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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.

Close Reading and the Reading of Complex Text Are Not the Same Thing

January 11, 2016

Recently, I was asked to make some presentations. I suggested a session on close reading and another on teaching with complex text. The person who invited me said, “But that’s just one subject… the close reading of complex text. What else will you talk about?”

Her response puzzled me, but since then I’ve been noting that many people are confounding those two subjects. They really are two separate and separable constructs. That means that many efforts to implement the so-called Common Core standards may be missing an important beat.
Close reading refers to an approach to text interpretation that focuses heavily not just on what a text says, but on how it communicates that message. The sophisticated close reader carefully sifts what an author explicitly expresses and implies, but he/she also digs below the surface, considering rhetorical features, literary devices, layers of meaning, graphic elements, symbolism, structural elements, cultural references, and allusions to grasp the meaning of a text. Close readers take text as a unity — reflecting on how these elements magnify or extend the meaning.
Complex text includes those “rhetorical features, literary devices, layers of meaning, graphic elements, symbolism, structural elements, cultural references, and allusions.” (Text that is particularly literal or straightforward is usually not a great candidate for close reading). But there is more to text complexity than that — especially for developing readers.
Text complexity also includes all the other linguistic elements that might make one text more difficult than another. That includes the sophistication of the author’s diction (vocabulary), sentence complexity (syntax or grammar), cohesion, text organization, and tone.
A close reader might be interested in the implications of an author’s grammar choices. For example, interpretations of Faulkner often suggest that his use of extended sentences with lots of explicit subordination and interconnection reveals a world that is nearly full determined… in other words the characters (like the readers) do not necessarily get to make free choices.
And, while that might be an interesting interpretation of how an author’s style helps convey his meaning (prime close reading territory), there is another more basic issue inherent in Faulkner’s sentence construction. The issue of reading comprehension. Readers have to determine what in the heck Faulkner is saying or implying in his sentences. Grasping the meaning of a sentence that goes on for more than a page requires a feat of linguistic analysis and memory that has nothing to do with close reading. It is a text complexity issue. Of course, if you are a fourth-grader, you don’t need a page-long sentence to feel challenged by an author’s grammar.
Text complexity refers to both the sophisticated content and the linguistic complexity of texts. A book like, To Kill a Mockingbird is a good example of sophisticated content, but with little linguistic complexity. It is a good candidate for a close reading lesson, but it won’t serve to extend most kids’ language. While a book like Turn of the Screw could be a good candidate for close reading, but only if a teacher is willing to teach students to negotiate its linguistic challenges.
The standards are asking teachers to do just that: to teach kids to comprehend linguistically complex texts and to carry out close reads. They definitely are not the same thing.

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"What an astonishing thing a book is. It's a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you're inside the mind of another person ..." —

Carl Sagan