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Shanahan on Literacy

Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

A Fine Mess: Confusing Close Reading and Text Complexity

August 4, 2016
Reader question:
We just started close reading in our district last year. Our second graders were given text that was a grade level above their reading level. We were told to let them figure it out. They could not even read the first sentence it was too hard for their reading level. The reading coaches said they will learn to read it by letting them struggle with it. The kids would become so upset and began to hate reading because of they were so frustrated at how the district was making us implement close reading. For it to be of any value should the text not be on their instructional reading level?
Shanahan's response:
A Roman walks into a bar, holds up two fingers, and says, “Five beers, please.”
What do these two stories — the one about close reading and the one about Roman numerals — have in common? They turn on knowing what you’re talking about.
If you don’t know that the Roman numeral for five is a V and that holding up two fingers looks like a V, you won’t get the joke. It won’t be funny.
And, when district leadership doesn’t understand what close reading is or what it’s connection to complex text might be, the results aren’t funny either.
One more story and I’ll provide some explanation that might help.
A curriculum director invited me into her district. “I want you to make two presentations. One has to be on close reading, and do you have a suggestion for a second talk?”
“Yes, I’d suggest that I talk about complex text.”
“But that’s the same thing as close reading, isn’t it?”
I’ve had that exchange several times over the past two years. I think for too many reading leaders, the two concepts — close reading and complex text — are confounded. I think it’s that confusion that’s leading to such bad decision-making.
Let’s clarify both concepts … and see what that suggests for classroom practice.
First, close reading. Close reading is an approach to literary interpretation — though it can be applied to at least some informational texts, too. It is an approach proposed for literary critics, and it is one widely taught in American universities. As such, it doesn’t focus on issues like word recognition or decoding, or even on basic reading comprehension, only on high-level interpretations or analyses of text.
Originally, close reading was a push back against the idea that one had to study an author’s biography, or the historical period that a text came from, or even what the words meant at the time they were authored.
To read a text closely one must only rely on the words in the text and their relationships to each other. They don’t turn to other sources. Close readers learn to notice metaphors or symbols, interesting juxtapositions of information, ambiguities, and the like (clues authors might have left behind to reveal the text meaning to those who read closely).
The Common Core State Standards require that we teach students to be close readers — to not only grasp the literal and inferential meanings of a text, but to understand how an author’s word choices and structures convey higher-level meanings; how to figure out the subtler aspects of a text.
As such, close reading only makes sense is if texts have deeper meanings. If there aren’t deeper meanings requiring such text analysis, then close reading would have no value. That means close reading requires certain kinds of text complexity.
And what do the standards mean by text complexity? Like close reading, it isn’t explicitly defined in the standards, despite being central to them. A close reading of the standards and their appendices suggests at least two meanings of text complexity.
One of those meanings is particularly relevant to close reading. We want our children to read high quality literary and informational texts. These texts should have depth. If we only read such texts carefully, but without conducting a close reading, we would likely end up with only a superficial understanding. Thus, in the past, if students read the Goldilocks and the Three Bears we’d want them to be able to conduct a retelling of the story or to complete a story map with all the key plot details.
A close reading of the Goldilocks and the Three Bears, however, might lead us to examine language that is used repeatedly (“someone’s been…), or why Papa and Mama Bears’ belongings are always inappropriate for Goldilocks, or the significance of the special relationship Goldilocks seems to have with Baby Bear’s possessions (she breaks his chair, eats his porridge, and falls asleep in his bed). The Three Bears would be appropriate for close reading because it includes words, structures, and literary devices that one can analyze to figure out what the story means and how it works.
But I said there is a second definition of text complexity. That second definition has to do with language complexity — how well a reader could make sense of text features like vocabulary or grammar or how ideas are linked across the text. These features have more to do with how well an author’s language choices match up with the readers’ language proficiency. Thus, if the author uses words like ebony, porridge, clearing, latch, and peeped to tell the story, readers might get tripped up just following what was said if they don’t even know what those words mean.
The first kind of complexity — the literary, symbolic or poetic complexity — is not measurable with Lexiles, Atos, or any of the other schemes for predicting how well readers will do with a text. The second kind, the linguistic complexity, can be measured or predicted by tools like Lexiles. We might say a text is fourth-grade level because texts with language like that are usually understood by fourth-graders; it is a kind of prediction. When you say the text was a grade level beyond your students, that’s what you are talking about.
Now here is where people get tripped up. The standards require that we teach kids to read complex text closely — which means exposing them to texts that have symbolic or poetic complexity. Those texts could be easy to read (in terms of recognizing the words and knowing what they mean and being able to handle the sentences), but hard to interpret. The standards do encourage kids to struggle, but the struggle that is intended is a struggle to make sense of those more complex ideas and those more subtle aspects of how an author tells something.
The standards also call for kids to learn to read text that has more sophisticated language. But that requires that we gradually ask kids to read a series of texts that stretches them while providing them with any necessary scaffolding that well help them to figure out what a text says. These supports may take the form of phonics guidance to help them decode particular words, the preteaching of vocabulary, or supports in making sense of the grammar of a sentence.
Your coaches seem to be mixing these concepts up. So…
  1. Make sure that close reading is focused on texts with the appropriate kinds of depth. These texts do not need to be “hard to read,” but, indeed, they might be confusing or frustrating to students. Don’t give into that frustration by just telling them your interpretation of the text but definitely engage them in a productive struggle with those big ideas.
  2. Make sure that kids are getting opportunities to read texts that are at the specified reading levels set by your standards. These texts are likely to be somewhat hard to read—in terms of decoding, vocabulary meaning, grasping what the author is explicitly saying. As such, they might not be the best texts for close reading.
  3. When you do ask kids to read texts that are hard to read, you need to be prepared to scaffold — to give students supports that will help them to make sense of the text; helping with decoding, preteaching vocabulary, breaking down sentences, connecting pronoun referents, making sense of organization, etc. A productive struggle here means helping kids with the difficult stuff so that they can learn to figure it out on their own.

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"Books make great gifts because they have whole worlds inside of them. " — Neil Gaiman