Close Reading Analysis in the High School Classroom

With the onset of the Common Core, this became a buzz word quickly in our English world at my school.  Teachers argued about what it meant, wondered how to scaffold the skill effectively (we were in the midst of curriculum renewal), built it into courses, assessments, and rubrics, and trusting PLC’s (professional learning communities) to figure it out from there.  I teach sophomore students, and the sophomore year, in particular, as I see it, became the year of close reading.  Naturally, this had me wondering how best to instruct students in this skill and provide them with the experience and tools necessary to be successful.

A few years later, as I reflect, here are a few close reading tips and successes: 

First off, I’ve found it incredibly helpful for students to begin their close reading journey by analyzing visual texts, i.e. pieces of art, sculptures, photographs, etc.  We often begin with art pieces by Nathan Sawa who is popular for turning the “Lego” into art.  His yellow “Lego Man”is a favorite of students who spend a lot of time discussing the deeper meaning or message of this piece.  We list details from the piece, discuss connotations, look for patterns, and draw conclusions.  The students are engaging in the close reading process without knowing it, and then we work to bridge the gap between visual and written text, taking that process with us.

Another thing that I’ve fine-tuned over time is the process, especially with regard to literary analysis writing.  Students need support in selecting great quotes for close reading.  We call this “PRAISSS-Worthy” evidence – evidence that is Plentiful, Relevant, Accurate, Interesting, Short, Stylized and Symbolic.  We spend some time here when we are looking at a text in order for students to understand what the “best” evidence looks like because this is the foundation of close reading for literary analysis.

A strong quote leads to the pattern for analysis that I’ve found works best for my students.

  1. List important details – diction, syntax, and literary devices – that they notice in the text.
  2. Spent time brainstorming connotations of these details – abstract ideas, things, and emotions – that they associate with each detail.
  3. Look for patterns in those connotations – i.e. does the idea of “loss” occur repeatedly, or do several details suggest a similar tone or idea?
  4. Draw conclusions – what do these patterns mean?
  5. Write an analytical statement:   “What” they notice in the text + an active verb + the big idea or “message” suggested by the text.  These three parts form a power-packed thesis statement. For a thesis, the “what” needs to be categorical, i.e. the author’s writing style or word choice in order to be broad enough for the purposes of literary analysis.

When students are ready to begin writing, I first ask them to take that thesis statement they’ve written and “unlock” it.  This means that they ask questions about the thesis statement, order these questions, and then answer the questions.  Viola!  An inquiry-based outline for their paper.

The close reading process is one that students work hard at because they know there is a process and tools to help them be successful.  So far, we’ve gotten students to the writing of their paper with a solid plan…but what does an effective close reading paragraph look like?  Well, that’s food for thought and for a future blog post!


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