Close Reading for Elementary School: Then and Now
A Q&A with Dr. Doug Fisher on the evolution of close reading and effective approaches teachers can use today
With the introduction of the Common Core State Standards in 2010, the past decade has brought a transformative shift to elementary reading instruction. Close reading — or the act of prompting students to engage critically with complex texts and draw meaningful connections from the content — has become a focal point of English Language Arts teaching. As teachers consider how to integrate repeated, deep reading opportunities into their instruction, they may wonder how to best guide students in their exploration and interpretation of complex texts.
To answer this question, John Mark Slagle, Senior National Literacy Specialist at McGraw-Hill, recently chatted with Dr. Douglas Fisher, Wonders author and Professor of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University. Dr. Fisher’s insightful research into elementary literacy has had a profound effect on the development of close reading teaching strategies. Read John Mark’s Q&A with Dr. Fisher below and learn more about the evolution of close reading and how teachers can use it to nurture student comprehension and critical thinking skills.
JMS: How has close reading changed throughout the past few years?
DF: When the CCSS were released in 2010 and made close reading an expectation for elementary children, there was no research whatsoever on close reading for elementary students. While close reading as you probably know it can be dated as far back as the 1940s, it was a method used primarily by college students for reading poetry and hadn’t been applied to primary school.
Since 2010, the body of research on close reading for elementary students has increased exponentially, and there is much more clarity on the benefits and goals of close reading in grades K-12. Now we use it to help students approach complex texts — texts they were not often being asked to read in the past. We are much more intentional on determining the learning objectives and tracking whether or not students are reaching them.
In addition, we have made great strides in this profession on what it means to access complex texts. By that I mean we are way better at understanding what makes the text complex in the first place.
JMS: What are the goals of close reading?
DF: The overarching goal of close reading is to cause students to engage in critical thinking with a text. Close reading helps us to be more intentional about the purpose and clarity of learning.
When framing a close reading assignment, teachers should ask:
- What do we want students to get out of the text?
- How does the text impact our teaching points?
And when students are approaching a complex text, they should ask:
- What am I learning?
- Why am I learning it?
- How will I know if I’ve learned it?
JMS: What are some successful close reading strategies?
DF: One way we have refined close reading strategies is with annotation systems. Previous annotation systems were based on the work of Mortimer Adler, and we’ve moving away from that to apply a system that is appropriate and more interactive for young readers. Our current model is based on research about which systems work best for young learners, and is designed to increase engagement and attention to text.
A few annotating practices that teachers can put in place may be:
- Underlining central ideas — this encourages students to read carefully to locate the main themes and distinguish between those and supporting details
- Circling confusing phrases — helps drive student awareness of their own levels of understanding
- Making margin notes — enables students to summarize and synthesize what they’ve learned
Another area where we have placed greater focus is on post-reading tasks. In the past, post-reading assignments mainly included group discussions or essay writing. Now, we really want to encourage engagement and action from the text. Post-reading tasks should help students think about and answer the question, “What does this text inspire you to do?” since reading closely, deeply, and carefully should inspire readers.
JMS: How can teachers further encourage student understanding of complex texts?
DF: One really important way teachers can motivate students to engage with complex texts is through teacher modeling. While education as a whole moved away from teacher modeling from 2008–2015, we’ve returned to it since it’s important for students to be engaged in shared reading, think alouds, and modeled thinking for academic thinking.
JMS: Why is modeling so important?
DF: It really benefits students to have teachers open up their brains, share their thinking, and apprentice kids to the kind of thinking they need to do. Without teacher modeling, students lack cognitive examples of what to do with the text they are reading. Students have to try it themselves, practice with complex text, and get feedback from the teacher that encourages their growth. Close reading allows learning to be more than a one-day lesson — it’s a journey.
Douglas Fisher is a professor of educational leadership at San Diego State University and a teacher leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College. He is a member of the California Reading Hall of Fame and was honored as an exemplary leader by the Conference on English Leadership.
He has published numerous articles on improving student achievement, and his books include The Purposeful Classroom: How to Structure Lessons with Learning Goals in Mind; Enhancing RTI: How to Ensure Success with Effective Classroom Instruction and Intervention; Checking for Understanding: Formative Assessment Techniques for Your Classroom; How to Create a Culture of Achievement in Your School and Classroom; and Intentional and Targeted Teaching: A Framework for Teacher Growth and Leadership.
John Mark Slagle is the Senior National Curriculum Specialist for Literacy at McGraw-Hill. John works in schools and school districts around the world partnering to develop teacher capacity and student engagement. His work, at all grade levels, includes advising the development of instructional resources and the shaping highly interactive professional learning opportunities. John participated in the Comer School Redevelopment Project at Yale University and is the co-author with Angela Maiers, of The Parent Teacher Partnership: Making the Most of the Middle Years.