to draw the reader into the text. Then he moves into a description of the TB. Murphy’s use of words like lurk, evolve, emerge, elegant, harmless, beautiful, deadly, seemingly innocent, survive, infect, unpredictable serve to deepen the reader’s sense that TB is a very, very serious disease and potentially a devastating public health issue.

I asked the teachers to read the text, identify the central idea in small groups, and then reread the text to underline words and phrases that get at the central idea.  For myself, as I read and reread this passage, I realized that my experience with TB is a shot I got one time for some disease I don’t know much about; I have never met anybody who has this disease. TB is a remote concept for many of us as we begin reading this book – I think Murphy wants to establish up front the gravity of the presence of TB in society.

When the groups were done close reading, we regrouped to discuss the words/phrases that jumped out at us as we read with the central idea in mind – so words and phrases that helped us understand the gravity of TB. Below is a picture of the shared writing I led during this discussion.-1