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Timothy Shanahan
Shanahan on Literacy
Timothy Shanahan

What’s the Difference Between Close Reading and Teaching Complex Text?

Teacher question

Aren’t “teaching with complex text” and “teaching close reading” really the same idea, just in different words? Some of my teachers are confused by these terms. Some of them, like me, think they are the same idea, while others think they are really two different standards. How can I clarify this for them?

Shanahan’s response

I must admit that the first time this confusion presented itself to me, I was pretty darned surprised.

I was supposed to make two presentations to some California teachers — an a.m. and a p.m. talk, and the reading supervisor wanted to know the two titles. I suggested one on close reading and one on teaching kids to read complex text.

Her response: What will you present in the afternoon?


That time I had to write something up for her curriculum director before she’d approve. She may have thought I was trying to get away with one talk for the price of two.

Believe it or not, teaching with complex text and teaching close reading are different things, though there are some connections.

Complex text, first

For 70 years, teachers have been admonished for teaching kids with difficult books. The claim has been that there are particular levels of text that kids learn best from — and levels of books from which they can’t learn much at all. Consequently, many students are taught with texts aimed at kids from lower grade levels.

That approach holds kids back. Instead of improving their reading ability, it has simply slowed down their progress and guaranteed that many will never have the opportunity to deal with demanding text—until they leave school.

Don’t get me wrong; the folks who insist on teaching kids at “their reading levels” don’t mean to do harm. They are trying to avoid kids sitting through reading lessons not reading anything because the texts are hard for them.  They divide the reading universe in two: the one where kids read books, albeit books without much challenge; and the other, where kids languish in books they cannot read.

These days many educators are thinking about reading instruction in more nuanced ways. Perhaps there are three categories, not two?

Yes, there are kids who aren’t going to learn much about reading because they are placed in such easy books (books they might be able to “read,” but that are below the students’ intellectual and social levels of development). And, indeed, there are those kids who do no more than look at the schoolbooks because of the difficulty that they represent.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Kids can be placed in challenging, complex, difficult text (yes, even frustration level text) — and can be taught how to read and comprehend. By teaching kids how to decode words, figure out vocabulary, discern text structure, conquer complicated grammar, connect subtle cohesive links, or to overcome any other type of textual or linguistic barrier, teachers enable students to read and learn from books that in the past might have been avoided.

The idea of teaching kids to read complex texts involves placing them in texts of sufficient difficulty that there is really something to learn and then providing them with instruction in how to negotiate the challenges that a text may pose so that they do learn.

For the sake of simplicity, let’s classify text challenges into two categories: the linguistic/textual and the thematic/substantive. The former includes things like being able to make sense of how a text is formatted or coming to terms with the meanings of the words; while the latter gets at notions like: the kids don’t know anything about igneous rocks or the text’s theme is elusive or sophisticated (e.g., The Old Man and the Sea for sixth-graders).

What about close reading?

Close reading refers to making sense of a text in a particular way. It is about textual interpretation, and as such it specifies both what the ground rules are for interpreting a text as well as what the interpretive goals may be.

For instance, one of those interpretive rules requires that the interpretations of close readers be based solely on the text. That is, close readers try to interpret what is going on in a text and what it means, without reference to an author’s biography or past works. Some readers may devour the criticism of a text and then read the actual text themselves through the lens of those critics, but that isn’t what we mean by close reading. (Thus, when teaching close reading, teachers try to avoid providing kids with lots of outside information.)

And, in terms of interpretive goals, close readers are interested in how texts communicate their ideas, and not just what those ideas may be. Think of a book like The Three Robbers. It isn’t the language that makes it hard, but the moral ambiguity. Are these good guys or bad? Should they be punished or rewarded? There’s a lot of meat there for contemplation, discussion, and writing …

It is a complex book, but not especially difficult to “comprehend” (kids can usually summarize it just fine). But, it is hard to discern an underlying message and to do so one must study it carefully — reading and rereading … weighing the author’s word choices, analyzing the pictures thoroughly, considering both what is there — and what isn’t.

Close reading is about making sense of those kinds of things depending only on the information the author has provided. That’s why text evidence is so important in close reading. It is unreasonable to claim that Tomi Ungerer is suggesting that the three robbers have seen the error of their ways and regret their earlier actions without pointing to something in the text that reveals such repentance.

Close readers do have to deal with text complexity … but it is the complexity of ideas, symbols, doubleness and so on that is the issue — not the basic complexity of the language or the text formatting.

Thus, complex text and close reading both deal with the idea of kids making sense of texts that may be hard to read and interpret — but they do so in very different ways.

Teaching kids to untangle sentences with embedding so they can comprehend those sentences would be pretty central to comprehending complex language — but its value to close reading is only incidental. And, the same could be said for recognizing that you don’t know the meaning of a word, and then trying to figure it out based on context or with the help of a dictionary. Teaching kids to do those kinds of things should give them access to the ideas in books even when those ideas are expressed in complex ways.

While teaching kids to recognize when an event or object is meant to be a metaphor or that the white hats and black hats in the old cowboy movies were character summaries rather than fashion statements are not so much about language complexity as they are about grasping the deeper meanings of a text through intensive analysis of the ideas in the text.

Text complexity and close reading are related, but different. Teachers need to teach both. 

About the Author

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 (opens in a new window).

Publication Date
January 3, 2018