Closed minds from close reading?

Great piece by Valerie Strauss from the Washington Post Answer Sheet column on close reading of the Gettysburg address per the Common Core gods.  I cannot speak for ELA teachers, but teaching history using this method is poor practice in my opinion.

From Valerie Strauss:

 Imagine learning about the Gettysburg Address without a mention of the Civil War, the Battle of Gettysburg, or why President Abraham Lincoln had traveled to Pennsylvania to make the speech. That’s the way a Common Core State Standards “exemplar for instruction” — from a company founded by three main Core authors — says it should be taught to ninth and 10th graders.

I cannot fathom teaching my 7th graders to break apart Lincoln’s speech using the “close reading” strategy.  I love trying to interpret historical documents such as the Declaration of Independence and famous speeches such as Gettysburg Address in my classes.  How can students appreciate or even understand a primary source without having a background in the events leading to the writing of a important document or delivery of a famous speech?

Is close reading a test prep strategy? I completely agree with teacher Jeremiah Chaffee who was quoted in the WaPo piece:

This gives students a text they have never seen and asks them to read it with no preliminary introduction. This mimics the conditions of a standardized test on which students are asked to read material they have never seen and answer multiple choice questions about the passage.

As Mr.Chaffee also notes:

Such pedagogy makes school wildly boring. Students are not asked to connect what they read yesterday to what they are reading today, or what they read in English to what they read in science.

I discussed test prep style “canned” readings in a piece I wrote a year ago : Is your child getting a “worksheet” education?   Sadly some classrooms use these “random” passages as an attempt to plug in social studies and science into our children’s education as tested subjects of ELA and math dominate our children’s school day.

As a content area teacher in social studies, I see no gains from using “close reading” strategies with primary source material in my classroom.

ELA teachers, I am curious if “close reading” has any benefits?

Follow Chris Cerrone on Twitter: @stoptesting15


  1. Context and relevance–not part of common core

  2. Here is a response from an ELA teacher I have a great deal of respect:

    In my department, we have all struggled with this lesson and what it represents.

    I have been a teacher for 14 years and have always been an advocate of reading things closely. I examine poetry with a multi-step strategy that helps students pull apart a poem. When I teach Gatsby, Grapes of Wrath, Macbeth, The Crucible, for example, besides reading the entire book/play for the full experience of it, we take a close look at some passages for the author’s use of imagery, irony, symbolism, etc. We examine character interactions and try to imagine if we would make the same choices given the same circumstances. And then we revel in (as much as any high school student will) the author’s craft and brilliance. I don’t need the “corporate core” to tell me how to do my job; I’ve been doing it.

    And to teach any of these texts without setting them in their historical context takes away their relevance and meaning on many levels. Part of what makes these books/plays engaging is our connection to the stories in relation to real life and to the characters in terms of what it means to be human. Otherwise, why read fiction? Why read anything? I mean, why do we read as adults? We read to edify, for entertainment, for comfort, and most people learn to love reading because of personal connections, not because their high school English teachers helped them beat a 270-word text to a bloody pulp. Gatsby becomes a more interesting character when we learn a little bit about Fitzgerald’s life and the parallels, to give one example. I would give up one class period of close reading for a class period of historical context ANY DAY and it would be a worthy exchange.

    I don’t feel it is my job to force students to study a book the way a college English major would study it unless I am teaching an AP course in which the participants are present because they already have a love of literature and reading that is beyond the average 16-year-old. More than anything, I feel my job is to help students read a lot of literature they wouldn’t read without my guidance, write a lot in a variety of modes, and ponder their own lives in relation to the stories and their contexts. That’s what makes a reader. And someone who can communicate.

  3. People can learn from Narrow Reading on a subject but that involves something more like a “unit” lesson. A person reads many articles, books, etc. on one subject for a level of time. I am still learning about the Civil War, historians are still learning about the Civil War, if I had to do “close reading” to learn something, I think I wouldn’t bother anymore. I see that “strategy” if it really is one, as one more fit for short term memory and regurgitation on a test given soon after the lesson. There really isn’t proof that the much touted reading strategies of explicit teaching are worth it. Implicit learning is undervalued and probably more important.

  4. Reblogged this on Transparent Christina.

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