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.