Anyone else feeling the stress of the Common Core State Standards? I find the barbed “c” and “s” sound appropriate for the moniker CCSS: devious and calculating. In reality though, the CCSS isn’t out to get teachers. Instead, I think it is to refocus how we approach literature with our students and encourage us to stop relying on content-based assessments and really evaluate close reading, not whether or not a student remembered what he or she read the night before.
One key standard has become my focus for this semester:
Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings or language that is particularly fresh, engaging, or beautiful. (RL11-12.4)
To me, this standard speaks nicely to what all of us want: our students to read more deeply and develop their own understanding of what they are reading. To do this, we have to “up” our game when it comes to teaching what it means to closely read something.
Below are a series of strategies and tips I have used with my students this year. In isolation, none of them are perfect. However, I’m hoping that by consistently applying a variety of these techniques my students’ close reading skills will become stronger and more innate and natural.
- In the past I have given students questions to answer about the text or a particular passage. While I might still offer these questions, now I’m requiring the students to answer the questions in the form of annotations on their text. This encourages the interaction between the reader and the text and subtly reminds students of the structure and formation of a passage.
- Similarly, I’ve started collecting student annotations for a grade. The collection dates are random and I remind the student that there is no specific form for the annotations as long as they are going beyond highlighting or underlining, things that don’t suggest a discourse between the reader and text. Many times it is just a cursory glance at the passage, which is easy to score. Sometimes, if the text is longer or hard to evaluate upon glance, I will collect the text (usually a passage) to examine the comments in the margin. I find that this is a nice way of also meeting another CCCSS standard: come to discussions prepared, having read and researched material under study; explicitly draw on that preparation by referring to evidence from texts and other (SL11-12.1a)
- Sometimes students struggle with annotating because they don’t know what to annotate. For them, the subject matter and argument are clear and straightforward. To combat the quick, surface-level read, I provide students several things to look for in the construction of the passage that helps to communicate the argument. One obvious technique is repetition. It becomes like a game to them: how many instances of repetition (in exact word form, variations/strands of a topic, or in punctuation) can they find in a passage. Then I ask them to begin to categorize the repetition and notice if it is used for the same function in each inclusion in the text. Lastly, I then ask them to notice if there are any direct oppositions in the text. These oppositions can be conceptual (like love and hate) or concrete (like the use of dashes and commas). If they can do the groundwork with identifying stylistic patterns and tendencies, they will most likely then develop an interpretation because of its use.
- Lastly, I like to praise students for their close reading. When I was younger (before the days of stainless steel, non-magnetized appliances), I loved having my work hanging on the fridge at home. It was such a sign of accomplishment. To recreate these feelings, I have a large 11X14 matted frame hanging in my classroom. Every week I frame one student’s annotated passage as a visual reminder of what good reading looks like and to encourage the students to continue their close reading skills.
To clarify, I typically only encourage this type of close reading with particular passages, not an entire novel or full-length work. My hope is that by practicing with the smaller pieces they will become more adept at what to look for and how they respond to what they are reading, which makes their annotations in a novel more purposeful and tied to their own reaction to the text.