Close Reading: The Context of an Exegesis

The first thing that happened to reading is writing. For most of our history, humans have been able to speak but not read. Writing is a human creation, the first information technology, as much an invention as the telephone or computer.

—Mark Seidenberg, Language at the Speed of Sight

A growing contingent of scholars argue that our “superpower” as a species is not so much our intelligence as our collective intelligence and our capacity for what’s called cumulative culture: that is, our ability to stockpile knowledge and pass it down from generation to generation, tinkering with it and improving it over time.

—Steve Stewart-Williams, “How Culture Makes Us Smarter

The written word emerged from the fogs of the distant past in places as disparate as the hills of Oaxaca, the banks of the Huan River, and the dry yet fertile expanse between the Tigris and Euphrates. Some of this early transcription was record-keeping, the accounting of ownership, an empirical truth-telling that extended the reach of commerce. Yet there were also the words of the prophets and priests—the divinations, omens, prophecies, and revelations—and the words of the scholars and poets—the stories, laws, and myths. A reckoning with the enduring and the sacred. The Akkadian texts, the Vedas, the Avestas, the Torah and the commentaries that were made to explain them.

In such scripture, contradictory accounts, allegories, and the use of a more complex language not spoken on a daily basis presented challenges beyond the pragmatic literacy of record-keeping. Clearly, the word of the godhead cannot be so easily confined by the shallow tongue of humans, however divinely inspired. The act of understanding sacred texts has thus always been one of interpretation.

And from the start, there have been two broad approaches to interpretation: a literal interpretation, which sticks to what is most plainly evident in the text itself, and an inferential interpretation, which situates a text within a larger framework. These approaches can work together as a progression towards a fuller understanding, though they can also exist sometimes in opposition.

Scriptural Exegesis: the literal and the nonliteral meaning

Scholarly interpretation of scripture, termed exegesis, has a storied tradition, extending to formalized methods termed hermeneutics. Hermeneutics has since developed far beyond scripture into a theory of knowledge and understanding itself.

The early usage of “hermeneutics” places it within the boundaries of the sacred. A divine message must be received with implicit uncertainty regarding its truth. This ambiguity is an irrationality; it is a sort of madness that is inflicted upon the receiver of the message. Only one who possesses a rational method of interpretation (i.e., a hermeneutic) could determine the truth or falsity of the message. (Jean Grondin via Wikipedia)

Hermeneutics spans a wide gamut, from theology and philosophy, from Hillel to Heidegger, and also parallels the development of literary criticism, from Plato and Aristotle, from Russian Formalism to Reader-response Theory, with both threads leading, quite fascinatingly (if you follow edu stuff at all) to E.D. Hirsch, Jr., who argued that an objective interpretation of literary texts is possible (by adhering to the author’s intention). And this lineage extends all the way up to the Common Core Standards and its promotion of a particular form close reading.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s keep with the exegesis thing for a minute. I just said there’s literal interpretation and interpretation which goes beyond what is in the text, both approaches which often interweave.

Here’s how both of these approaches work together in Zoroastrian commentaries (zand) on the Avestas:

A consistent exegetical procedure is evident in manuscripts in which the original Avestan and its zand coexist. The priestly scholars first translated the Avestan as literally as possible. In a second step, the priests then translated the Avestan idiomatically. In the final step, the idiomatic translation was complemented with explanations and commentaries, often of significant length, and occasionally with different authorities being cited.

Here’s how both Hebrew and Akkadian methods of exegesis try to resolve contradictions between the approaches:

…in order to clarify the interpretation of a text, it may be necessary to adopt a solution that goes beyond the immediate and literal sense of the text. Indeed, the tension between the literal sense of a text and the sense of the text in its larger context is a perpetual concern of Akkadian and Hebrew commentators alike. An awareness of this tension is reflected in commentaries that attach two interpretations to one phrase from the base text: the literal interpretation, which does not necessarily agree with the context, and a nonliteral interpretation that succeeds in reconciling the phrase with its larger context.

In the rigorous and rich Judaic traditions of textual interpretation, extensive commentaries have been developed, and the midrash of the Torah and the halakhah (Talmud) were formalized into hermeneutic rules. There was no distinction initially drawn between literal meaning, peshat, and inferential interpretation, derash, but over time the two terms became more distinguished from each other. In halakhic, or legal, interpretation, scholars had to not only attempt to reconcile tensions within a text itself, but further reconcile laws in relation to changing economic and cultural circumstances. In the attempt to resolve such problems, “scholars…first and above all sought to find the solutions in Scripture itself, by endeavoring to penetrate to its inner or ‘concealed’ content.” In the non-legal rabbinic midrash of the Torah, there was even more room for creative interpretation. Stories termed aggadah could be interpreted at both a literal and allegorical level. Some believe there are hidden layers of meaning that can only be unveiled to those properly trained to unlock them. In the tradition of Kabbalah, exegesis moves far beyond allegorical into the realm of the mysterious and mystical.

What is interesting is how extremely literal methods could be used to move into the realm of the occult. As an example, a hermeneutical method termed notarikon takes out a letter of a word to make the initial letter of another word, such that one word could become an entirely new sentence. Another method termed gematria assigns numerical values to words based on the letters, and then use the numbers to make esoteric inferences.

While such methods may seem bizarre at first glance, remember that scriptural exegesis assumes the premise that scripture is sacred in nature, and thus, without error. If you follow this premise all the way through, that means every single letter of every single word has a divine purpose and meaning, even when it is not immediately evident, and even when some verses or texts stand in seeming contradiction to others.

In Christian Biblical exegesis, scholars also approached interpretation from various angles, some of them in opposition and others within a progression:

… whereas some have argued that the interpretation must always be literal, or as literal as possible (since “God always means what he says”), others have treated it as self-evident that words of divine origin must always have some profounder “spiritual” meaning than that which lies on the surface, and this meaning will yield itself up only to those who apply the appropriate rules of figurative exegesis similarly developed hermeneutics based on literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical interpretations. (Britannica.com entry)

There’s even a Latin rhyme that encapsulates the four methods, or quadriga, of figurative Biblical exegesis:

Litera gesta docet, Quid credas allegoria,

Moralis quid agas, Quo tendas anagogia.

The rhyme roughly translated:

The literal teaches what God and our ancestors did,

The allegory is where our faith and belief is hid,

The moral meaning gives us the rule of daily life,

The anagogy shows us where we end our strife.

A Talmudic scholar, Rashi, provides an instructive example of moving between different levels of interpretation:

Rashi’s Bible commentary illustrates vividly the coexistence and, to some extent, the successful reconciliation of the two basic methods of interpretation: the literal and the nonliteral. Rashi seeks the literal meaning, deftly using rules of grammar and syntax and carefully analyzing both text and context, but does not hesitate to mount Midrashic explanations, utilizing allegory, parable, and symbolism, upon the underlying literal interpretation. (Britannica.com entry)

In Islamic exegesis, or tafsir, the classical Arabic language itself is central to the task of interpretation through intensive study of rhetoric, etymology, morphology, syntax, and metaphor. The verses, or ayah, of the Qur’an can be delineated into “those that are clear and unambiguous (muhkam) and those that are allegorical (mutashabeh).” It is said that the Qur’an is revealed through seven different forms of recitation, or arhuf. Yet there is debate about what the meaning of arhuf even is. Here is a hadith that elucidates the difficulty in pinning down that meaning:

From ʿAbdallâh Ibn Masʿūd: The Messenger of Allah said: “The Quran was sent down in seven ahruf. Each of these ahruf has an outward aspect (zahr) and an inward aspect (batn); each of the ahruf has a border, and each border has a lookout.”

What is common in all scriptural exegesis is the belief that the text is divinely inspired in origin, and thus, worthy of intense scrutiny to unfurl that revelatory meaning, down to the deconstruction and reconstruction of letters, morphemes, and syntax, as well as righteous attempts to ensure that any contradictions within and between sacred texts are resolved.

The truth is, truth and meaning in the written word can be a slippery thing, subject to abstraction and contradiction. Herein lies its power—the power to reveal or to deceive, both sacred and dangerous. While the word of a prophet or god requires painstaking exegesis to unspool into moral or legal guidance, poets and storytellers can craft and bend language at will to elicit desired reactions from their audience.

Literary Criticism: the significance of a text and its context

Plato feared this deceptive power. He even went so far as to advise that poets should be banned from his ideal republic. In The Republic, written in 360 BCE, Plato argued that poetry is a mere imitation of nature, and thus, inferior. Yet in this shallow deception lay great power, for the poet, through the use of melody, rhythm, and other “ingenious devices,” could take advantage of the irrational “weakness of the human mind. . . having an effect upon us like magic.”

Plato instead argued for the supremacy of the rational “arts of measuring and numbering and weighing.” While he did have an appreciation for poetry, he believed that the primary function of art should be to serve a moral purpose. Anything else was not only frivolous, but dangerous.

Yet a decade later, in Poetics, Aristotle offered an alternative vision of the power of poetry. While he acknowledges that poetry is an imitation of reality, he argues that the most potent of the dramatic arts, tragedy, “imitated noble actions, and the actions of good men,” thus providing the virtuous guidance that Plato found so lacking.

Aristotle examined the “ingenious devices” of poetry closely and provided a clear description of effective literary techniques such as character, plot, and diction, while introducing concepts like catharsis and mimesis that are still applied in literary study today. He also argued that poetry serves a different function than the more quantifiable arts of the specific and the particular, and that it serves an even higher purpose:

…it is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen,—what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity. The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose. . . The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular.

Aristotle also tackled problems of interpretation. He suggests a number of issues and solutions, but the following one especially stood out to me due to later literary debates about whether a text should be studied based solely on what is within the text, or with consideration of an author’s intent and biography:

Things that sound contradictory should be examined by the same rules as in dialectical refutation whether the same thing is meant, in the same relation, and in the same sense. We should therefore solve the question by reference to what the poet says himself, or to what is tacitly assumed by a person of intelligence.

What’s fascinating is that this tension between Plato and Aristotle’s stances on poetry can be seen resounding in centuries of literary criticism since. As the Encyclopaedia Britannica puts it: “Although almost all of the criticism ever written dates from the 20th century, questions first posed by Plato and Aristotle are still of prime concern, and every critic who has attempted to justify the social value of literature has had to come to terms with the opposing argument made by Plato in The Republic.”

In the Medieval period, Plato’s staunch focus on the service of art for moral good is echoed in the largely unimaginative and depressing body of artwork produced by the Western world. The truly exciting action was taking place, instead, in the scholarly exegesis of biblical texts.

But in 1440, hermeneutics moved beyond its role of merely explaining the “true” meaning of the Bible. An Italian humanist and literary curmudgeon, Lorenzo Valla, proved that a document used by the papacy to claim that emperor Constantine the Great had transferred authority of Rome to the Pope was a forgery by using evidence solely within the text itself. How did he do this? As a scholar of Latin grammar and rhetoric, he explained that the crude Latin used by its anonymous author did not match the form of Latin used in the time of Constantine.

During the Renaissance, the recovery of classical literary texts spurred a flowering of literary criticism. At the same time that Aristotle’s Poetics was translated into Latin and regained a new audience, hermeneutics shifted into a fully Aristotelian appreciation for the beauty of well-crafted art. In his Defence of Poesie, Sir Philip Sidney, echoing Aristotle, argued that the poet was superior to the historian:

So then the best of the Historian is subject to the Poet, for whatsoever action or faction, whatsoever counsaile, pollicie, or warre, strategeme, the Historian is bound to recite, that may the Poet if hee list with his imitation make his owne; bewtifying it both for further teaching, and more delighting as it please him: having all from Dante his heven to his hell, under the authority of his pen. (Renascence Edition)

This new concern with the subjective mind of the author and the reader themselves, rather than on rigid methods, became a growing focus throughout the decline of Neoclassicism and into the Romantic era, during which “The poet was credited with the godlike power that Plato had feared in him.”

This isn’t to say that Biblical exegesis faded away. Instead, new methods were developed that focused on reframing the Bible within a broader context.

The rationalist Enlightenment led hermeneutists, especially Protestant exegetists, to view Scriptural texts as secular classical texts. They interpreted Scripture as responses to historical or social forces so that, for example, apparent contradictions and difficult passages in the New Testament might be clarified by comparing their possible meanings with contemporary Christian practices. (Wikipedia entry)

This takes us into the 20th century, where a renewed formalism led to methods that refocused on interpretation of the text itself, without reference to anything else. In France, Gustave Lanson, a literary critic, promoted a pedagogical method in French universities termed l’explication de texte, in which a text’s structure, style, and literary devices are objectively examined. In Russia, a Formalist method “attempted a scientific description of literature (especially poetry) as a special use of language with observable features.” Russian Formalism stood in sharp contrast to Plato’s argument that poetry was a mere imitation of reality; the stance of Formalism is that “words were not simply stand-ins for objects but objects themselves.” Meanwhile, in Britain and the United States academia, New Criticism became the dominant form of literary interpretation, in which the author’s intent and a reader’s responses were viewed as largely irrelevant distractions. Similar to Russian Formalism, New Criticism took the stance that “everything that is needed to understand a work is present within it.”

Scholars of New Criticism even coined terminology to make it explicit that an author’s background or intent or a reader’s personal and emotional responses were invalid methods of interpretation. They termed these “The Intentional Fallacy” and “The Affective Fallacy,” respectively.

This discounting of the author’s intent and biography and of a reader’s responses both generated opposing schools of literary criticism in the latter half of the 20th century. New Historicism focuses on the social, cultural, and philosophical contexts within which an author wrote, to the point that the text and author seemed to have been almost inevitably created by their context, rather than vice versa:

In its tendency to see society as consisting of texts relating to other texts, with no ‘fixed’ literary value above and beyond the way specific cultures read them in specific situations, New Historicism is a form of postmodernism applied to interpretive history. (Wikipedia entry)

Reader-response theory, on the other hand, “argues that a text has no meaning before a reader experiences—reads—it.” This approach rejects the grounds for objectivity in the interpretation of texts, suggesting instead that meaning arises out of personal reactions and the particular context that a reader is situated within.

Other forms of criticism that drew heavily upon wider contexts beyond the text itself also became more widespread in the late 20th century, such as sociological, psychoanalytic, Marxist, feminist, or post-Structuralist criticism. Increasingly, criticism was viewed as a subjective and highly specialized academic endeavor.

Into this fray stepped E.D. Hirsch, Jr. with a book titled Validity in Interpretation, in which he argued that an objective interpretation of a text was possible, in contrast to the positions of New Historicism or Reader-response theory. However, he also took issue with the stance of New Criticism that authorial intent was a distraction from the text itself. Instead, Hirsch argued that determining authorial intent was the basis for a valid, more objective interpretation. He drew a distinction between the meaning of a text and its significance. The meaning, an understanding as determined by authorial intent, is something that is stable and does not change, while a text’s significance changes in accordance with new explanations and connections to new contexts. In his own words:

Meaning is that which is represented by a text; it is what the author meant by his use of a particular sign sequence; it is what the signs represent. Significance, on the other hand, names a relationship between that meaning and a person, or a conception, or a situation, or indeed anything imaginable. … Significance always implies a relationship, and one constant, unchanging pole of that relationship is what the text means (Validity in Interpretation).

Meaning . . . may be conceived as a self-identified schema whose boundaries are determined by an originating speech event, while significance may be conceived as a relationship drawn between that self-identified meaning and something, anything, else (“Meaning and Significance Reinterpreted”).

This distinction stood out to me because it seemed analogous to one made by Christine Counsell about two main types of knowledge in school curriculum. She distinguishes between substantive knowledge and disciplinary knowledge. Substantive knowledge is knowledge that is relatively stable and can be taught as established fact, while disciplinary knowledge engages students in the use of tools and pathways of inquiry fundamental to the discipline, and which is always evolving.

I find both of these distinctions, between meaning and significance, and substantive and disciplinary knowledge, to be useful, as they allow us to see that there are some forms of understanding that are more static than others, and also that the interpretation of a text is always situated within a wider context, and that interpretations will shift in accordance with that context.

The crucial point, then, is that any text has an envisioning historical and cultural context and that the context of a text is itself not simply textual—not something that can be played out solely and wholly in the textual domain. This context of the texts that concern us constrains and limits the viable interpretations that these texts are able to bear. The process of deconstruction—of interpretatively dissolving any and every text into a plurality of supposedly merit-equivalent construction—can and should be offset by the process of reconstruction which calls for viewing texts within their larger contexts. After all, texts inevitably have a setting—historical, cultural, authorial—on which their actual meaning is critically dependent (Nicholas Rescher, as quoted by a Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on hermeneutics)

Another important aspect of E.D. Hirsch’s analysis is that it represents a convergence between literary criticism and the discipline of hermeneutics, which had been developing along largely separate tracks. Hermeneutics sprung originally out of the study of scripture, then developed into philosophical explorations of epistemology, while literary criticism clung more closely to aesthetics and classical literature.

Before we move from the topic of hermeneutics and of the relationship of a text to wider context, I think it’s important to touch on the concept of the hermeneutic circle, which very much relates to the movement between literal and nonliteral in scriptural exegesis, as well as the interpretation of the meaning and significance of a piece of literature.

The hermeneutic circle refers to the recursive movement between part and whole, whether within a text itself, in connection between texts, in connection between a text and something else, or even more broadly, in the relationship between an individual and the world he or she inhabits. We will see this circle in action in our next section on close reading.

One other fascinating thing to note about E.D. Hirsch, Jr., which can help us transition into our next section on primary and secondary public education: he has become known more widely known for his promotion of cultural literacy, the idea that literacy is founded on background knowledge relevant to a culture, and that therefore a shared body of core knowledge and vocabulary should be taught explicitly in each grade. He founded an organization, Core Knowledge, which developed K-8 curricular materials to address this need. This was a contentious idea when first introduced in the late 1980s, and continues to generate debate today.

The Common Core Enters Stage Left

Ever since the exhortation of the Common Core ELA standards for students to “read closely” and “cite evidence,” close reading has been a thing in K-12 education.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.1

Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

As you will see, debates about close reading closely echo the ancestry of the textual exegesis, hermeneutics, and literary criticism that preceded them.

Advocates and developers of the Common Core, such as David Coleman and Sue Pimental, promoted a form of close reading in which analysis is confined to the text itself, similar to the approach of Formalism, l’explication de texte, and New Criticism. This approach could be viewed as an explicit reaction to a trend in K-12 classrooms of providing only easily accessible texts and questions and too much background context prior to reading, most especially to those students who already struggled with reading. This seemed to ill prepare graduating students for college-level tasks oriented around highly complex academic texts, nor for the reading of technical texts required for advancement in many careers.

The solution proffered by the standards was to engage students in reading increasingly complex texts throughout the span of their education, and to ensure questions were “text-dependent,” rather than answerable without any evidence.

However, there was a backlash against this form of close reading.

For example, Nancy Boyles wrote in ASCD that asking students only text-dependent questions doesn’t explicitly prepare students for engaging independently in their own close reading practices. She recommends asking four generic questions that students can apply independently to any text.

“The final, most compelling reason I don’t care for the Student Achievement Partners [text-dependent] questions is that although they teach the reading—the content of the text—there’s no attempt to teach the reader strategies by which that reader can pursue meaning independently. . . Teaching is about transfer. The goal is for students to take what they learn from the study of one text and apply it to the next text they read.”

Educators Kylene Beers and Robert Probst further argued in Notice & Note: Strategies for Close Reading that it is essential to support students in making personal connections to texts because meaning and engagement are created via the interaction between a text and its reader, a view similar to Reader-Response Theory:

“Meaning is created not purely and simply from the words on the page, but from the transaction with those words that takes place in the reader’s mind. . . Close reading, then, should not imply that we ignore the reader’s experience and attend closely to the text and nothing else. It should imply that we bring the text and the reader close together. To ignore either element in the transaction, to deny the presence of the reader or neglect the contribution of the text, is to make reading impossible. If we understand close reading this way, when the reader is brought into the text we have the opportunity for relevance, engagement, and rigor.”

Another knock against confining a close reading solely to what is within a text is that a reader may miss the wider social or historical context that a text is situated within. As the Odegaard Writing and Research Center at the University of Washington puts it:

“Remember that every writer is in conversation: with other writers, with history, with the forces of her culture, with the events of his time. It is helpful, for example, to read Karl Marx or Sigmund Freud with some knowledge of their moment in history. Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir were responding to writers and events in their cultures, too. When you understand the context of a work, you can better see the forces that moved the author to write that work.”

Kate Roberts and Christopher Lehman, in Falling In Love With Close Reading, suggest that you can have your cake and eat it, too.

“Instead of seeing this as a debate between two opposing sides, we believe there is a way to achieve both goals–to teach students to read more analytically, while also valuing their lives and experiences. In fact, in this book we argue that by learning to read more closely, our lives and experience grow richer as well.”

This made me think of a related conversation regarding critical thinking skills. In “What REALLY Works: Optimizing Classroom Discussions to Promote Comprehension and Critical-Analytic Thinking,” P. Karen Murphy et al. lay out two broad approaches to text-based inquiry in the classroom: an expressive approach, which taps into a student’s personal experience and emotion, and an efferent approach, which is a more objective attempt to acquire and obtain information. P. Karen Murphy et al. argue that it is not one or the other, but rather both working in tandem, that can best develop critical-analytic thinking:

We propose that the solution lies not in either an efferent or an expressive approach to text and other content, but in pedagogical approaches such as small-group, classroom discussions that value knowledge-seeking, in concert with lived-through experience, to promote critical-analytic thinking.

If we agree with P. Karen Murphy et al., then we end up with a model something like this:

All of that said, however, it must be acknowledged that state ELA assessments ask students to answer efferent text-dependent questions about a written passage in complete isolation from any wider context. A student’s personal opinion and experience, as well as the author’s biography, plays no role in the analysis students are asked to conduct. So students will need to have some level of practice with this form of close reading, whatever one believes that textual interaction should ideally be, so long as the coin of the realm is test scores.

So what is close reading, then, exactly? Here’s a few definitions to complicate your understanding:

  • Close reading is thoughtful, critical analysis of a text that focuses on significant details or patterns in order to develop a deep, precise understanding of the text’s form, craft, meanings, etc.

—“A Close Look at Close Reading” by Beth Burke

  • Close reading is a strategic process a reader uses in dealing with a complex text to acquire the information needed to complete a task. There is no single correct way to read something closely.

—“A Close Look at Close Reading” by LEAF (WestEd)

  • People read differently for different purposes. When you read in order to cram for a quiz, you might scan only the first line of every paragraph of a text. When you read for pleasure, you might permit yourself to linger for a long while over a particular phrase or image that you find appealing. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that when you read in order to write a paper, you must adopt certain strategies if you expect your efforts to be fruitful and efficient.

—“Close Reading” by Odegaard Writing & Research Center

  • Close Reading of text involves an investigation of a short piece of text, with multiple readings done over multiple instructional lessons. Through text-based questions and discussion, students are guided to deeply analyze and appreciate various aspects of the text, such as key vocabulary and how its meaning is shaped by context; attention to form, tone, imagery and/or rhetorical devices; the significance of word choice and syntax; and the discovery of different levels of meaning as passages are read multiple times.

—“Implementing the Common Core State Standards: A Primer on Close Reading of Text” by Sheil Brown and Lee Kappes

  • Love brings us in close, leads us to study the details of a thing, and asks us to return again and again. … we argue that teaching readers to look at texts closely–by showing them how one word, one scene, or one idea matters–is an opportunity to extend a love affair with reading. It is also a chance to carry close reading habits beyond the page, to remind students that their lives are rich with significance, ready to be examined, reflected upon, and appreciated.

Falling In Love With Close Reading by Christopher Lehman and Kate Roberts

  • Close reading should suggest close attention to the text; close attention to the relevant experience, thought, and memory of the reader; close attention to the responses and interpretations of other readers; and close attention to the interactions among those elements.

Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst

  • Reading nonfiction, in many ways, requires an effort not required in the reading of fiction. We must question the text, question the author, question our own understanding of the topic, and accept the possibility that our views will change as a result of the reading we’re doing. All those demands mean that the reader has great responsibility when reading nonfiction.

Reading Nonfiction by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst

  • Close reading is important because it is the building block for larger analysis. Your thoughts evolve not from someone else’s truth about the reading, but from your own observations. The more closely you can observe, the more original and exact your ideas will be.

—“Close Reading of a Literary Passage” by Dr. Kip Wheeler

There is a multiplicity of sources providing a methodology and form for close reading. Here’s just a snapshot of the different sources I’ve reviewed in my own research on the topic in preparation for a professional development series:

There are some essential components to a close reading process that become evident from these different approaches:

  • It is performed with a short text or short snippet of a longer text
  • There is a specific focus and purpose to reading that particular text
  • There are multiple reads, through which the meaning discovered in a particular portion becomes extended across or beyond that text
  • A system of annotation is applied
  • Textual understanding and interpretation typically moves from literal to inferential (though in the case of French l’explication de texte, analysis is maintained at the literal, more objective level of summary) based on patterns identified in initial observations
  • The end product is a written response or discussion

OK. So there it is. I’m pretty sure there’s a lot more to say on any and all of these things, but writing this has already taken way too much of my very limited time these days. I mean seriously, I’ve spent over a month writing this.

What have I learned? I don’t know if I can concisely articulate it, but it seems to me that textual interpretation, in any form you can name, whether scriptural exegesis or close reading, is most fruitful when it is viewed in a more flexible, rather than rigid, manner. That is, whatever stance and method one adopts, one recognizes there will be limitations based on that stance and method. Furthermore, it seems to me that methods which are able to accommodate and balance both literal and nonliteral meanings, and bear significance that is both objective and subjective, while acknowledging both the text itself and its relationship to a broader context, will be the most compelling.

But maybe that’s just me. What do you think?

Advertisements

UPDATE: Student Grouping: What is effective?

This is an updated version of an earlier post, based on new research I included. The decision-tree has been updated! You can find a Google Doc version of this here.

Student Grouping: What is Effective?

How do we leverage student grouping to best promote achievement?

This is a question teachers and administrators ask themselves almost daily. Unfortunately, there are few clear or easy answers. But we can draw out a few general principles from recent research and other sources of knowledge that may help to inform our instructional practice.

It’s important to acknowledge there’s often a steady pressure on teachers to utilize group work. And for some teachers, grouping students by ability can make serving a wide disparity of different levels of students more manageable.

But there’s an often unstated assumption: group work is inherently superior to whole class or independent learning. But is group work always better than other modes of learning?

Tom Bennett, a British behavioral specialist, argues in an article in American Educator, “Group Work for the Good,” that there is little research to suggest group work is better for academic learning. Bennett cautions teachers to only “use group work when you feel it is appropriate to the task you want your students to achieve, and at no other time.

OK, but what are the times when group work is appropriate?

When I first investigated this, a particular passage from Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey, in their book, Guided Instruction: How to Develop Confident and Successful Learners, struck me:

“. . . an understanding of memory systems has profound implications for instruction, which include creating systematic and intentional scaffolds of students’ understanding rather than leaving them alone to discover information independently. That’s not to say that students should not work together in collaborative learning; they should. We have argued for productive group work in which students interact with one another and generate ideas to produce individual works (Frey et al., 2009). But this work must center on the consolidation and application of content that students already know. It’s neither the time nor the place to introduce new information. Doing so would overload the working memory system and fail to ensure learning(Bold added).

In other words, Fisher and Frey suggest that new concepts and information should not be introduced during group work. Group work should instead be used for reinforcing, consolidating, and applying information students have already been exposed to.

But I later came across another study by Paul Kirschner, John Sweller, Femke Kirschner, and Jimmy Zambrano, “From Cognitive Load Theory to Collaborative Cognitive Load Theory,” that contradicts this. Instead, Kirschner et al. suggest that working as a group creates a collective working memory, and that therefore group tasks should be more complex.

They state, “… learning in a team is more effective than individual learning if the complexity of the to-be-learned material is so high that it exceeds the limits of each individual learner’s working memory.” They furthermore suggest that greater complexity will make the task more engaging for the group: “Collaboration will occur when the task is complex enough to justify the extra time and effort involved in collaborating with others.”

Therefore when assigning group work, ensure that the task is complex enough to warrant collaborative effort.

So we’re engaging groups of kids in complex tasks. Now how do we ensure students are productive during the times when they do work as a group? Here it can be instructive to look at some of the analysis coming out of the business sector. Fostering productive teams, after all, is critical to the success or failure of many modern businesses.

One finding from the business realm that will make immediate sense to educators is that creating a context that fosters shared identity promotes productivity. You can read more about this research in “Spaces the Signal Identity Improve Workplace Productivity,” in the Journal of Personnel Psychology. We know that giving our students a sense of belonging and recognizing who they are and what they bring is critical to fostering a positive school community. But it’s good to know that it also can improve group performance.

Another finding is that how a team communicates is what determines its effectiveness. As presented in an article, “The New Science of Building Great Teams” in Harvard Business Review, effective teams communicate more equitably and with higher engagement. And even more critically for consideration in a school context, socialization outside of formal meeting time has a huge influence on team effectiveness. What this means for educators is that fostering effective group work requires time and training. Furthermore, as described in a passage “Group Dynamics for Teams” by Daniel Levi, this training requires norming, socialization, and building cooperative skills. Educators know that many of our students struggle with social skills and working productively together. These skills must be taught and developed.

Similarly, moving into research from higher education, in “What makes a ‘good group’? Exploring the characteristics and performance of undergraduate student groups” the authors argue that if “team working skills” are “important as a learning outcome, they must be assessed directly alongside the task output.” In other words, if a teacher is going to utilize group work for a task, they must establish explicit learning objectives for the skills practiced in the group work itself, not only for the content of the task. This again reinforces the idea that when we do use group work, we must do so strategically.

This builds off of Robert Slavin’s review of educational research, as outlined in an ACSD article, “Cooperative Learning and Student Achievement,” which suggests that not only must effective group work have group goals and rewards, but also must hold each individual accountable for their contribution. Group work which incorporates only one aspect of those two critical components (group goals and individual accountability) demonstrates little benefit to learning, whereas group learning which incorporates both is far more effective.

Even adult research teams require training and practice to develop intrapersonal awareness, foster shared norms, and to understand that conflict is normal, as suggested by a paper “Creating and maintaining high-performing collaborative research teams: the importance of diversity and interpersonal skills.” The authors further suggest that fostering diverse teams is essential to productivity.

This latter insight, that diverse teams are more productive, may be one of the most useful within a classroom context. Various studies, as presented in an article on Harvard Business Review, “Why Diverse Teams Are Smarter” by David Rock and Heidi Grant, suggest that ethnic and racial diversity makes for more effective, deliberative, and innovative teams. This is an important consideration for teachers when forming groups.

A recent study by P. Karen Murphy et al., “Exploring the influence of homogeneous versus heterogeneous grouping on students’ text-based discussions and comprehension” provides useful guidance for teachers in deciding between homogenous vs. heterogenous grouping:

“. . . teachers’ goals and expectations for small-group discussions should guide their decision to compose the groups homogeneously or heterogeneously. For example, if teachers desire to focus on enhancing students’ basic comprehension or if they desire to support students’ engagement in the discussion, they may find that grouping the students homogeneously is more advantageous for low-ability students. Alternatively, teachers should employ heterogeneous ability grouping if their focus is on building students’ high-level comprehension of the text.”

In other words, group homogeneously to engage low-skilled students; group heterogeneously to deepen comprehension.

However, it’s important to note that research on homogeneous vs. heterogeneous grouping is mostly unclear. Ultimately, how a teacher chooses to group students must be strategic and based on the task and learning outcomes. But overall findings seem to suggest that our default should be mixing students of different backgrounds and ability.

A synthesis of findings on effective group work

Ok, so we’ve reviewed a fair amount of information on grouping. Let’s summarize what we have so far:

 

  • Use group work only when it is necessary to achieve the task you are planning
  • When assigning group work, ensure that the task is complex enough to warrant collaborative effort.
  • Create a classroom and school environment that fosters a shared identity
  • Provide norming, time for socialization, and training in the cooperative skills students will require to work productively as a team
  • Set explicit learning targets for group work skills when engaging in a group task, while holding each individual student accountable for their work within the group
  • Group students heterogeneously to promote greater critical thinking and creativity

 

Sources

Bennett, T. (2015). Group Work for the Good. American Educator. Retrieved from http://www.aft.org/ae/spring2015/bennett

Channon, S.B. (2017). What makes a ‘good group’? Exploring the characteristics and performance of undergraduate student groups. SpringerLink. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10459-016-9680-y

Cheruvelil, K. S., Soranno, P. A., Weathers, K. C., Hanson, P. C., Goring, S. J., Filstrup, C. T. and Read, E. K. (2014), Creating and maintaining high-performing collaborative research teams: the importance of diversity and interpersonal skills. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. 12: 31–38. doi:10.1890/130001. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1890/130001/abstract

Greenaway, K.H., Hannibal A. Thai, S. Haslam, A., and Murphy, S.C. (2016). Spaces That Signal Identity Improve Workplace Productivity. Journal of Personnel Psychology. 15(1), 35–43. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/301277968_Spaces_That_Signal_Identity_Improve_Workplace_Productivity

Fisher, D. & Frey, N. (2010). Scaffolds for Learning: The Key to Guided Instruction. ASCD. Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/111017/chapters/Scaffolds-for-Learning@-The-Key-to-Guided-Instruction.aspx

Kirschner, P.A., Sweller, J., Kirschner, F., and Zambrano, J. (2018). From Cognitive Load Theory to Collaborative Cognitive Load Theory. International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11412-018-9277-y

Levi, D. (2001). Group Dynamics for Teams. Sage Publications, 322 pp. Retrieved from http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.840.9487&rep=rep1&type=pdf

Murphy, P.K., Greene, J.A., Firetto, C.M., Li, M., Lobczowski, N.G., Duke, R.F., Wei, L., Croninger, R.M.V. (2017). Exploring the influence of homogeneous versus heterogeneous grouping on students’ text-based discussions and comprehension. Contemporary Educational Psychology. 51, 336-355 Retrieved from: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0361476X17302540

Pentland, A.S. (2012). The New Science of Building Great Teams. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2012/04/the-new-science-of-building-great-teams

Rock, D. and Grant, H. (2016.). Why Diverse Teams Are Smarter. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2016/11/why-diverse-teams-are-smarter

Slavin, R. (1988). Cooperative Learning and Student Achievement. ASCD. Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/ASCD/pdf/journals/ed_lead/el_198810_slavin.pdf

Wang, Z. (2013). Effects of heterogenous and homogenous grouping on student learning. Chapel Hill. Retrieved from https://cdr.lib.unc.edu/indexablecontent/uuid:ac391807-1cca-447e-801d-d65183945ad0

Yee, V. (2013.). Grouping Students by Ability Regains Favor With Educators. NY Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/10/education/grouping-students-by-ability-regains-favor-with-educators.html

Group Work Decision Tree

Copy of Group Work Decision Tree - Page 1

Student Grouping: What is Effective? by Mark Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

A Revision on Group Work: Assign complex—rather than simple—tasks

pexels-photo-705674.jpeg

Paul Kirschner, John Sweller, Femke Kirschner, and Jimmy Zambrano published a recent paper in the International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning titled, “From Cognitive Load Theory to Collaborative Cognitive Load Theory,” in which they make the case that cognitive load theory needs to be reconsidered from a different frame for group tasks.

I found it interesting because I had created a synthesis on group learning a while back (read all about it here), and much of Kirschner et al.’s synthesis aligns with much of what I found, such as that group work requires the development of collaborative skills, the importance of clear, accountable roles and expectations for group tasks, or that heterogenous grouping should be our default when creating groups.

However, there was one key piece that seemed to contradict a finding I had drawn from Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey’s book, “Guided Instruction,” which is that new concepts and information should not be introduced during group work, as this would overload students’ working memory.

Kirschner et al. instead suggest that working as a group creates a collective working memory, and that therefore group tasks should be more complex. They state, “… learning in a team is more effective than individual learning if the complexity of the to-be-learned material is so high that it exceeds the limits of each individual learner’s working memory.” They furthermore suggest that greater complexity will make the task more engaging for the group: “Collaboration will occur when the task is complex enough to justify the extra time and effort involved in collaborating with others.”

However, they also caution that “In terms of cognitive load, if learners have not acquired [task-specific collaboration] skills prior to beginning on the collaborative task, the load induced here could be so high as to hinder collaborative learning.” This agrees with what I also found in my synthesis, which is that fostering effective group work requires time and training, with explicit learning objectives for the skills practiced in group specific tasks. As Kirschner et al. puts it, “We may need to be taught how to communicate and coordinate carrying out complex tasks in order to optimize transactive activities and construct better knowledge and skill schemas (Zambrano et al. 2018).”

Kirschner et al. also highlight the different considerations we need to make for students based on what they already know. In fact, they seem to suggest that students with low levels of domain-specific knowledge can benefit the most from engaging in group tasks, whereas students with higher level of expertise may have their learning hindered by the additional elements introduced by collaboration. Here’s two relevant quotes on this:

“When teams are composed of learners with a low level of domain-specific knowledge, these novices need to be involved in cognitively demanding search-based problem solving, whereas when they are knowledgeable, this is not the case as the learners can probably deal with the problems using their available knowledge base. Also, when teams are composed of learners with a low level of domain-specific knowledge, there is a greater potential for a larger increase in collective WM than when individuals have high levels of domain-specific knowledge required by the task.”

“With respect to cognitive load, if learners have relevant knowledge to carry out a task, communication and coordination activities may be unnecessary or even detrimental to learning. When there is little domain-specific knowledge, the cognitive load incurred by transactions could positively impact learning but where there is a great degree of expertise, and thus where transactions are either unnecessary for or detrimental to learning (Zambrano et al. 2017b), the cognitive load incurred could negatively impact learning.”

I’m glad I reviewed this article, as it has helped me to clarify my thinking about assigning group work.

To summarize the key point I’m revising my thinking about group work on:

Fromnew concepts and information should not be introduced during group work. Group work should be used for reinforcing, consolidating, and applying information students have already been exposed to

to

When assigning group work, ensure that the task is complex enough to warrant collaborative effort.

I’ll provide an updated decision-tree and guiding document to reflect this learning soon.

The Symbiosis Between Scaffolding and Differentiation

A while back I wrote a long post redefining scaffolds and examining their connection to success criteria.

I then wrote a post drawing a distinction between scaffolds and differentiation, and I cast some shade on differentiation.

But I’m no longer quite as opposed to differentiation, and I can now see how there can be a strong symbiosis between scaffolding and differentiation.

I’ve been working with a school in the Bronx where we’ve been talking a lot about these concepts, and they’ve helped me to think a little more deeply. So I figured it would be worth sharing my updated learning.

Why it’s important

Teachers are often criticized by school and district leaders for not “differentiating” enough, yet rarely provided any clear guidance on how to do so. And there’s furthermore a lot of vagueness out there in the field on the distinctions between scaffolding and differentiation.

I want to share my revised thinking on the connection between the two concepts in the hope that I can help to clarify, rather than muddy, the use of these terms.

Here’s a visual model of how I now view scaffolds and differentiation:

Scaffolding = Steps

As students practice a skill or develop knowledge of a concept, their ability and understanding increases in complexity. A master teacher breaks down a skill or concept into smaller components, all the way down to the most basic and fundamental level, so that students can accelerate up the ladder towards mastery (just as jump school recruits do with a parachute landing fall).

Those sequential steps are the scaffolds.

Scaffolding, therefore, requires a teacher to be deeply knowledgeable of what is taught (content/skills).

Differentiation = Where each student is on those steps and what they need to progress

Differentiation, on the other hand, requires a teacher to know their individual students well enough to know what each student requires at every step on their trajectory towards mastery, and where they are on that trajectory.

Differentiation requires a teacher to be deeply aware of each of their individual student’s needs and current level of performance.

Distinguishing between Scaffolds and Differentiation

  • Scaffolding is aligned to a concept or skill.
  • Differentiation is aligned to the individual student.
  • Scaffolds are the sequential steps that lead to mastery of a skill or a deeper understanding of a concept.
  • Differentiation is in what manner and how much time a student may need to practice or review a step, as well as how much feedback may need to be provided.
  • Scaffolding requires a teacher to be deeply knowledgeable of what is taught.
  • Differentiation requires a teacher to be deeply aware of each individual student’s needs and current level of performance.

The two thus work in tandem.

A sidenote on how all this relates to personalized learning

This brings out something interesting about the edtech industry’s drive for “personalized learning.” The concept of personalized learning arguably aligns most strongly with differentiation.

What is not frequently discussed is that in order to personalize something, you must first define that “something” and break it into its component parts. How you do this and the decisions you make and the feedback you provide are just as important as matching that content to a student’s needs.

In other words, whenever you hear about personalized learning, ignore the inspirational student-centered rhetoric and home in on the content itself. What platform or curriculum is being used? What trajectory is presented by that content? Does this trajectory align with widely respected standards or guidance from national or international professional organizations.

Definitions and Characteristics

Scaffolding

Definition

A scaffold provides opportunities for performance and practice of the component content and skills that a student requires to achieve success in a unit of study.

Characteristics

  • Smaller, sequential components of a complex concept, task, or skill
  • Requires a teacher to be deeply knowledgeable of what is taught
  • At the right level of “desirable difficulty” for practice; in other words, a scaffold isn’t about making something “easier” for students
  • Must be mastered at each step along the way. Students shouldn’t move along or have a scaffold removed until they have demonstrated mastery of each component
  • Doubles as performance-based formative assessment

Differentiation

Definition

Differentiation provides an individual student with the targeted practice or thinking, and with the necessary feedback, in order to progress towards defined learning goals.

Characteristics

  • Adjustments in environment, content, process, or product to account for an individual student’s current level of knowledge, ability, or interest
  • Based on the trajectory of scaffolding for the current topic or unit of study
  • Requires the teacher to be deeply aware of an individual student’s needs and current level of performance
  • At the right level of “desirable difficulty” for practice; in other words, differentiation isn’t about making something “easier” for the student

You’ll notice that there is a key characteristic that is shared between these two: neither are about making something easier for a student — they are both about moving learners closer to mastery of whatever it is that they are practicing and studying.

This is important because unfortunately there is a strong tendency by educators to deem some students as incapable of achieving mastery of success in academic learning.

But what is most often the case is that the educator doesn’t know what they are teaching well enough in order to provide specific and targeted supports for their students.

There’s still a lot more to dig into on this topic — specifically how it relates to formal education plans (IEPs) for students with disabilities. But I think this is more than enough for one post!

Please push back on any of this to help me further clarify and refine my thinking on scaffolding and differentiation.

Scaffolding vs Differentiation

My recent post on scaffolds and success criteria seemed to be useful to folks, so I thought I should share something more on scaffolding that can help to further clarify the term.

Scaffolding and differentiation are both words frequently thrown around in schools, often interchangeably and without precision. But there’s a clear distinction between the two that must be made, most especially as teachers are increasingly pressured to “differentiate” their lessons by school and district leadership with little guidance and concrete models.

So what is differentiation?

Differentiation asks teachers to plan different tasks or learning experiences for different groups of students, with the idea being that we can better meet the needs of diverse learners.

So for example, if we had our “high” student, our “medium” student, and our “low” performing student, we might provide a different text for each one in order to ensure they would be reading something at their “level.”

But there’s a problem with this. If the so-called “low” students only ever receive less complex and challenging expectations, texts, and learning experiences, they will continue to perform at a lower level.

This is why too many of our kids end up in “remedial” classes if and when they make it to college. This is why too many students consigned to a segregated “self-contained” program rarely even make it to graduation.

There’s another problem with differentiation. It demands quite a bit from a teacher to design (at least) 3 separate tasks or resources for any given lesson — time and energy that could perhaps be more effectively spent elsewhere.

To acknowledge these problems is not to say that differentiation can’t be applied effectively nor that it is universally the wrong thing to do. Structures for guided reading, for example, draw from this model and can be very effective in a school and classroom that have developed the necessary systems and routines. But these problems are big enough that they should give us strong pause before mindlessly evaluating and chiding teachers about whether they are adequately “differentiating” their lessons.

What is scaffolding, and how is it different?

The concept of scaffolding shifts how we approach meeting the needs of diverse learners.

We may have students coming into a learning experience with differing levels of knowledge, ability, or background, but rather than providing them with something different, we instead consider how we can provide the scaffolding necessary to ensure they can work together in grappling with a common task or text.

This is a shift offered by common standards, which demand a shared set of expectations for all students. For our students who may struggle in meeting these more rigorous demands, we must consider how to scaffold the concepts, procedures, and environment to support their engagement in practice with the texts and learning experiences that can enable them to meet those expectations.

This is certainly not an easy thing to do, either. But if I had to take a pick about what is going to give me the most bang for my buck, designing access and practice with common vocabulary, tasks, and texts is where I would ask educators to more wisely invest their time and energy.

For more on what that scaffolding should look like, take a look at my prior post, Scaffolding and Success Criteria.