What Should “Close Reading” Look Like in Elementary Classrooms?

In this article in The Reading Teacher, Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey (San Diego State University) report on what struck a group of elementary teachers as they observed close reading in secondary English, social studies, and science classrooms. The elementary teachers found that six features differed from the way they taught reading:

  • Short passages – The texts that secondary teachers used for close reading ranged from three paragraphs to two pages. One high-school English teacher said, “My students read longer pieces on their own. When we really dig into a text, I use a shorter piece so that I can teach them skills for interrogating the ideas of the text.”
  • Complex texts – Secondary teachers had students do close reading with passages above their independent reading level.
  • Limited frontloading – The secondary teachers rarely commented on the passages before asking students to dive in and read. 
  • Repeated readings – Students often read the same text more than once, each time with a purpose or question in mind. Often teachers had students read the passage aloud the first time and subsequently read it aloud themselves with special emphasis. 
  • Text-dependent questions – Students were asked to provide evidence from the passage to answer their teachers’ questions. There were very few questions linking the passages to students’ personal experiences. 
  • Annotation – Secondary students often underlined, circled, wrote in the margins, or used sticky notes as they did close reading. 

The elementary teachers then identified ways they believe close reading needs to be modified in elementary classrooms:

More reading aloud by the teacher – This is particularly important in the lower grades to help students get the overall picture before getting into close reading.

Judicious frontloading – The elementary teachers agreed that not all passages needed vocabulary and concepts explained before students started reading – only when it couldn’t be figured out while reading the text. One teacher said, “I think we have to get the students to do the heavy lifting now and part of that is to make sure that students are thinking about the text each time they read it.” Elementary teachers also agreed that they shouldn’t ask questions about students’ personal experiences until they had read closely and gained a firm foundation of new knowledge. 

Text-dependent questions – The elementary teachers realized that many of the questions they asked about a book or passage drew out students’ personal experiences and could be answered without reading the text. They came up with types of questions that would get students to pay close attention to the words on the page:

  • Main idea and arguments
  • Key details 
  • Vocabulary and text structure
  • Author’s purpose
  • Inference
  • Opinion and inter-textual

Teaching annotation – Having students “read with a pencil” worried many of the elementary teachers; they didn’t want students to get in the habit of writing in classroom books. After much discussion, they agreed on how to phase in annotation, starting with wiki sticks to underline key ideas in big books to underlining major points and circling key words and phrases on a photocopy of a page in third grade to using arrows to make connections in sixth grade. 

“Close Reading in Elementary Schools” by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey in The Reading Teacher, November 2012 (Vol. 66, #3, p. 179-188), http://bit.ly/SBPs7l; Fisher can be reached at dfisher@mail.sdsu.edu, Frey at nfrey@mail.sdsu.edu


From the Marshall Memo #463

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