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Close Reading is NOT a Regimented Protocol

As you can tell from my earlier posts, I have been thinking quite heavily about how we help build students identities as readers…and how we do not. To create readers, we need to cultivate a classroom community of reading books that interest and matter to us and to respond to those books in ways that matter as readers. I have been working with a group of elementary teachers to look at the curriculum in grades 3 – 5 and think carefully about the kinds of reading and writing we are asking them to do.

Here are some of the comments that stuck out to me and moved me to reflect and write this post:

“They can read and fill out the evidence for literal elements, but they can’t pull it all together.”
 ‘They can talk about a book, but they can’t always answer text-dependent questions in writing.”
‘They are good readers, but they still did not finish the test in time because they were doing what we trained them to do: read, reread and read closely for evidence.”

As we talked about close reading and the practices that are found in many current curriculum modules, I was struck by how close reading had become a protocol and not a way of reading to discover messages and meaning in books that matter.

The process of reading for meaning and analysis seems to have taken a back seat to reading by a protocol. That protocol typically follows this sequence:

1. Read the text.
2. Re-read the text and underline important details. Circle words you do not know.
3. Re-read the text and write the gist of each paragraph. 
4. Answer text-dependent questions. 

I have even seen posters that outline this protocol for students and standardize the way we are closely reading texts together. Yet, with all of this ‘work’ and ‘training’ students to read closely, we still have students who struggle with comprehending text and writing about their responses. Why? In my opinion, a large reason is the way we have implemented close reading: as a regimented protocol to better answer comprehension questions after reading rather than a process of reading for meaning. 

Close reading is NOT meant to be a regimented protocol to better answer comprehension questions. It is meant to be an authentic process of reading that creates strategic and thoughtful readers who read a particular text with a particular lens for a particular reason. Close reading is purposeful reading. Yet, in our valiant attempts to create ‘close readers’ we have focused much too much on the protocol over the authentic process and purpose of such reading. As a result, we have readers who robotically go through the motions of close reading and even read TOO closely when the book, context and purpose for reading might not call for it.

Rather than focus on the protocol of close reading, we need to focus on the reason for close reading and the flexible, strategic process for doing so. How? First, we must consider the reader. The reader needs to have an authentic reason for reading and must read with a particular lens to dig deeper into the text and actually learn and widen their knowledge base…..not to answer comprehension questions. 

Next, we need to consider the text. Not all texts are meant to be read closely. We need to carefully and strategically choose the texts we read with students and model the ways in which we choose our purpose and process for reading, all which change based on the reader, the context and the reason for reading. 

We need to step back and honestly reflect on our close reading practices. However well-intentioned we were in teaching close reading, we may actually be contributing to a larger problem. Are we requiring a particular way of reading? Are we focusing on the list of steps and the number of times we reread a text to guide our teaching? Or are we helping students to discover purposes for reading, providing them with a flexible process for thinking, reflecting and sharing that knowledge in real ways that matter? 
I created this simple printable as a reminder of what close reading really is. I encourage you to add to it and use it as a reminder when planning literacy instruction and close reading in the Fall.

There are many resources to support our work. If you have not done so already, you might start by reading ‘Falling in Love With Close Reading’ and pair it with ‘Notice and Note’. They each have a unique stance, but complement each other beautifully. Rather than focus on a strict protocol, each focus on teaching students how and why to read texts that matter. I guarantee our summer reading is not spent reading ‘closely’ as we have been artificially defining it for students. Instead, we will read carefully, purposefully, and with the motivation to apply our learning to the classroom and share it with fellow teachers. I plan to revisit these two books over the summer and look at my curriculum work with teachers with new eyes: as a chance to redefine close reading as a practice with an authentic purpose, not as a protocol for reading to answer text-dependent questions.



  1. Love this! Thank you for sharing this information and posting this reminder.

  2. Thank you! This post has been a long time coming, starting back with our first curriculum days and rethinking those darn worksheets!

  3. Thank GOD someone finally said it! Many of us knew that the "protocols" were NOT helpful...but many didn't! Thank you!

  4. Thank you, Maria! I think we all relied on the protocols early on to help us understand what close reading really is, but it is time to step back and really think about what it is and how we do it. Thanks for the positive comment!

  5. Thank you for this post. I think often naming a strategy is helpful in talking about it and understanding. Unfortunately, that is often followed by an overemphasis and an imbalanced use of the strategy. Though I see the benefits of close reading on occasion, I worry about its overuse in a world where some students are still striving to become a reader. Additionally, I often get the question about close reading for primary students and this concerns me greatly.

    Thanks for sharing important reminders of what close reading is -- and is not. I'm glad your previous post led me back here.


  6. I am glad too, Cathy! I just saw a tweet from #ILA15 about close reading. It said if we have to staple the passage together, it is too long for close reading! We have to choose our text excerpts carefully so we are teaching students what is worth reading closely, especially with our primary readers where close reading can quickly become inappropriate!


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