What, I have to teach English too?: Close Reading

In late October, we had the opportunity to attend a day of the National Science Teachers Association Regional Conference at the Oregon Convention Center. Our interest in attending was for the Common Core State Standards Literacy Strand. A few of the sessions stood out, like What, I have to teach English too?, Close Reading in Science, and Bridging the Literacy Gap. Most of you already know the Common Core requires the integration of literacy (reading and writing) standards into Science and Technical Subjects as well as History and Social Studies.

It’s long been the realm of the English teacher to provide reading and writing instruction, but what the designers of CCSS have determined is that there are different ways of reading and writing in the content areas. A student reading literary non-fiction, such as Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is going to need different skills to comprehend that text than they would Jearl Walker’s essay “Amusement Park Physics.” Similarly, writing an informational piece on a favorite book is going to employ different skills than would a lab report or an analysis of the contributing factors leading to dropping the bomb on Hiroshima. We know teachers are frustrated trying to integrate literacy into their curriculum when students struggle just to read what’s on the page. We don’t pretend to have all the answers, but here’s a literacy strategy that might be helpful (in all subjects) as you work toward integrating literacy into your curriculum: Close Reading.

The NSTA session in which we participated was led by David Vernot, Science Curriculum Specialist from Butler County Educational Service Center in Ohio. He shared a close reading exercise that could be used K-12, with content in any subject area. He emphasized using a short piece of text to teach this skill: no more than a page and perhaps less depending on the age of the students. Here’s the process:

  1. Have students read the selection (cold).
  2. Ask students to circle any vocabulary they think is important to understanding the text (think academic vocabulary).
  3. Students share words in small groups to see if there are common struggles and to benefit from anyone who might already know the definition. (Students should ask for and teachers should clarify unknown words before moving on).
  4. Have students LISTEN to the text being read. There is value in students hearing a selection read by a good reader (most likely the teacher).
  5. Employ the 3, 2, 1 strategy: students should write down 3 important words about the topic, 2 things you now know about the topic, and one question.

Ex. David introduced our topic through a children’s book called Next Time You See a Seashell.

  • 3 important words: mollusks, gastropods, bivalve
  • 2 things I now know: bivalves look like ½ the shell is missing; gastropods come to a point
  • 1 question: Are there any other categories of shells?

And, there you have it! A start to close reading.

In the second example, we read a more sophisticated article (though not science this time) which was an excerpt of an interview with the author Douglas Fisher about close reading. Again, we started by reading silently and circling/highlighting important words to help us understand the meaning. Next, we listened to it read well (in this case, we saw the video clip of the interview). After that, we shared our potentially confusing words with the class and they were clarified. Finally, we wrote a paragraph paraphrasing the article on a blank side of a sheet of paper (try the recycling bin). This time we were instructed to have no name on our papers and he led us in the snowball activity.  Once each of us had a snowball, we opened and read them making comparisons to our own paraphrases. David asked for a few volunteers to read aloud their anonymous summary.

A logical step for either variation (though we ran out of time) would be to provide students text dependent questions  to complete with a partner or individually. Results: engaged students, collective understanding, and a strategy students can employ again and again.


One thought on “What, I have to teach English too?: Close Reading

  1. aweekoraweekend

    Jeff (HS science teacher husband) went to this session, too, and he was excited about it. I’ll have to ask him if he’s tried it…Well, I’m back. I just asked him, and he said he tried the close reading (but not the 3,2,1) and it worked! It’s a good tool to have in your bag of tricks, he thinks. He said it would be most effective if there were a recording of someone else reading it, but it was fine when he read it. He likes that the strategy asks students to circle words that “some people” (not necessarily them) might find challenging. Takes the pressure off the kids who don’t want to look like they don’t know something.

    As an aside, a good strategy for blogging is to ask your readers a question at the end as well and invite them to comment. Like, “Have you tried any close reading strategies that worked for you? Add your ideas to the conversation in the comments.”


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