Close Reading vs Impressionistic Reading

I had a classroom teacher ask me recently “Why is Close Reading such a big deal?”.  Good question.  Now, could I come up with a good answer?  So, I started hanging out with a few of my reader friends in third, fourth and fifth grade.  I wanted to see what happened for them as readers when they either did or didn’t do close reading.

I noticed that several of my young reader friends were very literal.  Their post its were retellings of the most recent event from the text.  They could string together small snippets of what was going on in the text, but they couldn’t catch the bigger picture.  They had a vague sense of the story, but not any deep comprehension.

When I asked if they had any post-its with questions, they pretty much said “no”.  They were not engaging with the author.  These beloved readers were missing the grand build-up of ideas that really “makes” a story.  They didn’t have a movie in the mind, they had a comic strip panel.  Only the barest details had stuck.  Only the grand events were in the comic strip panel.  There was no soundtrack playing in their heads, no play of lighting in their minds.  Much like a comic strip panel, they had an “impression” of the story, but not the full saga.

Here’s the problem.  Impressionism (even in art) is all about big sweeping brush strokes, not about contours and lines.  Impressionistic art is about broad swaths of color, not specific objects.  The viewer of the impressionist painting must bring a host of personal experience and interpretation to the work.  The mind must meander down through mental associations to “see” what the painting is about.  I think that impressionistic readers do something similar.  They see the story in broad swaths of sweeping actions.  They draw so strongly from their own schema that it becomes unclear how much of what they comprehend is really from the text and how much is from their own schema.  They are constantly in danger of following their associations or connections down a wrong path and ending up somewhere that the text never went.

Because of the strong action of schema in the thought process, the impressionistic reader is not likely to engage in real synthesis.  Taking in a new idea, melding it into the existing schema, correcting old flaws in the existing mental web, is all very challenging when you’re not clear what is information drawn from that existing web and what is new information from the text.  Because they see the work as a whole, it becomes difficult to monitor and evaluate the information involved in the thinking.

At great personal risk, I think of the sitcom character, Archie Bunker.  Archie perceived the world in a very impressionistic way.  He saw the broad brush strokes and rarely noticed the nuances or specifics of a situation.  He often confounded those around him (along with the audience) with his interpretation of events.  “See, that’s what I’m sayin”, was always good for a laugh.  Archie filtered whatever information the world presented through his unique filter of prejudice, bias, and perspective — and what came out was a mystery to most of us.

I think that impressionistic readers do the same thing.  They end up drawing conclusions that the rest of us cannot fathom.  They give the teacher some seriously WRONG answers.  They miss the point.

So, why is close reading so important?  Because these kids need to be able to process new information presented in text in mature, effective ways.  They need to synthesize and grow as human beings when they read.  Comic strip panel impressions of the story are not enough. Close reading forces them out of the comic strip panels and into a richer understanding of the text.  It forces them to recognize what comes from the existing mind web and what comes from the text.  And it enables them to begin reconciling the two.  Close reading can build a habit of  mind for processing all kinds of information in the world.


Moving From Post it to Entry: Readers’ Notebooks Grade 4

Barbara, Sue, Megan and I were looking through the Readers’ Notebooks of the new fourth graders.  We had done some work on what makes a good post it — and the improvement was dramatic.  But now we were asking them to move from a post-it to an entry.  And our usual tactic of telling them to “say more” wasn’t working.  We tried several different strategies among the three rooms, hoping to hit on something that would give us the same improvement in our entries that we had already seen in our post-its.

Here’s one that worked:

postit to entry This yielded notebook entries that began with statements like, “People like this who do what they want no matter what other people think…”  The kids went on to talk about “people like that”.  They were able to write long about an idea because the idea was big enough to write long about.

What I liked about this strategy is that it prompts students to think about the larger set of characters who behave in a certain way or hold a certain set of values.  It pushes kids out of the mind-set of summarizing the story and into a world of making generalizations.


Close Reading and Visualizing in Grade 3

As we were looking at the demands of Close Reading, some of our third grade teachers noticed that a significant amount of the work requires strong visualizing skills.    Jayne and I were working on helping some of her students with the work of visualizing.  One of the things we had noticed about her incoming third graders is that visualizing was weak.  The children are growing from picture books and from transitional readers like Henry and Mudge into full-on chapter books.  The author/illustrator no longer helped them with visualization — the work is now all on the reader.  That shift seems to take some readers by surprise.  They haven’t really been aware of how much the book is helping them.  And, honestly, we weren’t aware of it either.  Until suddenly, we noticed they didn’t have clear pictures in their minds.  They were losing track of the story because the movie in their minds was too sketchy.

Here’s the work we started to do on visualizing:





And then, Jayne and I started thinking… where do readers go from here?  What will they need to DO with their visualizing?

Here’s our first attempt at that:

infer with vis

Close Reading and the Red Sox Game

You might not think about Close Reading while at Fenway Park watching a Red Sox game, but I do. I’m sure it makes me nerdy and geeky and way too involved in my job, but it’s what I was thinking about last week while sitting in my seat watching the Yankees play the Sox.
You need to understand, I am NOT a Sox fan. I’m not a Yankees fan either. I’m simply not a baseball fan. But once a year, I humor the men in our family and attend the game as a family event. In that respect, I suppose that while I’m sitting at Fenway, I’m a lot like many of the students sitting in our classrooms. They’re not fans for the book we’re asking them to read. They may not be fans of reading in general, or of school even.
I understand the basics of the game of baseball. One guy pitches, one guy tries to hit the pitched ball. A whole bunch of other guys try to catch the ball if the second guy actually manages to hit it (which doesn’t seem to happen all that often, by the way). The strategy of the game eludes me. The nuances that allow baseball fans, like my husband, to talk for hours on end about the game escape me.
To extend my analogy to the students in our classrooms, I think this is probably pretty spot-on too. They get the basics of reading. They can pull the words off of the page. They can re-tell, make fairly basic predictions, answer literal questions and maybe even make some low-level inferences. But the nuances of understanding a story are beyond them. They don’t follow the growth and development of characters. They miss the themes and messages hidden in the layers of the text. In short, they don’t get what all the fuss is about; why the rest of us LOVE to read and get lost in a good book.
So, there I was, sitting in a seat at Fenway while the pre-game rituals unfolded on the field below us. My husband and the others were watching various players warming up. They were heatedly discussing rosters, player strengths and weaknesses, and what the team manager should do today in order to beat the Yankees. They knew all about the pitcher who was scheduled to pitch and whether certain opposing players would be able to hit well against him. Me? I was watching the ROTC Honor Guard prepare for the National Anthem. I noticed their instructor taking a photo. I observed the differing postures of the ROTC members, from full-on at attention, through a military-like “at ease, and right down to a casual hip-cocked-out stance. I teared up during the Star Spangled Banner and noticed that the two vocalists were not evenly amplified through the microphone system. I observed that the teams did not take the field when introduced by the announcer. And I got lost in wondering why they didn’t, since every other sport I’ve watched, the players DO run or strut onto the field as names are broadcast.
That’s pretty much how the rest of the game went. I was watching the field and “reading closely”. I was attending to small details and inter-relationships. I was making connections, questioning, and even inferring about what I noticed. I was certainly actively engaged in the game. The problem was — I wasn’t noticing the right stuff. And all of the other “comprehension work” that I was doing was actually detracting from my understanding of the game. I wasn’t getting any better at understanding baseball.
I worry about close reading in our classrooms right now. I worry that, as teachers, we’re jumping to do something we can call “close reading” because the CCSS require it. And I worry that we’re not helping our kids get any better and understanding reading and the way books work. In other words, I worry that we’re attending to all the wrong stuff.
I want to dig into Close Reading this year. I want to really work on making sure that I’m doing the “right stuff” to grow our kids as readers and thinkers — and thinkers about reading.

Grade 3: Launching

One of my third grade teams worked on refining the Launch Unit to meet our specific needs.  This is the general sequence of lessons we came up with:
1.  I chart for behaviors during independent reading — begin building stamina — control reading “spot” and use gradual transition off rug
2.  Transition behaviors — how to gather, how to leave the rug, how to re-gather for the share
3.  One minute/one page lesson —- expectations (Research shows that readers read +- 1 page per minute when they are reading in just-right books)
4.  Logs or calendars to record reading
5.  choosing books IPICK + have a lot to say on a post it or entry
6.  Using tools to IPICK — reading the blurb, recommendations from other readers, authors I’ve already enjoyed, using genre to guide choice etc
7.  procedures for using class library (need tentative levels on index cards for kids to limit the library to about 3 levels)
8.  Organizing the book box — what can go in, what must go in, what may not go in (MUST:  book you’re currently reading, 2 “on deck”books, Reader’s Notebook, post it notes?? what else??)
9.  How to write a good post-it note  — Questioning forward  — this is not predicting  — it is “wondering” about how the story might go — or how the character might feel.  Model this extensively — keep it from becoming predicting or becoming small
10.  How to write a good post-it note 2 — Opinion with text evidence
11.  How to write a good post-it note 3 — Text to text connection — Another book where….   Be cautious in your modeling to not let this become trite and silly — these need to be BIG connections — think about emotions, struggles, big issues from Read Aloud with Accountable Talk
12.  How to write a good post-it 4 — Text to World — “This is like the ___ issue in our world” The issues for this will need to have generated in your Accountable Talk sessions — make sure you’re hitting the critical concept issues
13.  Notebooks — set up — organization etc
14.  Notebooks — Reader Response 1  Metacognitive — choose your best post-it — write off of it and tell what you did in your head and how it helped you understand the text more deeply (avoid the word “better”)
15.  Notebooks — Reader Response 2  Expand on a post it — choose your best post it and write MORE about it — use your writing to think more deeply about the seed of thought that you captured on the post it (this works better with the T-W post its and the Opinion post its — the others are trickier for beginners.
16.  How to be the teacher’s partner during a conference —