Will an emphasis on ‘close reading’ kill the joy of reading?


As most educators know by now, the new Common Core standards emphasize ‘close reading.’ It’s hard to argue with that as a necessary skill for understanding complex writing. As a professor I spent lots of time dissecting research articles, book chapters, blog posts, and legal cases with my students. Close, careful reading and discussion also have been a staple of English / Language Arts classrooms for decades, as have been the critical analysis of political arguments in Social Studies classes, of pseudo-scientific claims in Science classes, and so on.

BUT… I keep thinking back to some quotes from Kelly Gallagher’s phenomenal book, Readicide:

“What has gone wrong in our schools: the creation of readicide through intensive overanalysis of literature and nonfiction. Young readers are drowning in a sea of sticky notes, marginalia, and double-entry journals and, as a result, their love of reading is being killed in the one place where the nourishment of a reading habit should be occurring – in school”

“On my desk is a copy of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s (2007) unit of study for teaching To Kill a Mockingbird. This study unit, a guide to teaching Harper Lee’s timeless novel, contains overarching questions, chapter study questions, essay questions, vocabulary lessons, activities for specific chapters, guided reading lessons, directions for setting up a writer’s notebook, literary analysis questions, collaborative activities, oral presentations, handouts, transparencies, displays, quizzes, and projects. It also comes with an almost incomprehensible unit guide. This guide is 122 pages long – almost half the length of the actual novel! … If I were to follow this curricular guide step-by-step in my classroom, there is little doubt my students would exit my class hating To Kill a Mockingbird forever. Worse, students who have been taught to hate To Kill a Mockingbird will find themselves much farther down the road toward hating all reading. . . . No student ever achieved reading flow from analyzing every nook and cranny of a complex work. Students in these reading situations are not coming up for air. They are coming up for life preservers. . . . The overanalysis of books creates instruction that values the trivial at the expense of the meaningful. . . . “As I look at the 122-page teaching guide for To Kill a Mockingbird, . . . the value in teaching this book is when we use this great book as a springboard to examine issues in today’s world. This opportunity seems to be largely missing in the district’s mandated curriculum. A golden opportunity for our children to read, to write, and to debate about relevant issues is buried under 122 pages of mind-numbing instructions.

“We would never buy a book at Barnes and Noble if it came with mandated chapter-by-chapter exams. We would never read a book so that we could tackle worksheets afterward. We would never begin a new read with the expressed goal of earning points. And we would never feel compelled to read if we had to complete a project after every book. Yet, as teachers, we do all of these things to developing readers. We subject them repeatedly to treatments that are counterproductive to developing book lovers. And we do it book after book, year after year. Worse, we rationalize our behavior by believing we must prepare students to perform well at test time. Shameful.” 

So I’m torn. I want students to be able to critically analyze what they’re reading but even more importantly I want them to love to read. When I taught 8th grade, a mom told me that she once found her daughter reading in the shower, one arm stuck outside of the curtain. Now that’s a love for reading! I’m worried that the more we emphasize the technocratic side of reading, the less we will celebrate and foster the pleasurable aspects of reading. It does us no good to teach kids how to read if at the end they don’t read because we’ve sucked the joy out of it.

I’m concerned that, like in so many other areas of educational reform these days, we’re going to tip way past what’s reasonable. But maybe I’m just making stuff up. Got any thoughts on this?

Image credit: Reading, Canon_Shooter

17 Responses to “Will an emphasis on ‘close reading’ kill the joy of reading?”

  1. This is a fear I share, as well, and it’s nice to see it so well articulated! As I think about trying to take advantage of the “maker”/content-creation aspect of digital tools, I wonder how to let kids create but also keep them returning to a close reading of the text at the same time.

  2. I think it is about balance. Our close reading of song lyrics and a short story as we start our year journey in English Language Arts has been AWESOME. BUT, we will not beat the text with activities. My students were so engaged with both close readings, and my colleagues are finding the same success, but we are cautious to balance that task with pure reading, self-selected reading, and collaborative reading.

  3. Kim for the win.

    I worry about any curriculum scripted to that level. Why does it seem that a loose/tight balance is so hard to reach across the board when reviewing district curriculum & its implementation?

  4. I don’t believe it is Common Core that will kill the love for reading as much at it has been the AR points.
    My son being in the third grade hates to read. Mainly because most of the books he can test on are not interesting to him, but because he can’t get a point on it he doesn’t want to take the time to read it. Librarians across NC have been making this argument – maybe a book is old but a great book and no one has made a test on it, it gets left behind.

    • We have decades of psychological research that shows that any time we attach extrinsic rewards and then remove them, we face very real possibilities of killing what should/could be intrinsically-rewarding behavior. Sorry to hear this is true for your son, Michelle. Keep fighting and feeding him with interesting reading to reclaim his interest! (as I know you will)

    • Michelle, I am sorry to hear this is still going on. I do not allow AR in my district because of the emphasis on extrinsic rewards. When my son, who is now a college senior in elementary education, was in 2nd grade I realized that because of the emphasis on AR he had developed the misconception that if a book was not an AR book it was not worth reading. That made me sad for all the teachers/parents that were not uncovering and addressing this belief with their students.

  5. School librarians play a huge role in making sure that students have access to books for pleasure reading. Frequent visits to the school library should be provided for students, and the students should be able to choose what they want to read without any obligations to write about or take a test on what they have read.

  6. As a twenty-year veteran of the high school classroom and one who suffered the pains of death for own love of reading when I was in school, I can attest from both sides of the classroom desk that standards and teachers’ guides are not guilty for committing readicide: teachers are the culprit–teachers who because they lack either inspiration, creativity and/or a personal love of reading themselves are unable and/or unwilling to adapt rather than adopt scripted lessons, overwritten teachers’s editions, and/or units designed by people who never taught in a real classroom. Just my humble opinion.

  7. Great thoughts Scott. Yes, we absolutely must be careful about how we teach reading because reading is not just for work but for fun too! About how many other things can we say that? Kids have said for decades that English teachers tend to over-analyze books and read too much into them. I know I would have enjoyed more of our school books if some of my English teachers had let us just read them! So I went home and read other books – that I chose – on my own. These are the principles espoused by people like Kelly Gallagher. Now I read constantly – books in print, online, and tons of blogs and websites – to learn and grow and get better at life.

    So somehow, we need to help kids discover that reading is a great way to enrich your life by learning new things, and also a great way to enrich your life through fun and fantasy. Sometimes the former is relatively hard work. Finding that line in the middle is definitely a challenge, especially when kids are more inclined to take the fast, easy route of watching something on a screen.

    Another shower story. During middle school, our daughter would take long showers. My husband wised up to her eventually and would go into the bathroom and say, “Give me the book and get out of the shower” (don’t ask me how she kept it dry in there!). After a week or two of this, then he would say, “Now give me the other book and get out of the shower.” She actually had a decoy book in the shower! 🙂

  8. While the article does make good points. In my opinion it does not truly represent “close reading”. I believe this will give it a bad rep. Anything strategy that is too scripted and goes overboard will cause problems. Close reading is truly about reading text and having the teacher know his/her students well enough and know the text enough to use deep thinking and the power of questioning and conversation to read the text over and over to gain new insight and deeper understanding. It is NOT about creating thousands of meaningless questions and worksheets or packets to complete. It is like this…
    The best part about reading and rereading a book (or short text)is how your knowledge and perception changes over time. You get to know it slowly and eventually are let in on all the little quirks you missed before. It is like watching a movie over 100 times. You see something new each time. That is meaningful “close reading”.

  9. The use of ‘close reading’ has become a version of test prep in New York State as a result of the high-stakes nature of the new Common Core state assessments. Balance is the key, but if we subject students to an endless array of boring reading passages to build a skill, instead of the love of reading, we will kill a generation’s desire to read.

  10. I agree with many of the comments here. Balance is the key and I share the frustration that the idea of loose/tight concept being so difficult for people to grasp. I think there is lots of “blame’ to go around – AR (we still have) to ‘motivate’ and track “learning,and sort kids; teaching by packets and worksheets (long before Common Core); focus on grades as an accumulation of points, compliance under the guise of rewarding motivated students who have “good student skills” (aka family support in many cases); and district-, state- focus on high test scores as opposed to meaningful learning for ALL students. I see this as another example of the “either/or” type thinking that has taken over the conversation in education.

  11. Hi Scott,

    I am 100% for the love of reading, and allowing students to get wrapped up in a book for the joy it brings. Stopping them every page or paragraph to do a worksheet lesson would take that away (I could quote you above regarding Readicide).

    After I experienced close reading in the classroom, I’m also for that as well, but under these conditions:
    1) It must be a short excerpt or short amount of reading.
    2) It must be in the students’ frustration level of reading.
    3) It is done on occasion, so Readicide does not occur.
    4) Over time, the scaffolds of close reading are removed, while retaining the higher level of text complexity.

    When it’s at a frustration reading level, students need the scaffolds that close reading provides. Here’s what I noticed when I experienced close reading in the classroom. I introduced “The Dumb Soldier” to 1st, 2nd, and 3rd graders. The teachers (and I) were concerned that it would be way over their heads. But, through close reading, it was not.

    On this post, you can hear the students interact with the questions at about the 4:30 minute mark of the Educreations video, I was able to capture the lesson with the students, so you actually hear 7 and 8 year olds engaging with the text as I’m doing my model annotation.

    Again, this is not something that should be done with every reading. It should be used as a scaffolded approach for teaching students to grapple with text so they can learn to do it on their own (with fewer steps).

    Kind regards,

  12. This thread reminds me of an essay I just finished reading, A Mathematician’s Lament by Paul Lockart who writes a compelling argument that math without the joy of curiosity just plain stinks. http://worrydream.com/refs/Lockhart-MathematiciansLament.pdf
    Close reading or rereading after a text or more lengthy passage can be very illuminating. However, we’ve trained students to be very good at delivering us the correct answers. We need to get much better at asking them for their opinions before rendering right and wrong answers.

  13. As a teacher in a turnaround high school, I share the concern that an emphasis on close reading is endangering students’ love for learning. I am required by our district to read singular, very high-level texts (no book list options, each book is mandated). Many of my students read at elementary school or middle school levels. When we express concerns about this, we are always told that the curriculum is designed to be as rigorous as possible with the idea that a school like ours can just cut out large portions of the text. What this means is we don’t ever get to read an entire book.

    The training we have received on Common Core, including close reading strategies, has led to fantastic lessons and a unified approach to analytical reading in the school. However, there are no standards or explicit strategies for developing a love for reading. The closest thing I have come to this has been requiring outside reading projects with texts chosen on a student’s reading level. However, in my last meeting with district personnel we were told we should be having the kids read the high-level texts for homework (and that even the students have no idea what they are reading, they can come to school with a bunch of questions the next day). I definitely feel like the pendulum is not landing on the balanced approach many of these posts are espousing.

  14. I think close reading absolutely kills it. Every single class I’ve had to take in high school has had me do two close reading projects a semester. I’m not kidding, even MATH. It is the most boring thing ever and it’s overkill. I’m an A+ student and I enjoy learning, but there is noting more I hate than close reading. I’m at the point that I’d rather fail than do one more close reading assignment.

  15. I have always been a “good-student”. I do my assignments, get good grades and take two high school classes (I’m in 8th grade). I am not near as much of a lover of reading as some of my classmates, but I have always had a passion for snuggling up with a good read. But close-read does nothing but frustrate me to no end. I end up bored sick of every single story we’ve read close-read. I end up reading short-stories around 6 times, longer ones close to 10. Each time we read we have to pause and answer questions geared to make us form our teachers opinions.
    Like today for example, when my teacher had the worried look on her face and I got my question wrong for stating that Tom Sawyer did NOT have a good work ethic and cheated his classmates into doing his work.
    Or last week, when I had to circle all the uses of the word “I” to prove my teacher’s(not my) point that the character was self-centered.
    I am all for a good and valued discussion about a piece of literature.
    But I refuse to support a system that forces me into its own opinions, a system that has me read and re-read to the point where I want to burn my copy. I refuse to support a system that refuses to believe I can make a conclusion without writing a paragraph and circling every adjective in a limited section. I refuse to support a system that wants me at and incredibly slow pace and listen to a computer voice tell me what a verb is. And I refuse to support a system that does nothing more than drive the best and brightest of readers insane.

    A Modern Student

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