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 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?

Building an Instructional Core for Student Literacy: Part II

In my last post, way back in August (things got busy!), we examined the problem of incoherency in literacy instruction, and I proposed the following hypothesis:

If a school comes to a clear understanding of what they teach, and can articulate why they are teaching it to parents, students, and the wider public, then this will ultimately result in improved academic outcomes for students due to the greater coherency and consistency in what is taught to students throughout the school.

So how can a school come to a clearer understanding of what they teach, how they will teach it, and a rationale and vision for literacy?

Define What You Want Kids to Know and Be Able to Do

A good place to start is for a school to define what knowledge and skills they believe children should walk out of their building equipped with when they graduate. And by define, I mean truly define discretely, not simply generate a set of feelgood statements like, “I want kids to be lifelong learners and passionate, independent readers who have 21st century learning skills. .  .”

A hearty chunk of skills are already defined by state standards (which was already contentious enough of a process) but due to the decentralized nature of American schools, as well as a strong anti-intellectual current, there’s reluctance to define the content–in the form of topics or texts–that students should study.

And so here we are, like I said in my last post, in the situation wherein parents and the wider public have nary a clear what is actually taught in most public school classrooms.

I think that much of this is attributable to confusion between knowledge and skills. Some school officials, if challenged, will point to state standards and say, “There’s what we teach.” But standards are relatively abstract goals composed of various strands of skills wrapped together. They require significant work on the educator’s part to “unpack” in order to break them down into more concrete subskills and targets for learning.

But even then, you’ll still be missing a critical component of literacy.

Let me give you an example. Let’s say you’ve broken down the third grade Common Core reading literature standard which states, “Determine the main idea of a text and explain how it is supported by key details.” You’ve broken down the ability to meet this standard into a few subskills, such as, “I can distinguish between the important and unimportant details in a text” (look familiar? This is from my post on scaffolding a while back!).

That would be a typical “learning target” in a classroom. But there’s a key element missing: Which text? What details?

Because that’s really where the rubber hits the road. We pretend academic literacy can be developed from an isolated set of skills, but vocabulary and background knowledge are a critical component of literacy. And academic vocabulary and knowledge are built cumulatively from the study of related texts and topics over time.

Knowledge vs. Skills

Knowledge and skills are not the same thing, and it’s important to be able to delineate them. They exist on different planes, but they share a point at which they converge.

Here’s a little graphic I came up with to demonstrate their convergence and differentiation:

The Roadmap to Literacy V2

Where lies the point of convergence between literacy knowledge and skills? It lies in the texts that students read.

Do the texts cumulatively build knowledge of key topics and themes? Or are they happenstance and scattered, dependent on the teacher?

This is why you’ll hear literacy experts talk about the importance of “text sets” that focus on key topics and themes. This is how academic vocabulary and knowledge is built.

Speaking of “experts,” I had an extended dialogue with an author and professional development facilitator who claimed that rather than two strands, like the one above, that there are in fact three strands, or “three dimensions” of learning: concepts, facts, and skills. She and I went back and forth about whether and how conceptual knowledge is distinguished from factual knowledge. Rather than refer me to research or other verified sources, she would just tell me that I needed to read her book. Color me skeptical.

Maybe she’s right, but I ain’t reading her book (unless she sends me a free copy. Then, maybe). But I figured I should put it out there in case you do find that distinction useful.

I’ll stop there for this already overlong post. There’s a heck of a lot more to dive into. But I’m hoping that even just drawing that line between knowledge and skills might help you to redefine how you talk about literacy in your school. Do your students have text sets available to them that build knowledge around key topics and themes that they can use to practice and apply key literacy skills more independently? Has your school defined key topics and themes?

Does the curriculum your school uses build knowledge around key topics and themes? Does it build it vertically across grades and horizontally across subjects? Or is it so heavily skills-based that it’s entirely unclear what texts are actually to be read?

Start there, and your school can begin to tackle the sticky problems of literacy at a much deeper level, and that approach can pay dividends in student learning over time.

 

Exciting things happening in Louisiana

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Don’t know if you’ve been paying attention, but Louisiana Superintendent John White, despite great controversy, has been making strong leadership moves over in LA, writing smart op-eds, maintaining a clear focus on higher standards in the face of volatile political headwinds, working with innovative partners to develop online curriculum, and pulling teachers together to conduct thorough reviews of curricular options according to LA state standards (I wrote a little more about how their reviews compare against EdReports here.)

And now, White is continuing to steer Louisiana on the path to meaningful reform with a proposal to pilot a new form of assessment that recognizes the importance of background knowledge in reading comprehension. These assessments will do so by merging social studies and ELA texts and units throughout the course of a year. Here’s his explanation:

“Rather than administering separate social studies and English tests at the end of the year, Louisiana schools participating in the pilot will teach short social studies and English curriculum units in tandem over the course of the year, pausing briefly after each unit to assess students’ reading, writing and content knowledge. Students, teachers and parents will know the knowledge and books covered on the tests well in advance. Knowledge of the world and of specific books will be measured as a co-equal to students’ literacy skills. And teachers would have good reason to focus on the hard and inspiring lessons of history and books.”

This type of assessment is something I’ve been dreaming about for years, and that former NY State Commissioner and current Executive Director at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy, David Steiner, has been talking about for years. At a Research ED conference back in September, I had a chance to chat with Steiner about this a little bit. It’s not a topic that non-wonkish education people seem to care about, but he is also passionate about this issue, and it’s really nice to see that this might finally get a chance to get “tested” by a state.

Too bad NY couldn’t get itself together to make this happen first.

Here’s a short video I had made about ideas for successful implementation of the Common Core standards back in 2014 in which I also make the case that all teachers on a grade-level should be held accountable by literacy assessments:

States don’t measure what kids actually know. That needs to change. John White / The Hill

 

Smorgasbord: Complexity, Reading, Morals, and Algorithms

Free vector graphic: Panda, Golf, Animal, Bear, Sports - Free ...

Stop wasting your time on item-analysis of standards and skills on state ELA tests, people

Tim Shanahan has some advice and candor that many principals and district leaders sorely need to hear.

“What makes the difference in reading performance isn’t practice answering certain question types, but practice in interpreting texts that are challenging–that pose barriers to meaning.

. . . The point isn’t that the standards should be ignored, but that teachers have to understand that reading comprehension tests do not/cannot measure single, separable, independent skills. These instruments provide nothing more than an overall indicator of general reading comprehension performance.”

This is the annual rigmarole that schools waste their ELA teachers’ time with at the beginning of each school year.

Stop it, folks. Just stop it. You’re not going to glean new insight about how to effectively teach literacy to your kids by doing intensive item analysis of the standards and questions on the ELA state test.

Instead, read real literature and engage your kids in learning about their world. Then you might actually have an impact.

A Spirited Reaction to One District’s Approach to Standards-Based Reading Instruction, Shanahan on Literacy

Teach morals by human example, not using cute animals

“Books that children can easily relate to increase their ability to apply the story’s lesson to their daily lives.”

But the study also notes that “The more a child attributed human characteristics to the anthropomorphic animals, the more they shared after reading the animal book.”

So as always, it’s about how the adults reading the books with children help them pay attention to and understand what’s most important.

Human Characters, Not Animals, Teach Children Best Moral Lessons, Neuroscience News

If laptops are detrimental to learning in college classrooms, then . . .

“We find that allowing any computer usage in the classroom—even with strict limitations—reduces students’ average final-exam performance by roughly one-fifth of a standard deviation.”

Should professors ban laptops?, Education Next

Bellwether reviewed NY’s ESSA plans and provides a useful critique.

NY has a strong foundation, but it’s accountability measures may be too complex for parents and the public to make sense of, as well as too vague.

An Independent Review of New York’s Draft ESSA Plan, Bellwether Education

A Friendly Reminder: Schools are Complex

“At least on paper, it is difficult to tell what separates the schools at the bottom of the list from those at the top, which cuts to the core of what makes school turnaround so difficult: nobody knows precisely what works.

‘The problem is that there is no silver bullet to turnaround interventions,’ said Priscilla Wohlstetter, a distinguished research professor at Columbia University’s Teacher College. ‘It’s a really tough thing to figure out what makes the difference in schools.’”

For $582 Million Spent on Troubled Schools, Some Gains, More Disappointments, NY Times

And school closures? Also complex

Make sure to read behind the headlines on the new CREDO study. There’s a lot of unknowns and nuance to their findings.

Matt Barnum does a nice job of drawing those out in this Chalkbeat piece.

“…the study can’t explain why closures happen more often in certain communities. For instance, if low-achieving schools with many white students are especially likely to be located in rural areas where there are fewer alternative schools, that may help explain the results.

Another explanation could be that the expansion of charter schools in high-minority areas puts additional fiscal and enrollment pressure on districts and charters — as charters expand, other schools may close as their enrollment declines.

What is clear, though, is that black and low-income students and communities are especially likely to have a school closed.”

Schools with more students of color are more likely to be shut down — and three other things to know about a big new study, Chalkbeat

A NY City Council bill could make public the algorithms that affect the public

An innovative–and some would say, long overdue, bill has been introduced in the City Council by Bronx Councilmember Vacca.

This would make the algorithm that the city uses to sort students for high school would be made transparent.

Showing the Algorithms Behind New York City Services, NY Times

A “historic” literacy effort in Napa Valley may be less about iPads and “engagement” and more about carefully sequenced, structured learning

the74 breathlessly reports on a digital early learning initiative in California wine-making country, but I’m not sure the lessons promoted therein should be taken at face value.

“The first message is, digital works,” Nemko [the Superintendent and promoter of this effort] says. “Digital is engaging, and the one thing we know is that student engagement is the biggest measure of achievement. If you are engaged more — and this has a breadth and depth because of all the additional games and letter recognition — you are going to learn more.”

But that’s not the message I receive when I read this article. What I see is what happens when a concerted effort is made to provide a systematic and structured effort to address literacy development in young learners. I’m sure all the bells and whistles of an iPad are lovely. But adding animations and interactivity to a text alone are not what promotes literacy growth. What I view as the most powerful levers here are that the initiative is getting parents involved, and they are structuring vocabulary, phonemic awareness, phonics, and comprehension activities around a core body of texts.

So kudos is certainly due to the efforts being made, in public-private partnerships, to promote the literacy development of Napa Valley children. But let’s not turn this into another mistaken boosterist heralding of iPads and personalized digital learning.

A Historic Literacy Effort in California Brings Personalized Learning to English Language Learners, the74