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Saving The Heart of Reading: Why We Should Transplant Close Reading

Close reading and the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) lurk like shady hit men in the alleyway of the English building. Wiseguys waiting to whack someone. That someone is reading. They don’t realize the consequence of the job. They don’t realize the  true nature of their victim, and there’s not much time left to save reading before it’s spread upon the table waiting for its final autopsy.


So what is close reading? Close reading is digging through the text, it’s unearthing meaning that at first glance passes by us, it’s work. It’s kinda like this.


Now, I’m not above doing a little digging myself. Whether it’s my intense close-reading activity The BRAWL or asking my students to practice using movie reviews to discern the difference between summary and analysis.

When I attended UC Irvine I LOVED my Critical Theory classes. I’m a fan of sleuthing through a text. One example of a close reading activity we did last year, was a competitive group activity with my AP seniors. We took two paragraphs from the novel 1984 and I projected them on the whiteboard.

close read 3

Each group was invited to use our S.C.O.U.T. reading technique to pick apart and dig around the text. Then they would use different colored Expo markers to to mark-up the text on the board. After one group went I gave them “points” for their interpretation and then I added a multiplier to the points to each following group since the analysis became more difficult- since proceeding groups may have “stolen” their idea. It was fun to watch them dig deeper and deeper until they struck bottom, and unearthed Orwell’s “body” of text.


As we lifted the lid of the coffin and exhumed the body, we found that we had almost beaten the text to death with our analysis. It was like a cataloguing of the various marks, wounds, and technical notes of our examination. I mean at this point we were literally using math to analyze the text.


But why does this matter? It matters because when close reading is the focus of our reading activities it is as if we are looking at a speck of blood under a microscope. Close reading is the literary equivalent of a CSI crime scene. (I’m not the only teacher who thinks this.)

Connections are more important than close reading. It’s the difference between a crime scene piece of evidence and a crime scene board and all the people who will be involved in the crime investigation, trial, and aftermath. Connections are where the students finds their place in both the reading and their world. Connections allow creation versus reaction and logging to take place.

My students create a blog post every week where they create a connection between the curriculum in my class and themselves and their world, but I wanted to show you just two examples of activities you can do with your students to create lasting connections.

 The 1 Pager (and a little more)

So my friend and co-worker Sean Ziebarth started using this cool 1-pager idea for responding to a text or novel. Up until then,  I had done a 1-pager, but it was a one page research paper. Sean actually puts cool drawings and funny notes on the paper before photocopying it, so it’s a bit more artistic than the link above looks when you click on it.

Before I asked my students to look at the 1-pager handout I showed them this quick Google Presentation with examples of what a 1-page visual exploration of text (verbal or written) could look like. Then I cut them loose to work in class. Here are what some of them did.


click on each image for a larger view


Now I could have stopped there, but I REALLY love when students not only assess and reflect on their own work, but create the very rubrics they will use for the assessment and reflection, so I gave them this handout on how to create a 1-pager rubric for themselves based, in part, on the Common Core State Standards.


You can see they stole PlusGood language from the novel we were analyzing (1984) and I gave them bonus points for trying to use visuals in their rubric. One group even made a rubric that was entirely based on pictures of different forms of potatoes. (If you earned “French Fry” you killed it) Their analysis of their fellow student’s work per their rubrics were interesting to say the least.


Is this “more effective” than a scantron test, than a close reading assignment, than a traditional blue book essay? I’ll leave that up to you, but it’s not the only thing we did with 1984 that semester.

Literary Post Cards (1984)

I’ve always been really haunted by the note that Julia hands Winston in the novel 1984. The power of getting something unexpected. If you have ever been to one of my blogging presentations you know I believe in the power of an old fashioned letter. There is also a section of the novel that talks about how the citizens get letters from Big Brother. I decided to have my students create postcards based on the novel. The best ones were to use key ideas, scenes, words from the novel to create something memorable. Then I had each student write their address on a black piece of paper. Each student picked an unknown address at random and actually mailed the postcard. I bought postage stamps, gave them out and collected them all.


I can only imagine what the post office thought when they saw all of these dropped off


So what’s the deal you say… can’t we just have both? Close reading and connected reading? Of course we can still do close reading activities


Here’s the problem, In ALL of my Common Core State Standards for ELA I hear “close reading” hummed like a Gregorian chant. And guess what’s funny?

Guess how many times close reading is mentioned in the ENTIRE ELA Common Core State Standards?

TWICE… that’s right, just two times.

So why the emphasis?

It goes back to science and math being seen as true 21st century learning. Things that can be counted and measured. Things that you can assess in a spreadsheet or on a test. Things like: bodily fluids, organs, brain pans…. well I say, no more.





 “That’s enough”

The above images are taken from a “Hellboy” comic I own.

Connections in a reading can be counted, if that’s what you want, if the only data you care to dabble in is that which can be counted, go to town counting these:

  • The number and quality of questions that students can create in response to a reading, not answer, create.
  • The number, quality and impact of the creation(s) a student can make in response to a reading
  • Was there a connection that resulted in catharsis?
  • What quotes resonated with the student?
  • What connections did the students make to art, other books, history, science, math, themselves, their future, their friends, their society and how can this impact their current and future life?


We actually do some activities and talk about Centrality aka Connections when we read A Tale Of Two Cities

These are just a few of the possibilities when we focus on Connected Reading versus Close Reading. Connected Reading truly is the type of reading that can not only make a difference in a students life (now and in the future) but can give them the breadth of knowledge that the Common Core State Standards ask for:

“By reading widely students gain cultural knowledge and build a foundation of knowledge in other fields.”

One last note:

This year I have commited myself to creating and implimenting new Active Reading Strategies with a Connected/Created Project for each novel we will read. These activities are being used with both my honors and my CP students. I will create a blog post sharing each Active Reading strategy and its corresponding project. I will also include completed student work and student feedback on the project. Expect the first two to be written over the upcoming Winter break. Here are some of the strategies I’m thinking about/will do.

1. Essential Question Project: QFT blog post posted 7/13/15

2. Global Conversation: Quotes (just completed in December, blog post coming soon)

3. BRAWL 2.0

4. Visual Notetaking

5. Social Media Share

6. Vlogging

7. Blogging

and maybe something from this book


I’ll leave you with a reminder of the importance of relationships/connection by the writer Barry Lopez


Thank you for stopping by. Feel free to leave your ideas, resources, modifications and additions in the comments below. I finished this at 1:33 am, so forgive any typos. I’ll do another read over in the morning over a cup of coffee.


  1. Dr. Mr. Theriault- thank you for this holiday gift of awsomeness! I am a curriculum supervisor in Ohio, and I regularly recommend your blog to teachers and have used many of your teaching ideas when I am coaching teachers as well as with pre-service teachers at the university where I adjunct. Keep ’em coming!
    I don’t often miss the classroom (former high school English teacher including AP) but the BRAWL post made me want to get back in the ring myself!

    1. Thank you. That comment made my day. So many times I wonder… “what are people thinking of my ideas, of my writing.” Thanks for helping me feel the time and effort are helpful to others.

  2. David, this is awesome!
    I’m recently back in the classroom (finally!) teaching Academic English to ESL students at the college level. Although we aren’t held responsible for CCSS, a lot of this applies to the needs of my students. In fact, this is exactly the type of setup I’m looking for in helping students have a deeper analysis of their reading and in turn their writing.
    I’ll be passing this along to my colleagues as well – truly outstanding stuff.
    By the way, I’ve been following you for quite a while and somehow never noticed that we live in the same city! If I ever see you at Kean or Portola, consider your cup of coffee paid for!

  3. Magma pouring forth from the fissure. Maybe that’s why school staffs are all over the map – we don’t read together enough (or at all). Faculties need to pick a piece of research and a piece of fiction to read together over a semester, then get a couple of your students to ref the BRAWL. Even if we walk away with different views of the writing (and hopefully we do) we have the shared experience of going through the work together. Oh and then share our one pagers with students/parents! This is a nice New Year’s gift you’ve given us.

  4. Teaching ELA like this just opens up students’ minds to the wonder of literature. Love it! And “Close Reading” is not beating the text to death but helping students understand and appreciate good writing…and it should be organic, not forced. Thank you for sharing. Your students must love your class.

  5. I love how you explain EVERYthing in your blog posts. Thank you for writing them, sharing them, and explaining your thoughts and ideas. I love letting the kids tear apart text (w/o calling it anything but “reading” or “discussing”), and will delve deeper into these ideas some day with them!

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