“Close Reading” in the Common Core

“Close Reading” is the new version of the Reading Wars

All of us are concerned about the concept of “close reading” which has generated so much controversy in the Common Core.  Because I generally support the Common Core Standards, and because I taught English for many years, I have been paying attention to some of the debates about the shifts in reading that have generated the debates.  Here are three writers who have commented on the topic, and I have enjoyed their perspectives.

David Coleman’s video on Letter from Birmingham Jail

Daniel Ferguson writes  “Martin Luther King and the Common Core: A critical reading of “close reading.”  Ferguson offers Paulo Freire as a significant counterpoint to David Coleman, perhaps the most visible proponent of close reading.  He suggests “student voices are silenced in their own classrooms, an literacy is reduced to the ability to navigate standardized tests.”  I think Ferguson’s contrasting of close reading to critical reading, citing Freire, is very effective, and he does a decent job of critically analyzing Coleman’s video illustrating close reading of Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.

Close Reading only an anchor standard

Two ASCD SmartBlog on Education entries offer other ideas about close reading.  Mike Fisher provides “An alternate take on the “close reading” standard by noting “the ONLY place that the phrase “reading closely” is mentioned…” is in the anchor standard.  The term does not appear in any grade level reading standards.  And I love his next paragraph: “When we focus on a portion of a standard or decide to agree with what vendors tell us, then we lose the intention of the standard.” He suggests that reading comprehension is the objective, not merely the skill of reading closely.

Close Reading may pose problems

In “Warning! Close reading questions pose more problems than they appear” Collette Bennett suggests that too much close reading is “insulting to an author as the practice infers a reader cannot understand a narrative without repeated questioning.”  She worries that too much “close reading to assess student understanding may lead to what Kelly Gallagher calls ‘Readicide’: The systematic killing of the love of reading, often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing practices found in schools.”

Reading and Critical Thinking

I am among those who think the Common Core’s emphasis on close reading of texts make sense, particularly when the texts are nonfiction.  And I think schools have done too little to engage students in critically reading nonfiction, in analyzing polemical websites, in separating arguments grounded in truth from those based on bias or distorted data.  Close reading is important in digesting and synthesizing the essence of what we see in media and print every day.  It’s vital in today’s math classes as students are asked to solve increasingly complex (and more real world) problems, and in history where generations of adults have never learned from past mistakes.  But as an English Literature major, understanding and appreciating great literature demands a personal connection, and critical analysis of literature disappears without a broad appreciation and awareness of the author’s context, body of work, use of literary allusions, and one’s own imaginative and often deeply personal reactions to the word on the page.

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