What is Close Reading?

What is Close reading? Close reading is a relatively new concept that’s been introduced in K-12 classrooms. It sounds like the simple practice of closely reading a text for understanding, but close reading techniques students learn in the classroom are slightly more complex, and much more enriching.

Read on for:

  • the definition of close reading and the theory behind it
  • the three-step-method of close reading
  • why close reading is a fundamental reading and comprehension skill
  • when and how to practice close reading

What is close reading, exactly?

Close reading is a reading technique designed specifically so that students can think critically and understand a text in depth. This technique allows students to read and understand more challenging texts. They can then connect those findings to other parts of their studies and/or the greater world in general.

The technique involves reading a challenging, complex piece of text more than once to uncover layers of meaning. In a very basic sense, students are re-reading to analyze a text and find out what the text says, how it says it, and what it means. 

During a close reading, students may note things such as:

  • the explicit people, places, and events of a text, and how they develop over time
  • key ideas or themes in a text, and how they reflect the author’s purpose for writing a piece
  • the way sentences, paragraphs, and larger sections of text (sections, paragraphs, chapters, etc.) relate to each other and to the whole piece of writing
  • key vocabulary words used in a text to convey meaning
  • the way point of view affects the shape and meaning of a text
  • how a text can relate and add to previous knowledge

It differs from shared reading, or reading to respond, because the point here is not just to summarize a piece of text. It is also not just to form your own opinion about a text or an idea in the text. Close reading starts a conversation between reader and writer, one where — at the end — the reader walks away with a greater understanding of the author’s purpose of writing, and how the writer conveyed that purpose.

Close Reading for Elementary School Students

This skill was first taught in high school and college classes. However, close reading is now a part of the Common Core school curriculum for elementary students.

It is important to note that, as elementary students are still learning vocabulary, pronunciation, and other core reading skills, close reading cannot be the only method of reading used in elementary school classrooms. Students still need to practice shared reading and think-aloud reading while learning how to do a close reading.

For elementary students, close readings should:

  • use short, rich, high quality text full of potential for interpretation
  • have new terms for students to decipher through context clues
  • have different layers of complexity, so that students at many different reading levels can interact with the text

Students should not get a lot of background reading or learning about the subject they’re learning about in the text. This allows them to engage with the piece without any previous ideas or opinions, and do the majority of critical thinking in the moment.

The Benefits of Learning this Skill in Elementary School

In addition to developing critical thinking skills, close reading also:

  • teaches students that there is more to a piece of writing than the main idea
  • gives students the ability to access higher level text, even if they don’t have all the necessary background information or vocabulary
  • prepares students for high school and college, where close reading widely used
  • expands the horizons of students, by giving them the confidence to build an understanding out of the unfamiliar

Elementary Students and Close Reading: Strategies for Success

Students should read a text several times to fully comprehend the text and add it to their previous knowledge. There is a three stage process of close reading.

1. Read for key ideas and details.

During this first stage, students can read out loud, with partners, or independently. At this stage, they should focus on getting the main idea and the supporting details.

This first reading (or few readings) is also a chance to practice annotating the text for important ideas, unknown vocabulary words, confusing or surprising parts, evidence to support text based questions, etc. Students should not just highlight or underline all of the text — not every single word is important to understanding the text. For grade-appropriate text annotating guidelines, click here.

At the end of this first stage, students are able to tell what is going on in the text.

2. Read closely for craft, structure, and vocabulary.

This time, students read to take note of the text’s structure. Structures can include:

  • narratives
  • compare and contrast articles
  • informational articles
  • persuasive essays
  • historical writing

When students learn how these kinds of texts are organized, they will be able to quickly comb through writing in the future to take away what they are meant to. 

For example, if a student recognizes informational language and the usage of facts, they can tell that what they’re reading is informational (and not something meant to persuade or entertain.) If they take note of section headings, they can quickly scan them with their eyes to find the section they’re looking for.

As students continue to practice close reading, they will grow to understand that the way a piece of writing is structured matters. The author wrote the piece for a specific reason — to help convey their message.

Students can decipher unknown vocabulary words during this part of the close reading process. But if it takes the focus away from the close analysis of a text, some teachers will give the definition of difficult vocabulary words.

3. Answer text-dependent questions.

After re-reading a piece several times, students are asked a set of text-dependent questions. The answers to these questions are not surface level or straightforward. The answers do not come from the reader’s thoughts or experiences. Rather, these questions require students to pull evidence from the text to answer them.

Related: Content clues are used to make inferences and answer text-dependent questions. Learn more about what context clues are and how to find them.

An example of a text-dependent question:

Text-dependent question: “When Dana’s mom goes to space, how does Dana feel? How do you know that?”

Not a text-dependent question: “When Dana’s mom goes to space, she leaves Dana back at home. Have you ever been left out? How did it feel?”

In this example, the reader has to go back to the story and look closely for words, actions, or descriptions that tell the reader how this character feels. The character’s feelings should not be explicitly stated. If the text says something like, “she was sad,” then the question is not one that requires close reading to answer.

After students have answered these questions, instructors can discuss how the ideas in the text connect to other things the class reads and how the work fits in with the knowledge they already have.

For example, if a class reads an informational article about pollution, then a persuasive essay about the importance of recycling, they can relate those two works together. They may also carry that information over to their everyday lives.

Close reading is a lifelong skill.

They need to practice it a lot, and students may get tired of reading so much. However, students who use close reading gain a wealth of knowledge and reading skills.